Sunday, November 30, 2008


Meaner Than Meme

Despite threats to turn perpetrators of the internet terror known as "memes" in to Fatherla ... um ... Homeland Security and have their sorry asses transported to Gitmo for a little arbeit macht frei, occasionally someone makes the grave error of meming me. This time Brian of Primordial Blog was the culprit. Feeling it is only fair that I respond before his extraordinary rendition, I was looking through the backdates of my blog for a way to cheat ... err ... make the process of answering more efficient, when I discovered that this meme had gone the rounds previously and, at that time, before I had seen the light, I had passed it on to Brian.

The only real difference between the earlier meme and the latest one (you can see the rules at the Chaplin's place, since Brian didn't post them because, like all Canadians, he already has all the world's rules engraved on his psyche at birth), is that the present meme requires the victims to reveal six random, arbitrary things about themselves when the older one required eight random facts/habits. I guess that's that deflation thingie we've been hearing about so much lately. In any event this change will not convince any creationists, since this is clearly microevolution, not macroevolution.

In any event, here's my six:

1. I don't follow rules that well, especially when I don't see any point to them. That's why I'm not posting the rules here and am not passing the meme along to anyone else.

2. I'm a book addict (as is my wife). We have some 51 linear feet of bookshelves in our house, a lot of them double shelved; various coffee/end tables anchored by books; a 2' x 2' "shelf" area in the back room piled at least 10 deep in books; and random piles of books on the floors and chairs and wherever. That doesn't count the 18 cardboard boxes full in storage in the basement.

3. I am an agnostic pantheist with touches of Deism. Hey! It just says I have to tell 'em, not explain 'em!

4. The most unusual legal fee I was ever offered was a blow job by a young man ... about 6'2", 235 lb. ... charged with beating up 3 (count 'em, three) US Army Drill Sergeants ... and who had just been deemed (by an Army psychiatrist) to be mentally unfit to stand trial. The offer came while I was locked in a 3' x 6' cell alone with him. Fortunately, he was not absolutely insistent on paying.

5. Multiple choice tests are useful only for testing how well someone takes tests. About my only academic honor was the award of a book prize for having the highest grade in my law school class in a subject that, when I attended class, I usually played hearts in the back of the room with other reprobates, and in which I was reading the course "pony" for the first time on the day of the final exam, which was entirely multiple choice. I suppose I should say that it was a subject that has never come up in the course of my legal career.

6. I'm a pack rat. My desk at home has long since disappeared under sedimentation composed of old papers, computer programs, discs of various formats containing information of no possible conceivable use and other mental effluvia.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The True Spirit of American Christmas

Not far from where I live:

The throng of Wal-Mart shoppers had been building all night, filling sidewalks and stretching across a vast parking lot at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, N.Y. At 3:30 a.m., the Nassau County police had to be called in for crowd control, and an officer with a bullhorn pleaded for order.

Tension grew as the 5 a.m. opening neared. Someone taped up a crude poster: "Blitz Line Starts Here."

By 4:55, with no police officers in sight, the crowd of more than 2,000 had become a rabble, and could be held back no longer. Fists banged and shoulders pressed on the sliding-glass double doors, which bowed in with the weight of the assault. Six to 10 workers inside tried to push back, but it was hopeless.

Suddenly, witnesses and the police said, the doors shattered, and the shrieking mob surged through in a blind rush for holiday bargains. One worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34, was thrown back onto the black linoleum tiles and trampled in the stampede that streamed over and around him. ...

Some workers who saw what was happening fought their way through the surge to get to Mr. Damour, but he had been fatally injured, the police said. Emergency workers tried to revive Mr. Damour, a temporary worker hired for the holiday season, at the scene, but he was pronounced dead an hour later ...

Some shoppers who had seen the stampede said they were shocked. One of them, Kimberly Cribbs of Queens, said the crowd had acted like "savages." Shoppers behaved badly even as the store was being cleared, she recalled.

"When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, 'I've been on line since yesterday morning,' " Ms. Cribbs told The Associated Press. "They kept shopping."
There are questions about the level of security that was present at the store. After all, we all know how dangerous people get when they are infused with the spirit of Christmas. Naturally, the store is open today.

I bet it was really all atheists, agnostics and academic elites who were waiting all night to get into Walmart just so they could continue to wage war on Christmas.

Friday, November 28, 2008


A Bibliophile's Celebration of the Winter Solstice

Rob Boston has a post at the blog of Americans United for Separation of Church and State entitled "Good Gifts: Holiday Ideas For The Church-State Separationist On Your List." You can go over there for short descriptions of the books or just look through the links below:

Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom by Barry W. Lynn.
The Godless Constitution by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore,
Under God by Garry Wills,
The Court and the Cross by Frederick S. Lane
The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America by Frank Lambert.
Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church & State by Rob Boston
James Madison on Religious Liberty by Robert S. Alley
Thomas Jefferson's The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (also known as the "Jefferson Bible.")
Moral Minority by Brooke Allen
The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo
Ellery's Protest: How One Young Man Defied Tradition and Sparked the Battle Over School Prayer by Stephen D. Solomon

There is also a DVD from Americans United "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Separation of Church and State… But Were Afraid to Ask!" along with a companion book titled First Freedom First.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Designing Turkeys

It is particularly appropriate to deal with the newest argument for Intelligent Design today.

[T]urkey [is] loaded with the narcotic tryptophan—that stuff that proves to all the stubborn secularists out there that intelligent design is everywhere, if only they had eyes to see.

What else but tryptophan could keep the men of America planted on couches all afternoon, sinking into the upholstery, docile, easily managed by the women in our lives? We're like helpless children before them. And later, they bring us pie.

But, in fact, it is not the tryptophan in the turkey that is the real culprit. Once again, science comes to the rescue:

One widely-held belief is that heavy consumption of turkey meat (as for example in a Thanksgiving or Christmas feast) results in drowsiness, which has been attributed to high levels of tryptophan contained in turkey. While turkey does contain high levels of tryptophan, the amount is comparable to that contained in most other meats. Furthermore, postprandial Thanksgiving sedation may have more to do with what is consumed along with the turkey, in particular carbohydrates and alcohol, rather than the turkey itself. ...

It has been demonstrated in both animal models and in humans that ingestion of a meal rich in carbohydrates triggers release of insulin. Insulin in turn stimulates the uptake of large neutral branched-chain amino acids (LNAA) but not tryptophan (trp) into muscle, increasing the ratio of trp to LNAA in the blood stream. The resulting increased ratio of tryptophan to large neutral amino acids in the blood reduces competition at the large neutral amino acid transporter resulting in the uptake of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system (CNS). Once inside the CNS, tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the raphe nuclei by the normal enzymatic pathway. The resultant serotonin is further metabolised into melatonin by the pineal gland. Hence, these data suggest that "feast-induced drowsiness," and in particular, the common post-Christmas and American post-Thanksgiving dinner drowsiness, may be the result of a heavy meal rich in carbohydrates which, via an indirect mechanism, increases the production of sleep-promoting melatonin in the brain.

So God didn't design us to slaughter turkeys more than He designed us to want to kill grasses like wheat.

In any case, John Kass' argument contains its own refutation, in that he refers to lime flavored Jello with floating fruit chunks or the kind with whipped cream and marshmallows. If there is anything in the universe that disproves the existence of intelligent design, that's it!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Giving Thanks


Happy Thanksgiving to all with hopes that all our friends
around the world have equal reason to be thankful!


Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Liberal Education

Ed Brayton has a couple of posts about conservative Christians blaming education and (shudder) atheistic professors for suicides among their youngsters. One father (via the ever-reliably lunatic WingNutDaily) blames Richard Dawkins for his son's suicide and Dr. Bob Jones Sr., founder of Bob Jones University (which just got around to apologizing for its "past" racism), has some gloriously melodramatic Chick tracts, sans cartoons, telling of the destructiveness of learnin'.

Interestingly, John M. Crisp, who is a member of the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, discounts the picture conservatives have of "colleges and universities as strongholds of liberal indoctrination [where] conservative students enroll in college and emerge a few years later with liberal tendencies or, in some cases, as full-blown leftists."

No apologist for liberalism, Crisp finds the parents' fears not to be irrational and cites to surveys showing that 43 percent of full-time faculty members classified their political views as "liberal," and almost 8 percent called them "far left," with the numbers for both categories rising to 59 percent of the faculty at public universities. I'm not quite sure what the "correct" proportion of liberal faculty is supposed to be but Crisp certainly doesn't take into account the possibility that education engenders liberalism simply because reality, as revealed by education, has a bias in favor of freedom of thought.

Be that as it may, Crisp doesn't think conservative parents need to worry, based on:

... three current studies that suggest that college teachers have little impact on the evolution of their students' political principles.

In fact, one study by three professors from George Mason University indicates that parents, family, news media, and peers have a much greater influence over students' political leanings than college professors do. One of the professors argues that when it comes to politics, it's "really hard to change the mind of anyone over 15."
Relevant to the claims of the mystical power of atheism to kill by even reading about it, Crisp notes:

This notion [of the lack of professorial influence] is supported by my own teaching experience with several thousand freshmen and sophomores at colleges and universities during the last 25 years. In general, students get their politics from the same place they get their religion: their parents.
Maybe those conservative Christians should be looking to how good a job they are doing rather than trying to lay off the blame on others.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn't place too much credence in Crisp ... after all he actually said this as well:

I'll admit to exposing my students to Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?" but never without balancing it with a book by right-wing counterparts like Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly.
I haven't read Moore's book so I can't give an opinion as to the appropriateness of assigning it to college students but any professor who would force anyone with an IQ above the average temperature in Nome to read Coulter or O'Reilly is unfairly pushing a liberal agenda by trying to make conservatives as a group look stupid.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Trading In Texas

Lisa Falkenberg has a good opinion piece in the Houston Chronicle on the whole mess that is the state's Board of Education. First of all, there is this on the motivation of the creationist wing of the Board:

"Strengths and weaknesses" is a new buzz phrase that's replaced "creation science" and "intelligent design," and other science curriculum labels that incorporate teachings of faith, which courts have consistently struck down.

Some evolution opponents reject the connection, saying teaching evolution's "weaknesses" or "limitations," as one current proposal suggests, is simply about fairness, exposure to opposing views and academic freedom.

"I'm a big fan of academic freedom," board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, was quoted saying recently in the Houston Chronicle.

Well, who isn't? But members like Mercer seem to suggest that, unless they can inject unfounded doubts about Darwin into the state curriculum, students will spontaneously lose their ability to ask questions and exercise their critical thinking skills.
Of course, as Massimo Pigliucci recently pointed out: "Learning critical thinking is not a matter of being exposed to a 'fair and balanced' view of everything and be told 'you decide'." The kids know that too:

Robert Dennison, Houston ISD's AP science lead teacher based at Robert E. Lee High School, said nothing can stop his students from questioning him on evolution, especially when it comes to relationships among human ancestors.

"They're full of questions," says Dennison. "They want to know how life works."
But the Board members pushing this stuff are full of lies:

Anti-evolution members also claim their "weaknesses" campaign has nothing to do with faith: "We're not putting religion in books," Mercer has said.

No, just falsehoods. As scientists testified at the state board hearing last week, evolution is a scientific theory, not a hypothesis. And scientific theories don't have weaknesses. If they did, the board would be justified in raising challenges to everything from gravity to relativity to the germ theory of disease.

The so-called weaknesses usually spewed by evolution opponents are the same, tired arguments that have been adequately refuted by scientists for decades.
Wes Elsberry gives a you a taste of the drivel here.

There is much harm done by this dishonesty: students are harmed by sending them off to university with an inadequate understanding of science; the universities are harmed in that their reputation is impugned if students graduate with such misunderstanding and their bottom line is harmed if they are forced to do remedial education; and the state's economy is harmed if venture capital for higher technology businesses shies away from Texas because it has a reputation of being backward educationally or even hostile to science.

If Texans aren't careful, their state will be the next Kansas.

Monday, November 24, 2008



How come no one told Indy?

Though no one knows if Valencia's grail is the true Last Supper chalice, a group of experts says it has tremendous cultural value due to its impact on history and literature.

This was affirmed by members of the international congress "Valencia, City of the Holy Grail," focusing on the chalice traditionally associated with the institution of the Eucharist. ...

Experts from several countries attended the congress. They gave presentations on the ways in which this relic has marked history and literature since its move from Rome to Spain by Lawrence the Martyr in the year 258, as held by tradition.

The body of existing data points to the Valencia grail as the most probable authentic chalice of Christ.
This could have saved Indiana Jones and his father quite a lot of exertion. But wait! Maybe not:

Miguel Navarro, doctor in church history from Rome's Gregorian University, stated that the chalice "is not a magical object, but consecrated by Jesus' use of it and by the faith that perceives it as such, which has great religious value, regardless of the fact that it cannot be proved with absolute scientific certainty that it is the Lord's chalice."

Well, heck! I could've them that! After all, does that look like a humble carpenters' cup?

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Wising Up the Fools

Brian Burgess is upset.

[A]s a graduate of Hardin-Simmons University, I was grieved when I read that professors at each of Abilene's "Christian" universities have joined a fundamentalist group bent on destroying academic freedom and banning from public schools scientific data that clearly refutes their dogmas. While Dr. Mark Ouimette said "there's no evidence" for intelligent design, Romans 1 says such evidence is pervasive and unavoidable. And it says that God's wrath is on those who "suppress the truth."

If the scientific data is allowed to speak, its obvious implication is that the miraculous, awe inspiring design of creation cannot be accounted for by the silliness of chance (Dawkins called it "luck") evolution, and intelligent design is the logical alternative.
It seems those professors have not done their homework:

How sad that teachers in a "Christian" school would use an outdated, disproved dictum of fallible, finite men who weren't there to second guess the infallible, all wise, infinite creator who was.
And what outmoded ideas have those professors fallen for? Why, spontaneous generation of life, of course, "which was disproved scientifically more than 100 years ago."

Brian Burgess is in a position to know this, of course, because, despite the fact that he has spent the last 32 years as an insurance agent in Haskell, Texas, he has read the Bible and knows those professors "have become vain in their imaginations (imagining all kinds of scientifically impossible things), professing themselves (why we call them "professors") to be wise, they have become fools."

And to suggest any different would be elitist.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Iced Dice

David White has an interesting take on Intelligent Design Creationism from a theist's viewpoint:

[C]reationism's familiar yet totally unscriptural chimera of "accidental evolution" now lives on as the centerpiece and all-around bogeyman of intelligent design. ...

What proponents of so-called intelligent design have cynically omitted in their polemic is that according to Biblical tradition, chance has always been considered God's choice as well.

When Joshua divided the newly won Promised Land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel, it was done as had been specifically commanded by God through the casting of other words, by a roll of the dice. In Acts of the Apostles, the remaining apostles chose between two proposed replacements for Judas by casting lots, clearly understood as a solemn appeal for God's own choice. The Bible abounds with similar examples. ...

Astonishing as it may seem, the stigmatization of chance as the lynchpin both of creationism and intelligent design is not only a totally unscriptural position, but it is borrowed from the atheist viewpoint. You may not ever hear this preached, but for the Bible believer, God can roll the dice infinitely and win at every turn. Much as I cringe at feeling compelled to disagree with Albert Einstein, I have to consider, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that perhaps God does play at dice with the universe, but only with those ontologically loaded dice. ...

Accordingly, the rejection of biological evolution based essentially on the part played by chance, which appears to have become the sum and substance of intelligent design, is in fact a rhetorical chimera, an unworthy trick from those who should know better and probably hope that no one, not even their "designer," is able to catch them at it. The intelligent design movement has become an unabashedly transparent fig leaf for the urge to insert sectarian creationism into every science curriculum and text. Can any believer truly honor God with such dissimulation?

Instead of arguing disingenuously on behalf of faith that blind chance alone cannot produce such levels of order as science reveals, why don't creationists and their heirs simply state that on scriptural grounds they believe God's hand orders all chance and be done with it? That would certainly put God squarely into the picture for any who choose to agree and would obviate the need to torture science in order to prove anything at all. Simply stated, as with any casino, the house always wins. ...

We're surely overdue for a Sic et Non examination of this dicey and irreductible contradiction in the creationist viewpoint, which tirelessly propels the flagellum of intelligent design as well. I will leave it to the reader to decide to what extent the aggressive promulgation of sectarian religion in science education has helped stoke the greatest blacklash against faith in anyone's recollection.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Booking the Perpetrators

Just in case there was any doubt about why the creationists on the Texas State Board of Education are so intent on keeping the "strengths and weaknesses" language (or "strengths and limitations" in it latest cosmetic morph) in the state's science standards, there is this report in the friendly confines of the Baptist Press:

[Board Chairman Don] McLeroy has said such statements only add to his desire to put both the pros and cons of evolution into the textbooks for students, allowing high school students to think critically about generally held theories of science and question whether those theories are valid.

After a mention of the hoary example of Haeckel's embryo diagrams, there is this:

Fellow SBOE member Terri Leo, quoted in the Houston Chronicle in 2003, said that the "SBOE received volumes of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that documents textbook problems relating to origin of life research, embryology, the Cambrian Explosion, the distinction between microevolution and macroevolution and peppered moth research."

All that is, of course, drivel straight out of Jonathan Wells' execrable book, Icons of Evolution, the farthest thing from peer-reviewed research imaginable.

Any publisher that would, in the pursuit of mere profit, include such anti-science nonsense in a textbook meant for the hands of innocent children should have its entire catalogue boycotted by serious educators and scientists.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Anti-elitism At Its Finest

Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation, a group that works to limit government and promote free enterprise and Judeo-Christian values, testifying at the Texas State Board of Education hearings concerning the proposed revisions to the state’s science curriculum:

Darwin was from England and Einstein was from Germany. The elitism and arrogance that has been going on is not what Texas is about.*

*It has been pointed out at the Panda's Thumb that this is a quote mine, in that the two sentences were not connected. Apparently, the comment about Darwin and Einstein was a rebuttal to complaints that two of the ringers the creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education installed on a panel that reviewed the proposed new science curriculum standards, Stephen Meyer and Ralph Seelke, were not Texans. The second sentence was, no doubt, the standard complaint that scientists cannot explain the entire universe in 30 words or less of 2 syllables or less.


P.S. From the Texas Freedom Network's blog:

Just to clarify, Saenz is director of legislative affairs for Plano-based Free Market Foundation, the Texas affiliate of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. If religion truly has nothing to do with this, then why, pray tell, is the lobbyist for Focus on the Family even here? Don’t see much about science in the mission statement of Focus on the Family:

To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.


Public School Faith

This statement by Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Assistant Director for Education at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greene Family Camp, delivered at the Texas State Board of Education hearings concerning the proposed revisions to the state’s science curriculum, is worth repeating:

“On the surface, teaching about the ‘strengths and limitations of scientific explanations’… may not seem like teaching religious beliefs. Yet … When science teachers answer questions about evolution and origins of life by pointing to the divine or supernatural, they are incorporating religion into science classrooms.

“For me as a rabbi, science and religion are not at odds … Moses Maimonides … who is perhaps the greatest philosopher of our tradition, was also a physician. He taught that scientific inquiry can lead to more thoughtful religious questions and better educated religious individuals. The place for the quiet discussions about spirituality in science is not in public schools but around the kitchen table, in religious school classrooms, or in a clergy member’s office.

“Sadly and painfully, my Jewish ancestors had a long history of persecution in places where there was no separation of church and state. When we permit religious beliefs to be taught in our state schools, we begin to blur the line that keeps religion and government separate. We are so fortunate to live in a country that respects individuals of all faiths. It is essential to maintain the boundaries that will protect religious groups of every faith.”

The comments by Rabbi Nancy Kasten and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker are also worth reading.


Stupid Is As Stupid Does

In the first round of hearings in Texas over the new science standards for the public schools there, the overwhelming majority of speakers supported good science education, a fact that did not get by the Texas State Board of Education Chairman:

Board Chairman Don McLeroy said the lopsided turnout was part of an orchestrated campaign and flatly dismissed the notion that the board is intent on sabotaging the teaching of evolution in public schools, which would defy the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is all being ginned up by the evolution side," McLeroy, of College Station, said in an interview during a break. "I'm a creationist, but I'm not going to put creationism in the schools."

Excuse me? If there is an "evolution side," what exactly is the other side, if not creationism? If evolution is science, which must be the case, since the Board keeps saying they intend that it be taught in science classes, then its proponents must be the science side. What other side is there?

There's many a slip ...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008



As reported by Ed Brayton, Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has the story about the disappearance of Cynthia Dunbar's commentary accusing Barack Obama of not being eligible to be president and all but plotting with terrorists to attack America so he can declare martial law and wield dictatorial powers. Even Brannon Howse, the operator of the Christian Worldview Network website, which seeks to maintain its "credibility" by such things as noting that the Illinois lottery had a winning number of "666" (cue ominous music) the day after Obama's election, found Dunbar's drivel too "over the top" for him. Ouch!

Since these things can't be too widely disseminated, here is a copy of Dunbar's entire lunatic screed, taken from the copy archived by the Star-Telegram (doc. file):

Can we truly even imagine an America under an Obama Administration? I sincerely believe that an Obama Administration would ultimately mean one thing... the end of America as we know her. First, I cannot understand how we can potentially elect a man who most likely has violated the Constitution in his very attempt to serve as Commander in Chief. 'No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President,' U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1.

If Obama were a natural born citizen who never lost his citizenship through his adoption while living in Indonesia, Then why does he obstinately refuse to present valid documentation? The fact that a Federal Court judge did nothing should not surprise any of us. After all, we know all to well the attack this great Country undergoes on a daily basis from our own militant leftist Judicial Branch. Can you imagine how much worse this will get with Obama Appointees?

There is one glimmer of hope in all of this. There is a difference between a voidable contract and one that is simply void. A voidable contract is able to be ratified whereas a void contract is void at it s inception and cannot be cured at any point. If in fact Obama is not constitutionally eligible to be president, this is not something he can ever cure. His election, his swearing in and oath of office, his service of three days, three months, three years does not ever truly convey to him the authority of President of the United States. It is void at its inception and, as such, is open to a valid legal attack at any time.

So we can imagine the blatant disregard for our Constitution, but what other threats does an Obama administration pose? We have been clearly warned by his running mate, Joe Biden, that America will suffer some form of attack within the first 6 months of Obama's administration. However, unlike Joe, I do not believe this 'attack' will be a test of Obama's mettle. Rather, I perceive it will be a planned effort by those with whom Obama truly sympathizes to take down the America that is threat to tyranny. What nobody seems to be discussing is the fact that if such an attack takes place, what about Martial Law? What happens to expand executive power when a state of civil disorder is declared?

Supreme Court Justice Holmes in the unanimous decision of Moyer v. Peabody, stated the following:

'...[I]t is familiar that what is due process of law depends on circumstances. It varies with the subject matter and the necessities of the situation... In such a situation we must assume that he had the right under ... constitution and laws to call our troops ... That means that he shall make the ordinary use of the soldiers to that end; that he may kill persons who resist and; of course, that he may use the milder measure of seizing the bodies of those whom he considers to stand in the way of restoring peace. Such arrests are not necessarily for punishment, but are by way of precaution to prevent the exercise of hostile power. So long as such arrests are made in good faith and in the honest belief that they are needed in order to head the insurrection off, the [Executive] is the final judge and cannot be subjected to an action after he is out of office on the ground for his belief... when it comes to a decision by the head of the State upon a matter involving its life, the ordinary rights of individuals must yield to what he deems the necessities of the moment. Public danger warrants the substitution of executive process for judicial process.'

Granted, this is not the same position that was taken by the Court in ex parte Milligan (71 US 2[1866]). That court resoundingly said, 'Martial law... destroys every guarantee of the Constitution.' Reminding Americans of similar actions that had been taken by the King of Great Britain, which in turn were part of the basis of the Revolution, the courts stated, 'Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable; and, in the conflict, one or the other must perish.'

Factually, such militaristic rule is to be established by the Legislative Branch. 'The Congress shall have Power to . . . provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel invasions;' U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8. However, the Constitution further states that the President '... shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.' Article II, Section 3. Should the Senate and the House be under Democratic control and Obama comes to them advising of a threat to our Nation, is there any doubt that Obama will have his way? Additionally, since we've clearly seen that Obama appears to have no respect for the Constitution itself, why should we expect that if elected, all of a sudden he will try to comply with its restraints?

I fear for our great nation and her potential demise should we as Americans elect Sen. Obama. I shall take no joy in saying 'I told you so' if Obama gets elected. But just for the record, remember, 'I told you so.'

Yes you did, Cynthia. And, as we may be grateful when the rattlesnake warns us when we are about to step on it, it is a good thing when the delusional loudly rattle their cages.


Testing ... Testing ...

Bud Kennedy has a good Op-Ed piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, tying the push to foist creationism on Texas public schools to state politics:

[Gov. Rick] Perry has said bluntly that he wants so-called intelligent design — creation theology — taught in science classes.

Look, the way Perry runs our schools, teachers barely have enough time to teach science.

Can't somebody else teach religion? ...

By all indications, Perry will go up against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, with the winner facing Houston Mayor Bill White in a state that is now about 45 percent Democratic.

"There is a risk here for Republicans," said Texas Christian University political science professor Jim Riddlesperger. "The party needs to define itself as conservative but not narrow. If they let the social conservatives dominate, they risk losing votes."

The low-profile State Board of Education has been run for years by home-schoolers, pastors and zealots like Houston-area lawyer Cynthia Dunbar.

Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson sees short-term success and long-term failure if Perry forces creationism into schools.

"Short term, it rallies some Republicans around Perry in the primary," Jillson said. "Long term, the problem is that the Republican Party's voter base is already narrowing. The party can't afford to be identified as anti-science."

Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Stephanie Klick said she's not worried.

"It's healthy to have a discussion," she said, adding that the big-bang theory should also be open to challenge.

"We should look at any theory and ask, 'Does this make sense?' " she said.

Does that include the theory that Perry and the board know what they're doing?

As we all know -- because the right-wingers have been busy telling us so -- the victory of Barack Obama was due to the fact that Republicans (presumably including Sarah Palin) weren't rabidly rightist enough. Too bad the children of Texas have to be the guinea pigs in the experiment to test that theory.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Whine and Jeez

Well, I said that we should expect another round of whining about how elitist academic Darwinists are stifling the academic freedom of Joe Sixpack and his little packlets. That didn't take long. Robert Crowther is at the Discovery Institute's Ministry of Misinformation boo-hooing about the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund's poll.

But, perhaps taking a page out of the Republican's recent (and oh-so-successful) playbook, instead of the rather gentile "elitism" charge, the DI is accusing the TFN of "jackbooted thuggery," in accord with the lunatic ravings of Cynthia Dunbar, one of the members of the creationist wing(nuts) of the Texas State Board of Education. No one can say the DI doesn't know its target audience.

For the reasons I've already indicated, I've no inclination to waste time dealing with the dishonest and delusional. Go have a look yourself. But as far as Crowther's claim that the issue isn't ID but only the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory, it seems the message isn't getting through to their own partisans.

Update: Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas did the dirty work and exposed Crowther's dishonesty in detail.



One of my near and dear is seriously ill so posting may be somewhat spotty for a while. Do carry on without me if I'm not around as much.




Monday, November 17, 2008


Poll Tex

The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund has arranged to survey science faculty in the state concerning the upcoming battle over the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, curriculum standards that will not only decide what children in the state are taught in public schools but could also decide what biology and other science textbooks are approved by the second largest purchaser of school books in the country, thus potentially effecting science education across the country.

The full report can be found here. The survey was conducted as follows:

In late fall 2007 and early spring of 2008, a lengthy survey (59 questions – some open-ended) was sent to 1,019 individual biology and biological anthropology faculty members from all 35 public universities plus the 15 largest private institutions in Texas. In the end 464 survey recipients submitted completed questionnaires. This represents better than a 45% response rate – almost unheard of for the remote return of a lengthy questionnaire of this type. The diversity of the response was also surprisingly robust, with respondents participating from 49 different institutions!

An executive summary can be found at the TFN site. The results are what you might expect:

Only about 2% of Texas science faculty can be said to express any degree of sympathy for creationism or intelligent design. Further, not a single scientist in the subsample of those supporting intelligent design reported teaching graduate students about human evolution within the past five years. Support for intelligent design vanishes to essentially zero when looking at established Texas biology and biological anthropology faculty who teach at the graduate level.

On the issue of the disingenuous "weaknesses" of evolution that the creationists on the State Board of Education are pushing:

... 94% of Texas scientists indicated that claimed "weaknesses" are not valid scientific objections to evolution (with 87% saying that they "strongly disagree" that such weaknesses should be considered valid).

Despite having a good university system manned by a first rate science faculty, Texas is shortchanging its grade and high school students, if this comment from a professor at Stephen F. Austin University in the east Texas city of Nacogdoches is as representative of science education in the state as I suspect it is:

My students are woefully unprepared. They report that their high school teachers are often 1) afraid to teach evolution properly because of parent reaction, 2) unsupported by their principals and admin, who "let them slide," 3) ignorant of actual information on evolution, or 4) belligerently unwilling to teach the material and make snide comments about how their religion says evolution is for atheists. Their understanding of science as a whole is damaged by this environment.

I wonder if its too soon for the science bloggers to start threatening textbook publishers with detailed critical reviews and calls for boycotts against those who cave to the ignorati and include phony "weaknesses" in their books?

In any event, be prepared for another round of whining about how elitist academic Darwinists are stifling the academic freedom of Joe Sixpack and his little packlets to believe in utter twaddle.


Dreamin' of a White Xmas

From the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association.

Maybe some kind soul should donate one for the White House lawn.


Via Larry Moran and Ed Brayton.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Theism and Evolution

Elliot Sober hasn't just written the book Evidence and Evolution, that I have been humping over the past few months, on the subject of Intelligent Design Creationism. He also has a number of scholarly articles on the subject available on the web here. One of them, "What is wrong with intelligent design?," in Quarterly Review of Biology, 2007, I've already blogged about, as well as the comical response by the Discovery Institute's pile-out-of-the-tiny-car brigade.

Another is "Evolution without Naturalism," in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion, volume 3, (forthcoming). One of the questions addressed by Sober in this article is:

Does evolutionary theory have implications about the existence of supernatural entities? This question concerns the logical relationships that hold between the theory of evolution and different bits of metaphysics.

As part of that issue, Sober asks:

... whether theistic evolutionists must be deists. Must they hold that God starts the universe in motion and never intervenes in what happens after that?

Sober is clear on that point:

Creationists maintain that the theory of evolution entails that there is no God. If they are right, then the theory has metaphysical implications. Atheistic evolutionists (e.g., Dennett [Darwin's Dangerous Idea] and Provine ["Progress in Evolution and Meaning in Life," Evolutionary Progress, M. Nitecki (ed.)]) often agree with creationists on this point. The conditional "if evolutionary theory is true, then there is no God" is therefore common ground. Where creationists have their modus tollens, these evolutionists have their modus ponens.

Both sides are wrong. Theistic evolutionism is a logically consistent position ... This is the idea that God uses the evolutionary process to make organisms. ... According to theistic evolutionism, God produces organisms indirectly, by setting the evolutionary process in motion.

In saying that theistic evolutionism is logically consistent, I am not saying that it is plausible or true. I'm merely saying that it isn't contradictory. Evolutionary theory is silent on the question of whether God exists. Even if you think the theory knocks the wind from the sails of the argument from design, you still need to consider the fact that there are other arguments for the existence of God. ... Evolutionary theory has no implications about the cosmological argument or the ontological argument nor does it say whether you are entitled to believe in God even if you can offer no good argument that such a being exists. Atheistic evolutionists may scoff at these other arguments and at those who believe in God while admitting that they can offer no compelling argument that there is such a being. But this is not the theory of evolution talking.

Sober points out that theistic evolutionism is consistent with evolution because evolutionary theory is probalistic and, therefore:

... it does not say of itself that it is causally complete. The theory is consistent with there being hidden variables, natural or supernatural.

Sober explains this with an example:

A probabilistic model of coin tossing is consistent with the thesis that the system is deterministic. If determinism is true, there are hidden variables, not represented in the probability model, which turn all the probabilities into 0's and 1's when their values are taken into account. In just the same way, a probabilistic model of the evolutionary process is consistent with the thesis that the process is deterministic. If determinism is true, there are hidden variables that affect the evolutionary process. Evolutionary theory says nothing about whether such hidden variables exist. It therefore says nothing about whether there are supernatural hidden variables.

Thus, Sober concludes:

Theistic evolutionists can of course be deists, holding that God starts the universe in motion and then forever after declines to intervene. But there is no contradiction in their embracing a more active God whose postCreation interventions fly under the radar of evolutionary biology. Divine intervention isn't part of science, but the theory of evolution does not entail that none occur.

I have, over the years, engaged in many discussions in various forums on this subject and people who have (been unfortunate enough to have) followed those arguments will know that this is very close to my own thinking. That a renowned philosopher of science sees the issue the same way I do is, of course, no evidence that either of us is right ... but there is a certain comfort in the knowledge nonetheless.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Metaphysics of Biology

A thought:

The usual line of argument endorsed by most critics of ID and other forms of creationism is that science in general, and evolutionary biology in particular, makes no commitment to metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism is typically construed as [Michael] Ruse describes it: as an ontological thesis, stated with a priori certainty, about the absolute non-existence of entities other than those posited by our current scientific theories. If this is what metaphysical naturalism is, then it is beyond what science can tell us. Evolutionary biology hardly needs any such assumption. In this sense, at least, the usual line of argument is correct. But there is no reason why naturalists should accept such a view of metaphysics, unless, of course, the ultimate purpose is to reject the very possibility of metaphysics. Such a rejection was a rather common desire among twentieth-century philosophers, though, as usual, with many antecedents in the empiricist tradition, most notably, Hume.

But this not the only view of metaphysical commitment. It is, for instance, not the view of metaphysics ... taken to consist of a set of foundational assumptions supposed to be respected by all admissible scientific theories. Once we view metaphysics in this way, as Pierre Duhem -- a practicing Catholic and superb philosopher of science -- pointed out a century ago, science is never innocent of metaphysics. This, presumably, is the kernel of truth in [Phillip] Johnson's claim that methodological naturalism necessarily collapses into metaphysical naturalism. Descartes, Huygens, and Leibniz assumed the mechanical philosophy as they pondered on the motion of planets. Newton, at least in practice, advocated more tolerance about permissible explanations, but put a much greater weight than Descartes on quantitative agreement between the predictions of a theory and the phenomena to be explained. ...

When we do evolutionary biology, we assume the metaphysics of that theory: the type of mechanisms it admits, that is, blind material interactions with no directionality built into them. We accept the role of chance and we accept the lawlike operation of natural selection and all principles of the physical science. When one such 'blind" mechanism fails, we seek another that is equally '"blind." This is all that metaphysical naturalism amounts to, no more and no less.

- Sahotra Sarkar, Doubting Darwin?


Fit To a Tee

Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.

Troy Britain of Playing Chess With Pigeons is selling t-shirts with, of course, a message. Go give Evo-T's a look!


Friday, November 14, 2008


Help Bailout Texas

The NCSE has an article up about the upcoming border skirmish in Texas between the inhabitants of Reality and the natives of Fantasyland. Once again, a few Texas Rangers are needed to fight off those who would ignore the law and try to steal the most precious possession of children, a good education:

NCSE encourages anyone who is ready, willing, and able to testify in defense of the proper treatment of evolution and the nature of science to register to testify.
The article has details about how to get on the list of people to testify but you have to hurry. The board is now scheduled to consider the standards from November 19 to November 21, hearing testimony on November 19.

To get an idea of what you'd be going up against, the article also has links to the comments (in pdf format) of the six outside reviewers appointed to evaluate the standards — including three creationists, two of whom hail from outside Texas.

The curriculum panels will then have one last attempt to revise the standards during December 4-6.

After that, only the [state board of education] can revise the science standards by majority vote during their January 2009 meeting. The standards receive final adoption in March 2009 and are to be used by teachers and textbook publishers for the next ten years."
Of course, as one of the nation's largest purchasers of textbooks, this process could effect education all across the US.

A phrase we have all become used to over the last couple of months is applicable here: Texas is too big to fail.


To Save a Mockingbird

The finches of the Galapagos are much more famous, even being given the general appellation "Darwin's finches," but the mockingbirds were more important. It was the mockingbirds that first started Darwin thinking that species might not be stable:

When he arrived on San Cristobal Island (then known as Chatham), he immediately saw that the mockingbirds were similar to ones he had collected in South America.

The next island he visited was Floreana (known as Charles Island at that time). Darwin was surprised to see the mockingbirds were all noticeably different from those on San Cristobal.

Though the finches were important evidence for his theory later on, Darwin did not even realize that all of them were finches, so diverse they had become, until he had returned to England and his bird specimens were examined by John Gould.

Darwin also avoided the error with the mockingbirds that he made with the finches:

Darwin wrote down these differences and those he saw in mockingbirds in two other islands. Crucially, he noted which mockingbird was from which island, something he didn't do with the finches.

Two of Darwin's specimens have now gone on display at the Natural History Museum in London. Lucky Londoners!

Thursday, November 13, 2008


Heavenly Visions

Greg Laden, at his fiendishly cleverly named blog, Greg Laden's Blog, is speculating on an increase in pareidolia events now that the European Union is changing its rules about selling "ugly" produce.

You know what pareidolia is ... when the image of Mother Teresa shows up in a cinnamon bun ...

... when the Virgin Mary can be seen in a reflection on a garage door ...

... or, my personal favorite, when Jesus decides to appear on a dog's butt.

But Greg links to a particular subset of these images that may be part of a larger pattern, namely ... God signing his name to eggplants. According to the link Greg pointed to, "Allah," which is Arabic for "God," has appeared in both Arabic and Urdu script in eggplants in the last couple of decades. And it was only a short while ago that God got around to doing an English translation.

I wonder how long it will take God to complete the project in all the languages in the world. And why did he choose eggplants?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


A Tale to Pinto a Donkey

I suppose I should preface this with the statement that I really admired Stephen Jay Gould's take on science and his writing. Also, The Panda's Thumb is one of my favorite blogs. But the fact is that Gould's use of the panda's thumb as an argument in favor of science and against creationism was deeply flawed. This is not anything previously left unsaid, but Elliot Sober, in his new book, Evidence and Evolution (in case you haven't noticed, I really like it) has a good discussion of the difficulties with what he calls the no-designer-worth-his-salt argument.

Panda's have what might be called a "thumb" but, in fact, it is not a digit:

Rather, they have a spur of bone that sticks out from their wrists. The thumb and the paw together form a V through which the panda repeatedly runs branches of bamboo, laboriously stripping the stalks to get them ready to eat. Pandas spend a large portion of their waking lives at this task. The thumb is extremely inefficient. Gould's point is that no designer worth his salt (the phrase is due to Raddick 2005) would have given the panda this device for preparing its food. A truly intelligent designer would have done better. On the other hand, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection says that inefficient devices of this kind are not at all surprising. Darwin thought of natural selection as a gradual process that improves adaptedness; natural selection does not necessarily lead to perfect adaptation, whatever that might mean. Selection modifies the traits found in ancestors by small changes; the result is not that the best of all conceivable adaptations evolves; rather, natural selection causes traits to evolve that do a better job than the alternatives that are actually present in the evolving lineage.

... [Gould] claims that the hypothesis of intelligent design makes the panda's thumb very improbable, whereas the hypothesis of evolution by natural selection makes the result much more probable. Creationists have a serious objection to Gould's argument. It can be expressed by a rhetorical question: How does Gould know what God (or some unspecified designer) would have wanted to achieve in building the panda? Gould is assuming that an intelligent designer would have wanted to supply pandas with a superefficient device (like a stainless-steel can opener) for preparing bamboo and would have had the ability to achieve this objective. But why is it so clear that God would have wanted to do this? Perhaps God realized that if pandas had better tools, they would eat all the bamboo, which would cause the extinction of the bamboo forest and of pandas as well. And maybe these two extinctions would have triggered a cascade of others. Perhaps God realized that these bad consequences would follow if pandas had better tools, and so he decided to slow them down. Creationists don't need to assert that they know what God would have had in mind if he had built the panda. All they need to say is that Gould does not know this. Gould adopts assumptions about the designer's goals and abilities that help him reach the conclusion he wants - that intelligent design is implausible and Darwinian evolution is plausible as an explanation of the panda's thumb. But it is no good simply inventing assumptions that help one defend one's pet theory. Rather, what is needed is independent evidence concerning what God (or some other intelligent designer) would have wanted to achieve if he had built the panda. And this is something that Gould does not have.

Not that creationists should be smug. Sober goes on to show how this very objection also applies to Intelligent Design and, in fact, renders it untestable and, therefore, not science.

But does that mean the no-designer-worth-his-salt argument is useless? Not necessarily. Consider what Francisco Ayala makes of it:

The implications of the theory of intelligent design are not even compatible with the idea of a personal God, a creator, "which is all powerful and all knowing and benevolent, that is omnipotent, omniscient," said the Spanish-American Ayala.

"It would have to be imperfect design or incompetent design or inept design, but not intelligent design," he said, noting for example that human beings have more teeth than can fit in the jaw, so dentists have to remove the wisdom teeth.

True, the inefficient "thumb" of the panda might save the bamboo forests (or have some other rationale) but what does it say about a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient being that he/she/it has to resort to such Byzantine jerrybuilt solutions? If God can't do more elegant design, doesn't it imply some serious constraints on his foresight and/or abilities? At the very least, it guts the power of what has been at the heart of the argument from design for centuries -- the claim that nature displays good design.

In the end, the panda's thumb is a theological argument against a particular version of God. And the attempt to avoid the argument leaves that God, not as the infinitely competent creator of a magnificent universe and all that is in it but, instead, as a bumbler on a par with, as famously argued by the Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin, the designers of the Ford Pinto.

If that is the sort of God you want to worship, you might want to make sure your insurance is paid up.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Digging the Truth

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has issued a statement about the grossly misnomered "Louisiana Science Education Act," urging the citizens and legislators of Louisiana to repeal it:

The Act was drafted under the guise of “academic freedom” and appeals to cherished values of fairness and free speech. However, SVP says the Act intends to garner support and legal protection for the introduction of religious, creationist concepts, including intelligent design, in public school science curricula. By permitting instructional materials that are not reviewed by the state’s science standards committees, the Louisiana Act and those like it encourage teachers and administrators to work outside these standards. This makes it possible for local school boards to define science and science education to suit their own agendas, thereby compromising the quality of science education for students, and allowing religious discrimination in America’s public school science classrooms.
The Society is hardly alone.

C'mon Louisianans! Don't make the Society come hunt you along with the other dodos!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Controlling Helplessness

A new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that superstitions may arise as a reaction to the feeling of a lack of control which, in turn, causes persons hunt for patterns and meaning from the random events in our everyday lives.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed. ...

Modern conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the university's Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

This may also be the source of the often bizarre rituals that baseball players concoct for those parts of the game, such as pitching and hitting, where even the best players fail as often as they succeed. Not that such things are necessarily bad:

Searching for order in a chaotic world can be healthy so long as it does not lead to counterproductive superstitions, the researchers said. Baseball rituals can be calming even if they're irrational, [anthropologist George] Gmelch pointed out.
Which naturally leads to the issue of religion:

Aaron Kay, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada who has studied the psychological roots of religion, says disorder in the world can foster a need for reassurance in the form of religious belief. But that psychological need does not mean religions are false, he said.

"I think people don't want to believe that events are completely random," said Kay. "Our studies don't suggest in any way that God doesn't exist, but they do point to why the concept was originally attractive to us."
Still, if the study is right, religion's similarity to baseball players who insist on chewing the same gum each day during a hitting streak or Chicago Cubs fans who believe in the billy goat curse must be a source of some stress ... and maybe a sense of a loss of control.

Oh, wait a minute ...

Sunday, November 09, 2008



Here is a hopeful sign, found in The Baltimore Sun:

Diane Butler, who finished fourth in the contest for three seats [on the county school board], said campaign literature distributed by third-place finisher Allen Dyer was taken out of context and distributed without her permission.

"This is dirty politics," said Butler, who finished about 1,000 votes behind Dyer. "I was very nice with Allen, and this is how he repaid me."
So what were the scurrilous views attributed to Butler? It was an answer to a questionnaire that Butler responded to, circulated by an advocacy group:

The question from Democracy for Howard County was: "Do you support or oppose the teaching of creationism or what is called 'Intelligent Design' as part of the curriculum in county schools."

According to the group, Butler responded: "I believe 'Intelligent Design' should be taught as a different theory than 'Evolution.' In science we have many subjects that are taught theoretically, and I believe all sides should be offered to allow students to make up their own minds."
It would be nice to think that humping the teaching of ID has become so toxic among voters that school board candidates could be penalized for doing so, but the voters' judgment may be tied more to Butler's capabilities, as revealed by her explanation as to how her answer was "taken out of context":

"I was very new at what I was doing," Butler said. "I sent them quick answers. ... It is my own fault for not being savvy enough." ...

Butler objected because she thought the answer in Dyer's literature did not accurately reflect her views.

"I'm not a creationism-teaching, right-wing, voucher-slinging, home-schooling mom," she said. ...

"I am not being sour grapes," said Butler, a community activist from Ellicott City. "I am upset that I have been maliciously maligned. He had no business using it."
She was maliciously maligned by being accurately quoted? Even more strangely, for a candidate for the school board, she is a home-schooler:

Butler has said that she home-schools her daughter out of concern over the quality of county schools.
Still, if, as Butler says, she "lost a lot of votes" over her stated views on creationism and ID and it might have cost her the election, that would be a good thing.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Another Vote for a Quality Candidate

Brian Switek of Laelaps, as well as Smithsonian magazine's new blog, Dinosaur Traking, is one of the 20 finalists in the 2008 Blogging Scholarships and has a shot at winning $10,000.

Brian's work at Laelaps is some of the best writing on the history of science you'll find in the blogosphere, such as his recent post on the rise of anti-evolutionism resulting from the post-World War I revelation by biologist Vernon L. Kellogg of the German military's appeal to a kind of nationalistic selection as justification for the war.

Besides my admiration for his writing, even before he joined Scienceblogs, I had the pleasure of recently meeting Brian (he's the young handsome one) and he is a genuinely nice young man who deserves the scholarship in many different ways.

Please go vote for him.

Via The Dispersal of Darwin


Coming to a Consensus on Crichton

By now you've probably heard of the death of Michael Crichton. You've probably also heard some grandiose talk about his "significance" as an author and purveyor of science to the masses. Normally, I would not try to rain on that parade. Most everyone, upon death, deserves a paean or two from admirers and judicious silence, for a while at least, from critics. Real evaluation takes time in any event.

But this, from a lecture delivered by Crichton at the California Institute of Technology in 2003, discussing the Drake equation, SETI and, inevitably, global warming, as reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, cannot go unmarked.

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses -- just so we're clear -- are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be "informed guesses." If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It's simply prejudice.

The Drake equation can have any value from "billions and billions" to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

Perhaps I am uninformed but did anyone, including Frank Drake, ever assert that the equation was a quantifiable mathematical model? It was, I believe, merely a way of indicating the magnitude of the numbers involved and how some fairly conservative estimates, plugged into admittedly dubious assumptions, still indicated that there was a non-zero chance of discovering other communicative life forms. And, of course, it was and is testable. That's what SETI did and, to the extent that it continues, is doing -- testing the possibility that there are such civilizations. After all, when we first started SETI, we could have found the universe abuzz with conversation. The fact that we didn't was a test of the more optimistic estimates plugged into the Drake equation. That does not mean we will never find such a civilization, of course, and the immense significance of such a discovery means that keeping up the search at some level is probably worthwhile.

But that is just the beginning of Crichton's misunderstanding of science:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period. . . .

I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way. . .

Well, speaking about "consensus science," as if it was some concrete thing that can, somehow, be done away with, is a little strange but Crichton himself was just going on about testability. What exactly did he think happens when that lone investigator reports his or her results and the rest of the scientific community starts testing it? If it is right and is borne out by testing, the scientific community comes to a consensus that the new idea is correct. Consensus is the result of being right. That is, in fact, exactly what happened with the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming. The hypothesis was proposed and tested and turned out to be well supported.

Certainly, what the scientific community forms a consensus around may turn out to be wrong, to a greater or, more often, lesser degree, but the notion that a consensus is somehow opposed to science and ought to be "stopped in its tracks" is as rigidly ridiculous thinking as any assertion that the consensus is always and necessarily right. In fact, it borders on the lunatic and serves most commonly as a marker for purveyors of pseudoscience.

And the reason that you don't hear about the consensus of science around relativity or the distance from the Sun to the Earth, is that there is no large, well funded, politically significant group of denialists falsely questioning whether those results are scientifically well-supported ... unlike the situation with global warming and evolution. Crichton's examples became accepted science in precisely the same way as the ideas he, for whatever personal reasons, wanted to deny.

Obviously, writing a couple of decent books (later made into better movies) on sciency topics is no guarantee of understanding science.

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