Thursday, September 29, 2005


The Past as Prelude

There is an interesting article from the York Daily Record about a witness for the plaintiffs in the Dover Intelligent Design Creationism trial. His name is Bryan Rehm and he was once a Science teacher in the Dover Area School District. He resigned his job in June 2004 and got a job in another school district because of his concerns about what he was being told by various school board members.

Rehm was, for example, told by a board member that he wanted biology classes to start teaching creationism. According to this member, he didn't want the students going home and telling their parents about learning about evolution because then their parents would have to tell them that their "teachers are lying to them." At a board meeting, another members criticized biology textbooks for being "laced with Darwinism". Rehm heard talk about "liberals in black robes taking our freedoms away" and how the separation of church and state is "a myth". And perhaps most importantly, he heard yet another member say that the school board would just have to fire teachers if they disagree with the board.

Welcome to 21st century science education in the U.S. if the ID movement has its way. But don’t worry. The 21st century will just seem like an illusion when they get done.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


Taking Your Time

Much has been written about Darwin’s delay in publishing his theory for over twenty years until he received young Alfred Russel Wallace’s paper setting out similar ideas. And there is no telling how much longer his "big book" would have been in the making if his hand had not been forced by events. A number of "theories" have been advanced as to why he took so long, including a claim that Darwin was tormented by what he saw as a betrayal of his social class [1]. The philosopher of science, David L. Hull, has, to my mind, by far the best explanation in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community.

Hull first discusses Darwin’s own conflicted views on the proper scientific method, which only reflected the larger ferment in the philosophy of science at the time, as it struggled to both free itself of the notion that the first creation, life and mind were the sole province of theologians and to turn itself into a true profession where intelligence and dedication counted more than the circumstance of one’s birth. Despite some dithering, Darwin ultimately recognized that hypotheses were a necessary part of science and that the order in which observations were made and when hypotheses were formed was less important than whether the hypotheses were subject to being verified or refuted by empiric evidence and whether serious attempts were, in fact, made to do so.

With that in mind, Hull gives the following explanation for what took Darwin so long:

. . . Darwin did think that the temporal order of the verification and the publishing of a hypothesis was important in the sociology of science, both for the sake of the scientist's own reputation and for the sake of the acceptance of his theory by the scientific community. To a young scientist, Darwin advised, "I would suggest to you the advantage, at present, of being very sparing in introducing theory in your papers (I formerly erred much in Geology in that way) [2]; let theory guide your observations, but till your reputation is well established, be sparing of publishing theory. It makes persons doubt your observations."

Darwin also had a reason for advising restraint in publication which was less personal and more significant to the progress of science. He was aware of the fate of Lamarck and Chambers. Chambers had received considerable popular acclaim but scathing denunciation from the academic community, including T. H. Huxley (1854). Lamarck received nothing but ridicule from all sides. Darwin criticized Lamarck and Chambers, not for suggesting mechanisms for evolution which he thought were mistaken, but for foisting their views on the scientific community without sufficient effort at careful formulation and verification. Lamarck and Chambers looked upon the process of scientific verification as a very casual affair. Darwin looked upon these matters as of utmost gravity. Lamarck published radically new theories in a variety of fields as diverse as mineralogy and meteorology. He felt that the originality of his impressionistic sketches would be enough to motivate others to undertake the subordinate task of filling out and verifying his theories. As Burkhardt (1970) has aptly observed, public neglect and private ridicule were the fate of his theories. Prior to knowing that Chambers was the author of the Vestiges of Creation, Darwin chided him for objecting to the skepticism of scientific men. "You would not fulminate quite so much if you had had so many wild-goose chases after facts stated by men not trained in scientific accuracy."

Darwin's conservative views on publication were rewarded to some degree. His Origin of Species did not suffer the same fate as those works on evolution that had preceded it. It was treated as a serious work of science even by those who denounced it. But a similar reticence on the part of Gregor Mendel resulted in his laws of heredity being overlooked for almost forty years. Mendel published his laws in 1865, soon after the appearance of the Origin. He too wanted to avoid being branded a speculator. In his original paper he barely alludes to his unobservable "factors," though the cogency of his entire argument rested upon their existence. In a letter to Carl Nägeli (Mendel, 1867), he claimed that, "as an empirical worker" he had to "define constancy of type as the retention of a character during the period of observation." Perhaps Darwin's advice might protect scientists from being engulfed in half-baked scientific publications, but it also contributed to the obscurity of Mendel's potentially great contribution to science. Because Lamarck neglected the niceties of the sociology of science, his work was ignored with disdainful embarrassment. Because Mendel was too scrupulous in observing them, his work was overlooked. Darwin struck an appropriate compromise.

Darwin's beliefs on the ethics of publication go a great way toward explaining his reticence in publishing his own views on the origin of species until his big book was complete. (pp. 10-11)
[1] See, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore.
[2] Darwin was referring to his paper on the "parallel roads" of Glen Roy, where he theorized they were the remnant of beaches of the ocean left as the land gradually rose (as he had seen happening in South America). Louis Agassiz (later an opponent of evolution as well) quickly showed that the features were the shorelines of lakes resulting from ice dams formed by glaciers. This was one of the greatest embarrassments in Darwin’s career.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Seduced and Abandoned

. . . is about how the school board in Dover Pennsylvania must be feeling now.

The Discovery Institute, the shock troops of the Intelligent Design movement, has been signaling for some time its displeasure with the board’s attempt to inject some small mention of ID into its curriculum. But it has strongly reiterated its criticism of the board on the eve of the Federal court trial to determine if the board’s action was unconstitutional. The pro forma assault on the ACLU in the statement cannot hide the Discovery Institute’s haste to distance itself from the result of this case.

While much about the statement is open to dispute, such as why, if ID is truly a "dissenting scientific theor[y]", does the Discovery Institute oppose teaching it in public schools? And just what efforts are the ID apologists making to have an "open discussion of the merits of intelligent design among scholars and within the scientific community"?

Be that as it may, what I am interested in here is what the statement reveals about the future of ID as envisioned by its most aggressive proponents. Consider these parts of the position paper:
While Discovery Institute does not support efforts to require the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it also strongly opposes the ACLU's attempt to censor classroom discussion of intelligent design. ...

[T]he ACLU is betraying the principle of academic freedom by seeking a government-imposed gag-order on teachers and students that would prevent even voluntary discussions of intelligent design in the science classroom. ...
Clearly, what the Discovery Institute wants (or, at least, recognizes as the best it can hope for at the present time) is "voluntary" discussion of ID in public classrooms. It should be obvious that voluntary discussions cannot be instituted by public school teachers, who are, by definition, government agents. They, in any case, "do not know enough about intelligent design or have sufficient curriculum materials to teach about it". So who are going to be the new standard bearers for the Intelligent Design movement? Who else but the students themselves?

Thus, the present master plan, the successor to the heady promise of the Wedge Document, the fruit of all the labor of the Johnson, Dembski, Behe, et al., comes down to whether or not they can chivvy 13 year olds into making their case for them. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Middle Finger Minions

Timothy Birdnow, in his continuing efforts to make himself look as foolish as possible, followed up his ridiculous article, "The case against Darwin", and his complaint about Paul Myers' demolition of it (see "Flipping Us the Bird"), by posting a plea at William Dembski’s blog, "Uncommon Descent" (first comment), for help against the Darwinist hordes. One wonders if Mr. Birdnow will get any more succor from that quarter than the School Board in Dover did. But never mind . . .

Mr. Birdnow did perhaps earn a genuine place in the annals (of, at least) by referring to his tormentors as: "PZ Myers and his Panda`s Middle Finger minions". Whether or not he knows it, Mr. Birdnow now stands on the precipice of having his name linked with such legendary figures as Ted Holden.

A bit of background first. The pro-science inhabitants of the usenet group are known among themselves as "Howlers" (short for "howler monkeys") and the occasional get-togethers of the participants are known as "Howlerfests". Indeed, the original . . . and still the best . . . reason I started this blog was to have a place to house pictures of one such event.

The name came from the aforementioned Ted Holden, a highly entertaining, though reality-challenged, creationist (the word is really too cramped to encompass the entirety of Ted but will do for this explanation). One day, Ted complained of having "200 howler-monkeys calling me everything imaginable". The image tickled both the sense of humor and the sense of proportion of the group members and the rest is history. Middle Finger Minions is already attracting attention at and may become a similar badge of honor. Stupidity, it seems, can be the gift that keeps on giving.

Typically, however, Mr. Birdnow has not done with the self-immolation of whatever reputation he might once have had. He is now comparing himself to Lech Walesa and Solidarity (through the thoroughly strained medium of referring to an article on the politics of Syria) and complaining that those Middle Finger Minions are using "old communist tactics" against him.

This may be the worst meltdown since the Wicked Witch of the West.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


Flipping Us the Bird

There is a vastly amusing display by an anti-evolution advocate going on in the blogosphere right now. One Timothy Birdnow has begun a blog specifically to respond to criticism by Paul Myers of an article Mr. Birdnow wrote for something called The American Thinker. The article is titled "The case against Darwin" and contains the usual creationist canards about science and scientists (along with some truly amazing misconceptions that may be original to Mr. Birdnow) even though Mr. Birdnow claims he isn’t a creationist and claims he doesn’t care if "Darwinism" turns out to be true.

Dr. Myers is an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and a longtime habitué of Mr. Birdnow particularly objects to the "peevish" and "insulting" tone of Paul’s original reply. Of course, it never occurs to Mr. Birdnow that someone who has spent almost all of his adult life dedicated to the science of developmental biology and the education of others in the field might be a tad miffed to be told his discipline is simultaneously responsible for "the horrors of Naziism", Stalin starving millions to death, Social Darwinism, "free love", and "twist[ing] the fabric of Western Society". Worse yet, according to Mr. Birdnow, Dr. Myer’s life’s work is "on the ropes", propped up only by fakery.

Frankly, I think Paul demonstrated remarkable restraint.

Hilariously, Birdnow actually accuses Paul of "trying to blind us with science".

You can see Dr. Myers’ original response to the article at his Blog "Pharyngula". Birdnow’s new Blog is called "Darwin`s Inquisition" (apparently cluelessness is a religion and attempts to eradicate it is persecution). Paul’s amused response can be seen at "Dance, Birdnow, dance!"

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Just Not So Stories

Stephen Jay Gould is generally credited with originating the use of the phrase "just so stories" to denote a practice that he deplored in evolutionary biology, which he described as "a speculative style of argument that records anatomy and ecology and then tries to construct historical or adaptive explanations for why this bone looked like that or why this creature lived here". [1] The phrase comes from the name of a children’s book by Rudyard Kipling recounting fanciful stories of the origins of certain animals and their traits.

Intelligent Design proponents frequently accuse "evolutionists" of responding to arguments for design with "just-so stories", particularly in response to Michael Behe’s claims about "irreducibly complex" organs or systems. But what is Behe’s argument but a "just not so story"? [2] He elaborately describes in great detail some microbiologic organ or system and then, instead of attempting to construct an account of its origin as an evolutionist would, he makes an elaborate show of throwing up his hands and saying "I can’t think of how this could evolve".

Setting aside the questions of the validity of Behe’s appeal to teleology, the correctness of his examples and the fairness of his characterizations of evolutionary theory, I want to point out how he and the rest of the ID apologists are violating a concept that might be called "the equivalence of argument". In logic, not to mention anything approaching fair rules of debate, a more than adequate and perfectly relevant reply to the claim "We can’t imagine how this trait could evolve" is "We can!".

The IDers present no empiric evidence for design, they merely contend that (a strawman version) of evolution cannot logically produce certain structures or systems. Nonetheless, they insist that that arguments showing their "logic" to be faulty aren’t sufficient and empiric evidence must be presented as to exactly how every claimed IC system has evolved or the design hypothesis has to be accepted. Behe goes so far as to demand reproduction of the bacterial flagellum in the laboratory in 10,000 generations in order to falsify his claim that it can’t evolve [3], even though he offers nothing more than his mousetrap analogy in support of his position. It is nothing but an Argument from Ignorance and intellectual sleight of hand.

The problem here is not that many people believe in a creative God, as demonstrated by the fact that many deeply religious people have no problem reconciling their belief in that God with the science of evolution. The problem is that IDeologists are making, without evidence, the extraordinary claim within science that not only is there a God but that he can be caught in a mousetrap.


[1] From: "Introduction" to Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age. N.Y.: Random House, 1980. Pp. xvii-xviii. (c)1980, Random House, Inc. quoted at "Stephen Jay Gould On..." page at the "Stanford Presidential Lecture Series in the Humanities and Arts". It should be noted that others consider these scenarios to be hypotheses that stand or fall based on the predictions they make and how they correspond to real world data. Which view is right, and how often, is beyond the scope of this post.

[2] Credit for this coinage, as far as I know, should go to John Wendt in a post on 02-13-2005 to the ARN Design Forum board.

[3] Behe, Michael J., 2000. "Philosophical Objections to Intelligent Design: Response to Critics".

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Antitheoretical Epistemological Nihilism

"Steven J." is one of the most erudite posters on If anyone wanted to assess the power of "evolutionist" arguments against creationism, and its doppelgänger Intelligent Design, one could do much worse than to go to Google Groups and search on Steven’s posts. In a recent post, he has used (coined?) a most valuable and apt phrase: "antitheoretical epistemological nihilism" to describe much of creationist argumentation.

The subject arose in connection with the question of "transitional fossils", where a common creationist tactic is to deny that any such thing can exist. An example is the claim by one t.o. poster that "Darwinists do not know which [anthropoid] fossils are human and which are ape, therefore they conclude via the misuse of logic they must be transitional" (!?!?). Another version of this is to claim that the fossil is "fully" one thing or the other, rather than a transitional. An example of the latter would be: ‘archaeopteryx is fully a bird’.

Steven describes the nihilist ploy as follows:

You don't need to explain [the evidence], e.g. the consistent nested hierarchy of life or fossils that straddle boundaries between kinds. Evidence is just what you call the random facts you stuff (like so many square pegs in round holes) into the theory you're trying to support. True, again, they'll abandon (temporarily) this position if they think some evidence objectively contradicts evolutionary expectations, but when the evidence does not do so, it's back to "evidence is purely in the eye of the beholder, and does [not] objectively support any position."

This, of course, is related to my previous post, "Suppositions and Science". There will be more to come on that subject.

Saturday, September 10, 2005


Suppositions and Science

Ken Ham complains (Creation: ‘where’s the proof?’) that "evolutionsists" start with presuppositions of the nonexistence of God (or, at least, no creative God). Such presuppositions are supposed to be no different than some creationists’ assumption that the Bible is an accurate historical account of the origin of the universe and life on Earth.

A common response to this complaint is to assert that science is concerned only with empirical evidence. As usual with real-world problems, the truth is not so neat.

There is a well-worn debate in the philosophy of science between the "internalists" and the "externalists". Internalists hold that scientists by in large accept, reject or ignore new arguments solely because of the weight of the evidence and the cogency of the arguments. In other words, the recognition of the validity of a scientific proposition is "internal" to the proposition and its evidence. Externalists, on the other hand, think a wide variety of factors, social and personal, are in operation in the acceptance or rejection of scientific propositions. A common example given is the claim that Darwin formulated, and other scientists of the time rapidly accepted, evolution in the form of "competition in the struggle for life" because the society they lived in was individualistic and competitive. [1]

At one extreme you have the logical positivists, who insist that science, when properly done, eliminates all metaphysics and, at the other, the post-modernists, to whom science is a social construct with no claim to objective truth. Neither are completely right nor completely wrong.

Certainly, an individual scientist will approach new evidence in ways to attempt to reconcile it to his/her own theories. To paraphrase (a little) philosopher of science David Hull, "Scientists rarely refute their own pet theories. But that's all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to oblige." Alan Fedducia is a recent, perhaps extreme, example of this in science. There is not as much difference as we might like to think between how Fedducia has approached the recent evidence on bird evolution and Ham's proclamation that his pet theory, that the Bible is "the right basis to understand this universe and correctly interpret the facts around me", is the best one.

The difference is ultimately in the nature of the communities science and "creation science" seek to operate in. The aim of both groups is to influence a community. They both have to at least try to play by that communities' rules (and if they don't, they are marginalized within or excluded from it). But in the "competition" among all the various ways humans have sought knowledge of the world around them, science is the least exclusive and the most inclusive community. Unlike the "creation scientists", who seek to influence only a particular (and, as Ham's article shows, aggressively exclusive) community, science doesn't ask at the door what your theological or philosophical beliefs are. It only asks to see if you have evidence that can be checked by anyone, regardless of whether or not they share those beliefs. To Ham, you cannot even recognize the evidence he does, unless you believe in "the spiritual nature of the battle" already. In science, if a philosophical naturalist, such as Dawkins, begins to let his philosophy impinge on his interpretation of the evidence, there is a balance in the form of a Ken Miller or even a Stephen Jay Gould and his NOMA.

Ham and his ilk not only don't have any such check on what they accept, they will actively seek to remove anyone who attempts it within "their" community, which explains the often-noted animosity of young-Earth creationists towards "theistic evolutionists" greater even than they have toward "secular evolutionists". Theistic evolutionists challenge them where they live, while the secular scientists are already excluded from the community they care about.
[1] David Hull’s Science as a Process has a good discussion of this, as well as much more about how science really works.

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