Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Nibbling at the Kool-Aid

The Discovery Institute's attack mouse, Casey Luskin, is at it again, threatening to loose multiple sleep-producing screeds upon the internet, the major result of which will be to acutely embarrass whatever thinking proponents ID may have left. This one is entitled "Principled (not Rhetorical) Reasons Why ID Doesn't Identify the Designer," which is followed closely by the dread-inducing "(Part 1)."

As a "hook," Casey recycles a complaint made by Mike Gene of Telic Thoughts about Dr. James F. McGrath, Assistant Professor of Religion at Butler University, whose blog, Exploring Our Matrix, you'll find over in my blogroll (for good reason). I'll let the good doctor handle that part of Casey's bleating (as he answered Mike Gene). I'm more interested in a couple of other "points" Casey swipes at.

Amusingly, for a supposed defense of allegedly "principled" actions by ID proponents, Casey complains that Judge Jones, in his decision in the Kitzmiller case, "misused" a passage from the ID "textbook," Of Pandas and People. Reminding people of that case (and what went on there), while claiming ID advocates are honest, might not be the best strategy. In any event, Judge Jones (at p. 25-26) says this:

Although proponents of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members of the IDM, including Defendants' expert witnesses. In fact, an explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas' rhetorical statement, "what kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]" and answer: "On its own science cannot answer this question. It must leave it to religion and philosophy."

In answer to this, Casey quotes a more extensive passage from Pandas (though I have no way of checking its accuracy -- something that should always be done with Luskin):

If science is based upon experience, then science tells us the message encoded in DNA must have originated from an intelligent cause. What kind of intelligent agent was it? On its own, science cannot answer this question; it must leave it to religion and philosophy. But that should not prevent science from acknowledging evidences for an intelligent cause origin wherever they may exist. This is no different, really, than if we discovered life did result from natural causes. We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause. [Emphasis in original]

Casey also states:

... the staunchly anti-ID website, TalkOrigins, admits that "an anthropomorphized designer need not be a deity. The atheistic religion of Raelianism, for example, proposes that humans were created by extraterrestrials."

How accurately Casey quotes that article (and how fairly he characterizes Mark Isaak's motives as being to protect atheism) I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

The real question is whether Casey is actually so stupid (or whether he just hopes his audience is) that he misses the giant black hole of a logical contradiction sitting at the center of his argument? Sure, it is conceivable, as Judge Jones acknowledged, that a natural being "created" and "designed" life on Earth, though John Wilkins' assessment becomes relevant here:

ID requires a designer who can visualise all possible combinations of chemistry over billions of years. If that isn't a supernatural designer, I'll eat my epistemological hat!

But, if the "designer" really could be a natural being, why did Pandas rule, a priori, that we must leave its nature and identity to religion (of all things!) and philosophy? Surely the Raelian designer is potentially amenable to scientific study!

And there is no help for Casey's case in that weaseling at the end of the section from Pandas:

We still would not know, from science, if the natural cause was all that was involved, or if the ultimate explanation was beyond nature, and using the natural cause.

That too is a philosophical possibility applicable to all scientific results. But that's just it, it is philosophy, not the science that ID keeps disingenuously claiming to be.

So, basically, the take-home lesson of Casey's own presentation is that either ID proponents are not thinking clearly or they are lying through their teeth ... they're either dumb or dishonest.

Nice defense there, Luskin!

Update: Professor McGrath has responded to Luskin as well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Temptations in the Desert

Discover magazine has a theology blog? Who knew?

Father Michael Holleran has not been overly active – just two posts since his first on September 6th and, if the present one is any guide, you'll have to be rather conversant with (or willing to take the time and effort to look up) some definitely arcane theological terminology and concepts. Still, there are things to like:

[M]ature theology is also very far from intelligent design, which I consider to be a particularly unfortunate, maladroit, and problematic notion ... It is true that the fifth argument of St. Thomas Aquinas for the existence of God is based on the design ..... [y]et theologians themselves noted, long before Richard Dawkins, that the argument is hardly cogent, and ... [is more] a reflection ... of faith by believers than as an effort to persuade unbelievers. In addition, ... a priest friend of mine often takes ... [an] irreverent step further: with all the chance, chaos, entropy, violence, waste, injustice, and randomness in the universe, the project hardly seems very intelligent! Do we imagine that God is intelligent in basically the same way that we are, just a very BIG intelligence and "super-smart"? ...

All of this is mind-numbingly anthropomorphic, and what seems to be irreverent and blasphemous is actually the only way to avoid being so. ... Unfortunately, the most fervent people are often the most naive: the monks of the desert in the fourth century got violently upset when traveling theologians suggested that God did not have a body.
The image of William Dembski as an abbot in a hardscrabble priory in some arid waste, surrounded by unlettered and uneducable followers is too seductive for words.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Steel Cage Death Match of Woo!

Ladies and Gentlemen ...

In the Red corner, we have Pat "Cosmic Consciousness" Holliday, the Bewitchment Battler!

And in the Blue corner was have the mysterious masked Deceiving Spirit!

It's a grudge match folks! Holliday threw the first punch at the pre-fight press conference, claiming the Spirit is trying to ensnare good Christians into witchcraft. Right at the beginning of the weigh-in, Holliday began screaming at the crowd:

People are docilely being seduced by the latest Christian stars and spiritual fads. Many churches today are full of silent, gentlemanly diplomats, not wanting to make waves! Nobody wants trouble and so they go unchallenged and the church has more than enough of smiling, silent mousy Christian leaders! ...

Today there is a special onslaught of (Chaotic) deceiving spirits has been unleashed, the fulfilment of the prophecy expressed through the Apostle Paul, that this would take place in the "later times."
Holliday then called the Spirit one of the "religious mystics, philosophers, writers, and artists who have left the foundations of the Word of God" and are peddling "a notion [of] the evolution of humans who will take a quantum leap into their god hood ... by using powers of witchcraft through the mediums of astrology, reincarnation, higher planes of being, expanded consciousness, we all are God, pantheism, UFOs."

Holliday promised to crush the Spirit. The Spirit has kept quiet, saying only that that "the body count at the end is all that matters!"

Let's get ready to RUUUMMMBLE!


Sharing a Little Discipline Among Friends

Elizabeth Redden's article, "Interdisciplinarity and the Science Classroom" at Inside Higher Ed, discusses the recent conference on "Promoting the Liberal Sciences: Science as Liberal Education," sponsored by the American Conference of Academic Deans and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One topic was interdisciplinary approaches to teaching science.

[F]our faculty members from Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College — instructors of biology, philosophy, anthropology and English — tackled one particularly tricky case study: the challenge of teaching evolution across the curriculum. Even putting aside today's culture wars, "there are obvious problems teaching evolution as an anthropologist because of the historical legacy my discipline has relative to evolution," said Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an associate professor at Muhlenberg.

Kovats-Bernat, for instance, referenced the "criminal anthropology" movement that dates to the 1870s — essentially the argument that by measuring the degree to which a person exhibits "ape-ish" physical features one can determine their propensity to commit crimes (as "crime is equated with violence and violence is equated with lesser animals," as Kovats-Bernat described the logic).
I'm not sure what the difficulty is. "Science is done by people. People will be stupid and will bend anything they put their hand to in service of their prejudices. The process of science helps discover and eliminate such problems, though it can take some time. Here is a good example of that from anthropology ... " Where's the problem?

And Bruce Wightman, an associate professor of biology, pointed to a number of other dubious movements based on natural selection (or, more commonly, a misinterpretation of Darwinian principles) — including the rise of social Darwinism and the catch phrase "survival of the fittest" (though, when it comes to natural selection, as Wightman points out, "whether you survive is irrelevant if you don't reproduce"), and the interest in eugenics and forced sterilization.
As we've seen just recently, even people who should know better can perpetrate this misunderstanding.

Especially when the current political and curricular debate over intelligent design is layered on top of this complex historical legacy, there's a tendency, Wightman said, for professors to retreat and teach the biological theory apart from its context. And yet, evolution is the most important idea biologists have ever introduced in terms of influencing broader thought, Wightman said.
Uh, oh ... this is beginning to sound discouragingly like "how do we sugarcoat the history of science so our students won't be likely to let mere facts mislead them?"

His own sophomore students, already with a year of introductory biology under their belt, may accept evolution as a statement of fact, but still, he said, "they're poorly equipped to talk about it.... This raises questions for us as educators."

"We have to start by admitting some level of failure. If two-thirds of Americans doubt evolution, that's a lot of college graduates out there," Wightman said, referencing a 2004 Gallup poll. "Can this problem be addressed only by better biology instruction?"
Certainly not. And the approach that the panelists and their institution take, where one teaches a course on human evolution and another teaches a literature course on Darwin's writings is a nice start. The feasibility of such arcane concepts as team teaching, cross-departmental collaboration, the use of guest lectures and requiring faculty members to stretch outside their specialties are beyond me but one thing I'm fairly sure of: teaching cardboard history of science where everyone is a hero and all ideas were good and pure ain't going to help in the long run.

Leaving clay feet around to be stumbled over is a sure way to lose hearts and minds.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Religious Snake Handling

When you mix politics and religion, you get politics. ... The religious right peaked a long time ago. As a historical, sociological phenomenon, it has seen its heyday. Something new is coming.
Rev. Gene Carlson, former senior pastor, Westlink Christian Church

Obama sounds too much like Osama. When he says his name, I am like, 'I am not voting for a Muslim!'
- Kayla Nickel, a parishioner at Westlink Christian Church

There is a most interesting -- and, for those like myself who hope for an American government that remains officially secular and becomes more secular in actual fact, a most heartening -- article in today's New York Times Magazine, entitled "Evangelical Crackup" by David D. Kirkpatrick. Among the hopeful signs of the ebbing of the political power of the Righteous Right is the surprising downfall of one of its major leaders in that tongue on the buckle of the Bible Belt, Wichita, Kansas.

... Terry Fox, was the Jerry Falwell of the Sunflower State — the public face of the conservative Christian political movement in a place where that made him a very big deal.

So when Fox announced to his flock one Sunday in August last year that it was his final appearance in the pulpit, the news startled evangelical activists from Atlanta to Grand Rapids. Fox told the congregation that he was quitting so he could work full time on "cultural issues." Within days, The Wichita Eagle reported that Fox left under pressure. The board of deacons had told him that his activism was getting in the way of the Gospel. "It just wasn't pertinent," Associate Pastor Gayle Tenbrook later told me.

Fox, who is 47, said he saw some impatient shuffling in the pews, but he was stunned that the church's lay leaders had turned on him. "They said they were tired of hearing about abortion 52 weeks a year, hearing about all this political stuff!" he told me on a recent Sunday afternoon. "And these were deacons of the church!"
This is all a piece with the polls commented on by Frank Rich, in his article, "Rudy, the Values Slayer," also in Sunday's Times.

A CBS News poll this month parallels what the Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick found in his examination of evangelicals for today's Times Magazine. Like most other Americans, they are more interested in hearing from presidential candidates about the war in Iraq and health care than about any other issues.

Abortion and same-sex marriage landed at the bottom of that list; fighting poverty outpolled abortion as a personal priority by a 3-to-2 margin.
But the rest of the old guard of the Righteous Right may be as out-of-step with their flock as Rev. Fox. Rich points out that in the recent "Value Voters Summit" in Washington, D.C., the organizers' survey of participants as to what issues would be "most important" in choosing a presidential candidate, "didn't even think to list the war, health care or fighting poverty."

Rich notes that, despite the old guard's "hissy fit" over Rudy Giuliani's continuing strength in the run up to the primaries, as exemplified by the threat of James Dobson and others to support a third-party candidate, they have not supported any of the Republican hopefuls who really do share their values:

If they really believed uncompromisingly in their issues and principles, they would have long since endorsed either Sam Brownback, the zealous Kansas senator fond of using fetus photos as political props, or Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who spent 15 years as a Baptist preacher, calls abortion a "holocaust" and believes in intelligent design rather than evolution.

But they gave Senator Brownback so little moral and financial support that he folded his candidacy a week ago. And they continue to stop well short of embracing Mr. Huckabee, no matter how many rave reviews his affable personality receives on the campaign trail. They shun him because they know he'll lose, and they would rather compromise principle than back a loser.

Backing a loser, they know, would even further diminish their waning Washington status in a post-Rove, post-Bush G.O.P. The more they shed their illusion of power, the more they imperil their ability to rake in big bucks from their apocalyptic direct-mail campaigns. They must choose mammon over God if they are to maintain the many values rackets that make up their various business empires.
That kind of hypocrisy is more likely to reduce, rather than improve, the Righteous Right's political clout in the long run. But Rev. Fox, perhaps mindful of the nature of the people who make up the core of the Righteous Right, like his former parishioner, Ms. Nickel, uses a telling metaphor for its future:

Some might compare the religious right to a snake. We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Of Clowns and Colleges

The other day I quoted from a nice article by Taylor Kessinger, a junior at Arizona University, majoring in math, philosophy and physics, and a columnist for the student newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat. Apparently, it must have stung, because the PR hacks at the Discovery Institute's Media Complaints Division have taken after Mr. Kessinger in a snide and (surprise, surprise!) disingenuous attack.

The DI claims that Kessinger "calls for more academic persecution to rain down upon ID proponents." But the DI flack, Anika Smith, cites the following quote from Kessinger:

On the other hand, does science discriminate against proponents of intelligent design? Well, sure, but only in the same sense that a university discriminates against bad students or the stock market discriminates against people who make poor financial decisions.

If anything, the problem is that there isn't enough discrimination against this idea.
Well, yes ... science does discriminate against ID ... and phlogiston theory, geocentrism, and planetary crystal spheres. The DI hack is playing semantic games by taking advantage of the dual meaning of "discrimination." It not only means "treatment based on class or category rather than individual merit," it also means "discernment" between true and false or fake and real. It was in the latter sense, in context, that Kessinger used the word and, to the extent that we even have to discuss ID being part of science education in this country (other than as an idea from history long discarded), Kessinger is absolutely right ... we aren't showing the discernment between bad and good ideas that is the hallmark of science.

And it is a simple fact of human nature that there are repercussions for any academic who goes around dishonestly claiming ID or phlogiston or the music of the spheres is science, just as there would be if a professor insisted on wearing a big red rubber nose, floppy shoes and a fright wig everywhere he went. Certainly, any university, in this age of spiraling costs and diminishing resources would be reluctant to give tenure -- guaranteed lifetime employment -- to an intellectual Bozo.

The best that the DI flackery can do in the face of that is to refer to pathetic "defenses" they previously gave to the dismantling of ID's claim to be science by Judge Jones.

The DI's article begins: "Sometimes you run across something so head-shakingly wrong that you have to ask yourself, where did they come up with that?" Given that any rational person has that reaction every time they look at Evolution News & Views, the DI can't really be having that much trouble coming up with an answer.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Ready ... Aim ... Debunk!

Sister Mary Elephant belongs to an order of nuns that is renowned (some may say, infamous) for their firm discipline of children under their care. The good Sister (second from the right) is shown here with some of her compatriots as they prepare to punish certain fifth-graders who just won't leave their "naughty bits" alone. The Sister is presently conducting the 72nd Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle at the detention room over at The Quackometer. Fortunately, she's only packin' a loaded ruler or there might be a few of that unruly bunch missing come the final bell!


Counting Mouths

Ben Stein may not know much, but he knows what Intelligent Design is talking about:

Freedom of inquiry ... includes the ability to inquire whether a higher power, a being greater than man, is involved with how the universe operates. This has always been basic to science. ALWAYS.

Some of the greatest scientists of all time, including Galileo, Newton, Einstein, operated under the hypothesis that their work was to understand the principles and phenomena as designed by a creator. ...

Now, I am sorry to say, freedom of inquiry in science is being suppressed.

Under a new anti-religious dogmatism, scientists and educators are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator. ...

They cannot even mention the possibility that -- as Newton or Galileo believed -- these laws were created by God or a higher being.
Despite the best pretenses of the Discovery Institute and its merry band of dissemblers, no one, especially its supporters, thinks ID isn't about God.

Ben Stein doesn't know spit about the philosophy of science or academia but he may know something about marketing. We'll know better come next February.

Taylor Kessinger, a junior at Arizona University, majoring in math, philosophy and physics, and a columnist for the student newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat also has ID's number but in a more honest form. After noting Stein's invocation of the First Amendment, Mr. Kessinger says:

[F]reedom of speech doesn't protect the rights of professors to make claims with no scientific backing without repercussions. Universities don't stand for professors who waste funds and time researching astrology, parapsychology or other pseudoscientific ideas, and they never should.

Stein and his fellow design advocates don't care about equality or fairness. They want intelligent design to be "special" in this regard, so that they can pretend their belief in God -- a faith-based belief -- somehow has scientific backing.

Contrary to the popular belief among beleaguered design theorists, there is no conspiracy to destroy religion in science. University faculty members continue to hold a multitude of religious positions even in evolutionary biology departments, and in the dozen or so biology textbooks I've looked through, I have yet to find the phrase "God does not exist."

On the other hand, does science discriminate against proponents of intelligent design? Well, sure, but only in the same sense that a university discriminates against bad students or the stock market discriminates against people who make poor financial decisions.
Why, it's almost like selection is taking place ...

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Tapping Into Creationist Mindsets

Dr. Michael Egnor is confused.

I know, 'dog bites man.' But in this case, he is confused in a spectacular and amusing fashion.

Egnor delivers himself of a rant about an article (pdf file) by Massimo Pigliucci that is part of the invaluable recent issue of the McGill University Journal of Education devoted to education in evolutionary science.

Egnor starts off with the usual lie to the effect that ID isn't creationism because creationism is limited to a particular interpretation of the Bible and arises from religious belief. That is, of course, a restrictive definition of "creationism" that would exclude Islamic creationists, such as Harun Yahya. More importantly, the pretense that advocacy of ID does not arise from religious belief is belied by its own advocates time and time and time and time again. Instead, Egnor claims, ID is a "scientific theory."

But that ain't the stupid part ... just the dishonest one.

Pigliucci, as part of his contention that better science education won't, itself, end paranormal beliefs in "UFOs, alien abductions, astrology, haunted houses, telepathy, the ability to predict the future, and a host of other purported phenomena one would have thought ended up in the dustbin of history at the end of the Middle Ages" points to the widespread belief, even among educated people, "in heaven as a real (physical) place."

Egnor complains:

Why is Dr. Pigliucci surprised that most people, even well-educated people, believe in Heaven? How does science prove the non-existence of things outside of nature? ... [I]t's difficult to see how the scientific method, which is suited to the study of the natural world, applies to inferences about religious beliefs in the afterlife.
Hmmm ... if study of "the Designer" is a scientific study and the scientific method is only appropriate to the study of the natural world, then it follows that "the Designer" must be a natural being that is part of the natural world. In short, if Egnor's argument is to be believed, "the Designer" may be unknown, but it is certain that he, she or it cannot be God. I wonder if all those people who support teaching ID in science classes would be so enthusiastic if they knew that ID disproved the notion that God was responsible for life, the universe and everything?

There is, as usual, more disingenuousness to be found in Egnor's screed, including equivocations over the term "physical," but one can only take so much bad tap dancing in one sitting.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


O Solo Meme

David Ng at The World's Fair has proposed the "I rank number one on google" meme that has already spread to PZ Mihertz and Dr. Free-Ride.

The idea is to attempt to find 5 statements which, if you were to type into google (preferably, but other country specific ones if need be), your blog is returned as the number one hit.

I rather surprised myself by finding five fairly easily, though it may have something to do with my penchant for wacko imagery and making words (and other sh*t) up. Here are my five:

Thoughts Haystack (nothin' like having an original name!)

Hellfire and Boiling Marinara Sauce (FSM anyone?)

Blatant Truthiness (so much dishonesty, so little time ...)

Cognoengineered (engineered a meme, in case you were wondering)

Kepplerists (those darned atheistic secular elliptical orbitists)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


A Modest Proposal

Mary Lefkowitz, professor emerita at Wellesley College and the author of Greek Gods, Human Lives, has a small suggestion: bring back the Greek gods.

Well, not quite, but she thinks some lessons could be learned from them at least:

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion "poisons" human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn't religion; it's monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn't advocate killing those who worshipped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.
Part of it sounds good:

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor.
But there is always an "opps," it seems:

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it.
That didn't turn out well, did it? But there were some advantages:

[A]s the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn't seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. ...

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy -- that characteristically Greek invention -- had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science. ...

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.
Now, how did I ever learn about skepticism without a healthy belief in Zeus?

Monday, October 22, 2007


An Odyssey for Truth

Homer Jacobson, a Brooklyn College chemistry professor emeritus has a couple of corrections he'd like to make to an article he had published in American Scientist. Nothing much new there ... except for the fact that the article was published 52 years ago!

The passages Jacobson wants retracted appeared in the article "Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life" in the January 1955 American Scientist (Vol. 43, No. 1):

On page 121: "Directions for the reproduction of plans, for energy and the extraction of parts from the current environment, for the growth sequence, and for the effector mechanisms translating instructions into growth—all had to be simultaneously present at that moment [of life's birth]."

On page 125: "From the probability standpoint, the ordering of the present environment into a single amino acid molecule would be utterly improbable in all the time and space available for the origin of terrestrial life."

Why does he feel the need to make corrections now? First of all, there were some errors of omission:

For the first passage, use of the requirement of simultaneity was a conjecture, unsupported by any proof. Separate developments of partial structures might well have occurred in an environment of randomly reacting molecules, eventually to join into one or more self-reproducing structures.

The second passage refers only to an attempt to calculate the probability that a single molecule of a particular amino acid could spontaneously form from its components. The calculation was irrelevant, as it was based on an endothermic change during an imaginary spontaneous conversion of a mixture of component atoms and molecules into glycine under adiabatic and standard conditions, with no external source of energy. Such changes cannot spontaneously take place. Molecules of increased complexity have been found, however, when necessary components are available, with the aid of ambient energy from natural or experimental systems, e.g. electrical discharges, substantial temperature gradients or contiguous compounds or elements whose chemical reactions produce free energy. All of these could have existed under early Earth conditions, and thus this passage is completely inapplicable.

Few people would blame any scientist for not bothering to correct such relatively minor failures of complete accuracy in a very old article. But Professor Jacobson's incentive was:

... because of continued irresponsible contemporary use by creationists who have quoted my not merely out-of-context, but incorrect, statements, to support their dubious viewpoint. I am deeply embarrassed to have been the originator of such misstatements, allowing bad science to have come into the purview of those who use it for anti-science ends.

In an accompanying editorial (unfortunately not online) Rosalind Reid fills out the story a bit. It seems Jacobson, who is retired, in a bit of indulgence Googled himself, finding close to a thousand hits. But, to his dismay, many of them were creationist sites quote mining his article in support of their claims of the impossibility of naturalistic origin of life.

As Reid correctly describes what happened next:

Jacobson responded in the noblest tradition of science. He examined the quoted statements carefully, realized they were in fact wrong ... and decided, 52 years after the original publication, to admit his error and retract the statements.

And Reid gets the lesson to be taken from this almost perfectly right:

Jacobson's letter speaks for itself, as do the fundamentalist tracts. If you listen closely to the dialectic between them you will hear something crisp and clear: the distinction between a scientist who cannot let error stand no matter the embarrassment of public correction and those who under the same circumstances cling to dogma.

I'd only quibble that Jacobson has little cause for embarrassment ... unless because of all the cheering.

Thanks to Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education for alerting me to this story.

And here is the New York Times article on Professor Jacobson.


Sunday, October 21, 2007


Bumping Ugly Memes

PZ Myearshertz, in a wanton act of naughtiness, cognoengineered an infectious meme and let it loose to do irreparable harm on an unsuspecting blogosphere. I was, in turn, infested by John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, leaving me feeling so cheap!

However, as any good organism would do, I'll try to pass it along:

In the meme, there is a set of questions all in the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ... ". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
  • You can leave them exactly as is.
  • You can delete any one question.
  • You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
  • You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
  • You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Pharyngula

My great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

My great-great-great-great grandparent is Flying Trilobite

My great-great-great grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock

My great-great-grandparent is The Primate Diaries

My great-grandparent is Conspiracy Factory

My grandparent is The Skeptical Alchemist

My parent is Evolving Thoughts

The following are my questions and answers:

The best sex/gender novel in SF/fantasy is:
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

The best page-turner book in Nobel-prize-winning fiction is:
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The best series in television documentaries about science is:
The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski

I am not as prolificate as some and am propagating this meme on only to:

1) Primordial Blog

2) Beautiful Biology

3) Thinking for Free


Creating Science

In my prior post about Neal C. Gillespie's book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, I discussed Gillespie's proposition that Darwin spent so much time addressing special creation in the Origin of Species as part of the change between the "episteme" of creationism and that of posivitism.

Primary to understanding Gillespie's account of Darwin's approach is the nature of these epistemes. The creationism episteme in Darwin's time was not simple Biblical literalism, because the needs of a burgeoning science had already made inroads into mere acceptance of dogma. Thus, these epistemes were not discontinuous:

[E]pistemes [do not] follow one another in neat sequence through time. Men may dwell side by side and yet work within different ones. Men may move back and forth from one to another before making a final commitment; some may never make one. And others, like Darwin, may promote one episteme while never breaking free of another.

Insofar as creationism and positivism shared certain scientific beliefs a common discourse was possible, and it was along the bridge of this discourse that men passed from one episteme to the other. What did they have in common? They shared the legacy of a joint scientific heritage: laws of nature (however differently rationalized), the imperatives of evidence, the canons of proof and prediction. In its pure form creationism predicted that no purely physical explanation of speciation would be found, that no transitional fossils would be discovered, that no argument for evolution could be constructed that would plausibly link supporting evidence. [However], there were creationists who were more committed to a protopositivism within natural history than they were to the theological elements in their episteme, and these were the ones who, for the sake of their science, crossed the bridge; the others did not. Creationism, then, was not only a definite stance on the origin and nature of species, but was itself unstable owing to the development of positivism within it. And this was owing to the gradual modification of the tools of science through work.
So, by 1859, the old episteme was a mixture of:

... Newtonian nomothetic [divine action through natural law] and the Baconian inductionist traditions from the physical sciences with biblical theology and a type of philosophical idealism, [sanctioning], in the idea of special creation, or so it appeared from the new positive perspective, a pseudoparadigm that was not a research governing theory (since its power to explain was only verbal) but an antitheory, a void that had the function of knowledge but, as naturalists increasingly came to feel, conveyed none.
The positivist episteme, on the other hand, was:

... that attitude toward nature ... which saw the purpose of science to be the discovery of laws which reflected the operation of purely natural or "secondary" causes. It typically used mechanistic or materialistic models of causality, rejected supernatural, teleological, or other factors which were in principle beyond scientific examination as legitimate aspects of scientific inquiry, and -- whatever the desires or beliefs of individual practitioners, many of whom were theists or even good Christians -- embraced and promoted those far-reaching cultural tendencies conventionally known as secularism and naturalism. This development resulted in a consensus, virtually unquestioned among followers of science by the century's end, that science had a unique and prescriptive approach to knowledge which was superior to all others and was exclusively the way to understand the world of nature.
Most important to an understanding of the rise of science as we know it ... and how it might change again:

These systems, positivism and creationism, were realized in the lives of men, and that may best be understood by focusing on the reality of men thinking and working through time, out of one mode of discourse and into another. So much, I think, is true for the generation that makes the transition. Those raised within the confines of the new mode will be, of course, inclined to take its characteristics as self-evident, but only so long as it suits their needs. When conscious theory no longer fits their "silent practice" they, too, will inaugurate an epistemological shift.


Saturday, October 20, 2007


Florida Keys

Chimp contemplationFlorida has taken a first step towards implementing truly 21st century science standards for schools that, among other things, clearly identify evolution as one of the "big ideas" in science that should be taught in depth. This is in contrast to the old standards that did even use the word "evolution."

Beginning this past May, a group of teachers, professors and others started rewriting the science standards.

The draft standards are based on those used in other countries with top science-education programs, such as Finland and Singapore, and the recommendations of national education and science groups. They reduce the number of topics students are taught and push for a deeper understanding of key "big ideas," one of which is "evolution and diversity."

Supporters of science education think well of the draft:

Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, called the draft standards a "wonderful" blueprint for science education. Wolf said the evolution debate holds little interest to most scientists, who accept it as fact. That's why the issue did not become controversial during the standards-writing meetings, he said.

"It's a P.R. issue," he said. "And it's a religious issue. In the scientific community, it's not an issue."

There was at least one data point in favor of the Salem Hypothesis, however:

Fred Cutting, a retired engineer who served on the standards committee, wanted the new document to reflect that latter view and to let students know that scientists do not yet have all the answers.

"If you want students to understand the theory, they have to understand the pros and cons," he said, adding that the draft presented too "cut-and-dried" a view of evolution.

Although Mr. Cutting apparently failed to slow down or reverse the push for good education, the standards are hardly home free yet:

The public has 60 days to comment on the changes. Then they go to the State Board of Education as early as January for approval.

There will doubtless be much comment such as the following ignorant babble:

Orange County-based television evangelist John Butler Book took a harder line, saying he would support that standard only if creationism also were taught.

"Evolution is an educated guess," Book said. "It cannot be demonstrated. That we came from an ape is absolutely ridiculous."

What is ridiculous is the ape spouting that nonsense.

Update: Pete Dunkelberg has more on Florida's draft standards and Mr. Cutting at the Panda's Thumb.


Darwinian Theology

Neal C. Gillespie, who was Professor of History at Georgia State University, wrote an interesting book (unfortunately no longer in print) entitled Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation, that sought to answer the question of why Darwin spent so much effort in the Origin of Species attacking the notion of the special creation of species. As Gillespie puts it:

I am concerned, then, with might be called the existential dimension of Darwin's work: his attitude toward human knowledge and its possibilities, towards religious faith and its place in human experience.
Darwin's seeming preoccupation with creationism has been grist for more than one author's mill, with varying degrees of polemic success. Gillespie seeks to explain Darwin's theological forays as part of the delivery pains of a new "naturalistic" biology. As a result, he rejects attempts to downplay Darwin's theological language as merely poetical touches or rhetorical flourishes or part of an elaborate strawman.

Gillespie borrows a term from Michael Foucault and speaks of an episteme. In a broad sense Foucault's "episteme" is a historical communal presupposition about knowledge and its nature and limits. It is not unlike Thomas Kuhn's paradigm. However, Gillespie rejects what he calls Foucault's "extravagances" (Gillespie calls his usage an "illegitimate offspring" of Foucault's) and does not adopt Kuhn's model of scientific change. For one thing, Gillespie does not accept what he takes to be Foucault's insistence on a single episteme at any one time or Kuhn's notion of sequential, nearly instantaneous, "conversions" from one paradigm to another.

In the end, Gillespie means "episteme" as a kind of a collective social set of assumptions that all scientists, including Darwin, either worked under or at least had to address. The episteme that existed before the Origin was published, that Gillespie, perhaps unfortunately, labels "creationism," necessarily had to change if it was to be accepted. However, "positivism," the resultant episteme, was not so "incommensurant" (in Kuhn's terminology) with creationism that the change from one to the other was necessarily complete or immediate in any individual.

The nature of the episteme Darwin faced, including the changes it were already undergoing, and Darwin's method of dealing with it is the subject of Gillespie's book, about which I intend a number of posts.

However, one point Gillespie makes is important not only to understanding his project but is of particular import against those polemicists who would try to label Darwin's work as a "mere" cultural or theological movement, thus "lowering" Darwin's science to the level of religion or "raising" religion to the level of science or both. Gillespie rightly decries any attempt to identify the historic nature of science -- i.e., the understanding of science as a historical and cultural product -- with "a radical subjectivity of judgment so that scientific opinion is dissolved into a relativity of time and place."

Surely this is to confuse two very different things. To say that scientific judgments are not objective -- by this I mean cannot be objective, for no one denies that scientists any more than historians may be influenced by outside factors -- but rather follow the desires and assumptions of scientists is to imply that the processes of objectivity (evidence, tests and experiments, logic, and so forth) have nothing to do with shaping those desires and assumptions. On the contrary, it would seem that these things are closely interrelated and that interrelation may best be seen on the workaday level of science ... [T]o say that the ideas of scientists are subjective or ideological because of their being influenced by a given social matrix, and to conclude, therefore, that they are not true -- presumably because they do not result from some quest of pure reason untouched by the world -- is surely a gross instance of the genetic fallacy. The source of an idea is irrelevant, in the strict logical sense, to its success in a scientific system or in any other. The procedures of proof in any knowledge system are logically independent of the circumstances of the origin of the ideas involved. We need to know such things in order to fully understand science as a historical and social entity, but such knowledge, while it may caution one about scientific theories, cannot determine their truth.



Men Screwing Up ... er ... Working

Okay, a number of people (two, actually, but probably constituting a majority of my readers) have commented that something has screwed up reading this blog through a newsreader.

I've tried to fix it ... which almost guarantees that it will now be worse.

If by some miracle, my bumbling has made things better, please let me know.

If not, please send out a Saint Bernard with a nice Armagnac.

Not that I'm lost or anything, I'm just low on Prozac.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Political Services

A panel discussion with Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and Amy Caiazza, study director for democracy and society programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington came to some possibly surprising conclusions.

The panelists were critical of a number of recent political developments and not among the usual suspects:

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama recently said "God's spirit is traveling with us and he wants us to do the right thing" and asked a religious congregation to "pray that I can be an instrument of God."

During a Democratic debate, the candidates were asked to name their favorite Bible verse and Eck found it disturbing that not one candidate said the question had no place in a debate about the leadership of the country for the next four years.

Of course, there is a reason for this seemingly unseemly religiosity among Democrats.

The latest poll on religion and politics by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that nearly seven in 10 Americans think it is important for a president to have strong religious beliefs and 58 percent think it is proper for journalists to ask candidates about their religious beliefs.

Although Republicans, Southerners and evangelical Christians were more likely to agree that a president's religious beliefs are important, the numbers were fairly consistent across religious, regional and other lines. The only group in which a majority disagreed about its importance was those without any religious affiliation.
On the other hand, the two candidates considered the front-runners for their respective parties' nomination -- Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton -- were, nonetheless, judged the least religious in the Pew Forum poll.

Rev. Gaddy hearkened back to John F. Kennedy's response on the question of candidates and faith in 1960.

In that talk, Kennedy said communism, poverty, education and the space race were far more critical election issues but had been obscured by debate about his Catholicism.

He described his belief "in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote."
Ms. Eck correctly noted that the candidates "are not running to be president of all Christians, but to be president of all Americans." But Rev. Gaddy had the best line:

We're electing a commander in chief, not a pastor in chief.

Praise be!

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Prostitution in Washington

Senator David Vitter (R-LA), second only to Larry Craig as a Republican symbol of "family values," has dropped his attempt to appropriate $100,000 of federal taxpayer money for the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) "to develop a plan to promote better science education."
The "science" in that supposed "science education" is of the distinctly dubious sort, given that the LFF's stated mission is to "persuasively present biblical principles in centers of influence."

The ACLU issued a statement that it "is relieved that Senator Vitter came to his senses and withdrew this misguided proposal."

The second proposition is easily demonstrable but I'd like to see some empiric evidence of the first.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Recruits in What War?

Well, well ...

It seems we are returning to the good old days of student protests ... with a bit of a twist:

During the week of October 22-26, 2007, the nation will be rocked by the biggest conservative campus protest ever – Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a wake-up call for Americans on 200 university and college campuses.

The purpose of this protest is as simple as it is crucial: to confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat. Nothing could be more politically incorrect than to point this out. But nothing could be more important for American students to hear. In the face of the greatest danger Americans have ever confronted, the academic left has mobilized to create sympathy for the enemy and to fight anyone who rallies Americans to defend themselves. According to the academic left, anyone who links Islamic radicalism to the war on terror is an "Islamophobe." According to the academic left, the Islamo-fascists hate us not because we are tolerant and free, but because we are "oppressors."

Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week is a national effort to oppose these lies and to rally American students to defend their country.

Now, don't get me wrong ... engagement is a good thing. But if you really think George Bush is right about the war on terror, aren't there places more in need of defense than college campuses inside the U.S.A.? You know ... places like Iraq or Afghanistan?

Places like the one these 12 mid-level Army officers risked their lives, not just their Grade Point Averages, to defend. They have seen first hand that our military is too undermanned to fight the Iraq war. That is a problem the young men and women attending "the biggest conservative campus protest ever" could go a long way toward solving by quitting college and enlisting in the Army and Marines and putting their lives on the line for "the same autocratic sheiks that ruled under Saddam" in "one of the most corrupt countries in the world," where there is rampant "exploitation of U.S. tax dollars by Iraqi officials and military officers."

Those 12 people are soldiers, not sunshine patriots who merely talk a good game, and they know the only prescription for this war:

To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

That is, we need a draft as long as there aren't enough recruits. So, young ladies and gentleman ... there's your mouth and there's the money ...


Hellfire and Boiling Marinara Sauce

Heathens are at work at Michigan Tech:

Two individuals are currently undergoing disciplinary procedures through the Dean of Students Office after an investigation by MTU Public Safety determined that they posted a threatening message on the door of the President and Vice President of a recently-formed student organization called the Pastafarian Club.
It seems that the infidels even abused Wikipedia to commit their heresy:

The remarks were first published on a Wikipedia article on 12:32 a.m. on Oct. 1, and a minor correction was made to the page one minute later. The two individuals then printed the page, highlighted the remarks in question and posted the printed page on the residence hall room door of the President and Vice President of the club (who are roommates).

The remarks read, in part, "it has been proven that throughout all of history every pastafarian has been gay." They go on to say, "many believe they should be shot and hanged from the tallest redwood and then thrown to the raging sea." The rest of the message contains several other sexual-orientation slurs and an obscenity.
According to the vice president of the Pastafarian Club, Steven Wheeler:

You need to be tolerant of people's beliefs and their ways of life.
Matt Halberstad, the president of the Pastafarianism Club, added:

We, as Pastafarians, are definitely about free speech, but there was definitely a line crossed.
Indeed! These miscreants will doubtless find out just what that line is when they come face-to-face with their FSM. For he is a jealous ... if tasty ... God.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Seeing Stars

Rick Larson, described as a Texas lawyer and professor, is humping a DVD called "The Star of Bethlehem," that supposedly proves the existence of the Star and reveals its identity. Larson claims to have "treated the Star as a mystery or puzzle, looking at the Bible and comparing the facts of Scripture with facts from science and history." According to the press release:

Larson's quest for answers began from a simple effort to produce an accurate, visual portrayal of the Star in his yard for Christmas. This sent him into a whirl of questions that many people ask each time the Christmas story is told. What did this Star look like? Where did it come from? How did it lead the wise men directly to "this" Child?
Well, there is no telling what can lead to a fruitful ... um ... scientific research program ...

"God began leading me on a journey and unveiling answers to me beyond my own understanding," Larson said. "That God would ask someone not trained in astronomy to do this still amazes me."
I can certainly second that.

Using astronomer Johannes Kepler's map of the solar system, Josephus's calendaring system and Imaginova's state-of-the-art Starry Night® software, Larson pinpointed the year of the Star's appearance. While most astronomers researching the Star only look to the sky, Larson took his findings a step further by utilizing a critical piece in the puzzle – the Scriptures from the Book of Matthew.

Larson's in-depth study of Matthew led him to nine distinguishing characteristics of the Star that helped explain its existence. These features of the Star included that it signified birth; signified kingship; had a connection with the Jewish nation; rose in the East; appeared at a precise time; was unbeknownst to Herod; endured over time; was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; and stopped directly over the city of Bethlehem.
I'm not quite sure how this thing can have a connection with the Jewish nation but still be unbeknownst to Herod ... but okay. So what was this star?

The Biblical characteristics pointed to the Star being a natural occurrence. Larson's study of wandering stars, or planets, and slow retrograde motion, created a breaking point in his research. Larson discovered that in 3 and 2 B.C., Jupiter, known for ages as the "King Planet," held the nine characteristics of the Star.
Ummm ... a Romanized Jew, such as Herod, would have known of the planet Jupiter, named by the Romans for their chief God and, as this site from the University of Leicester points out, planets would have been distinguished from stars at the time, especially by the supposedly astronomically sophisticated Magi.

But, hey! Other than that, it is a perfect ... um ... theory.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Circling the Drain

I've never paid much attention to Dinesh D'Souza before, which was one of those blessings you don't even know you have until you lose it. The man is so ... inane ... he makes my teeth itch.

D'Souza's latest hobbyhorse is that "atheist educators" are out to destroy religion. His proof consists of quoting some prominent atheists, many (but not all) of whom are educators but who, nonetheless, represent a tiny fraction of all educators. Thus, D'Souza rides in solely on the logical fallacy of a hasty generalization.

But the really loony argument he perpetrates goes as follows:

In recent years some parents and school boards have asked that public schools teach alternatives to Darwinian evolution. These efforts sparked a powerful outcry from the scientific and non-believing community. Defenders of evolution accuse parents and school boards of retarding the acquisition of scientific knowledge in the name of religion. The Economist editorialized that "Darwinism has enemies mostly because it is not compatible with a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis."

This is indeed so, but doesn't Darwinism have friends and supporters mostly for the same reason? Consider the alternative: the Darwinists are merely standing up for science. But surveys show that the vast majority of young people in America today are scientifically illiterate, widely ignorant of all aspects of science. How many high school graduates could tell you the meaning of Einstein's famous equation? Lots of young people don't have a clue about photosynthesis or Boyle's Law. So why isn't there a political movement to fight for the teaching of photosynthesis? Why isn't the ACLU filing lawsuits on behalf of Boyle's Law?

The answer is clear. For the defenders of Darwinism, no less than for its critics, religion is the issue. Just as some people oppose the theory of evolution because they believe it to be anti-religious, many others support it for the very same reason. This is why we have Darwinism but not Kepplerism; we encounter Darwinists but no one describes himself as an Einsteinian. Darwinism has become an ideology.
It is hard to believe that D'Souza is really that stupid ... which would suggest an attempt to take advantage of people who are.

There are, of course, numerous organizations made up of individuals who want to improve science education generally, such as the National Association of Biology Teachers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association and many others. If our children suck at science it is not because there are a lack of educators trying. But it may well be due to idiots who go around trying to convince children that science is just ideology and not important to their lives.

Why aren't there specific defenders of photosynthesis, Boyle's Law, E= mc2 and Keppler? Because, last time I looked, there are no well funded anti-science organizations trying to take those subjects out of schools or water them down into homeopathic versions of science. But if those same anti-science types decided that elliptical orbits were against the content of some supposedly sacred text, they would be disingenuously calling astronomers "Kepplerists," just as they do evolutionary biologists "Darwinists," and people who care about science education would have to organize to defend astrophysics as well.

So D'Souza's premise boils down to: if people try to defend evolution from religious attack, that shows that evolution is ideological and his evidence for the proposition is that when science is not under religious attack it doesn't get defended from religion.

Running in such tight circles can result in disappearing up one's own ass ... in D'Souza's case, a consummation devoutly to be wished.


Northern Brights

The Swedes are cold toward creationism:

The Swedish government is to crack down on the role religion plays in independent faith schools. The new rules will include a ban on biology teachers teaching creationism or 'intelligent design' alongside evolution.

"Pupils must be protected from all forms of fundamentalism," said Education Minister Jan Björklund to Dagens Nyheter.

Some Christian schools teach biology students that the world and the organisms on it were created by a supreme being. This is often presented as another valid scientific theory alongside evolution - something most scientists reject.

Religious Education will remain on the curriculum and it will still be allowed to start the school day with prayers. But in classes teachers will be expected to stick to the curriculum.
And they are serious about it:

Most independent schools in Sweden are privately owned but funded by government grants.

Björklund also said the Swedish National Agency for Education would double the number of inspections of both council-run and independent schools. He also announced a ban on anonymous financial donations to schools and said he would make it easier to close schools that were breaking the rules.
On the other hand, the Icelanders, possibly due to those volcanic springs, run hot and cold:

Instructors in the faculty of biology at the University of Iceland have expressed their disappointment that an Icelandic MP voted against a resolution at the Council of Europe’s Assembly against the so-called theory of intelligent design.

The resolution, which was passed at the Assembly of the Council of Europe in the beginning of October, warned against promoting intelligent design in schools as a scientific theory. Gudfinna S. Bjarnadóttir, MP for the Independence Party and former Rector of Reykjavík University, voted against the resolution. Interviewed by national radio RÚV, Bjarnadóttir said that while she agreed that religion and science should not be confused, it was outside the mandate of the Council of Europe to form educational policy.

According to RÚV, a faculty meeting of the biology department of the University of Iceland has expressed its regret over Bjarnadóttir’s decision. The theory of intelligent design lacks scientific ground since it cannot be empirically proven.
Hey! Maybe we could sponsor a debate in the U.S.! If nothing else, think of the poor emcee introducing the match of Björklund versus Bjarnadóttir!

Sunday, October 14, 2007



The Skeptic's Circle comes out every other Thursday. I own a calendar.
Therefore, it is a conundrum how I inexplicably failed to note that the 71st Meeting is up and running at Infophilia.
Mystifyingly, this time around the Circle is being presented as a series of puzzles.

This attempt at discombobulation may seem befuddling, but the mystery can be deciphered given the nature of the subject matter ... the enigma of the propensity of humans to muddle and jumble the facts of the world into a perplexing riddle.

No matter how you go about solving it, it's a poser.


Cant From the Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, is fighting back against the "New Atheists." Singling out Richard Dawkins, Dr. Williams said:

There are specific areas of mismatch between what Richard Dawkins may write about and what religious people think they are doing. There are few things more annoying than people saying 'I know what you mean'.

Don't distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or irrational form of explanation.
Acknowledging the role of believers in the controversy, Dr. Williams stated that God had often been reduced "to the kind of target Dawkins and others too easily fire at."

The Archbishop described Dawkins as a "wonderfully lively and attractive writer." But Williams gets in his own effective licks (while admitting to being "mischievous"):

Our culture is one that deeply praises science, so we assume because someone is a good scientist, they must be a good philosopher. My inner jury is out on that.
You don't have to be a theist to appreciate that.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The Springs of Hope

This mystery guest won't be one for long if you Google the quoted selection, so here are some clues beforehand that might interest you in him beyond his name.

At the age of twenty-five this gentleman was accidentally blinded by his father while the two men were out hunting, when an errant aim caused two small shot to strike him, and, in a strange chance, one entered each eye. Despite this, he became a professor at Cambridge University, a member of Parliament and, eventually, Postmaster General.

As a friend of John Stuart Mill, this guest was the person who passed on Mill's seeming approval of Darwin's method as "in the most exact accordance with the strict principles of logic." This news came at perhaps Darwin's emotional low point, as negative reactions to the Origin kept coming in, including that of another great philosopher of science, John Herschel, who called Darwin's work "the law of higgeldy-piggeldy." Darwin sighed that "I began to think that perhaps I did not understand at all how to reason scientifically." As David L. Hull, in his book, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin's Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community, points out, the satisfaction Darwin took from Mill's reported remark might have been misplaced:

On closer examination, however, Mill's endorsement can be seen to be not nearly reassuring. Darwin had properly used the Method of Hypothesis, but this method belonged to the logic of discovery, not proof. In spite of twenty years' labor, Darwin had failed to provide proof for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin himself was infected with the distrust of hypothesis common in the philosophy of science of his day, considering "a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil." But, ultimately, Darwin knew it couldn't be done without:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
But on to the guest, who, common enough for his day -- so unlike our own -- saw no conflict between science and theology:

... [T]he statement that a new species has appeared is tantamount to the assertion that a living form has been introduced upon the earth which cannot have been generated from anything previously living. It therefore becomes necessary to suppose that the same effort of Creative Will, which originally placed life upon this planet, is repeated at the introduction of every new species; and thus a new species has to be regarded as the offspring of a miraculous birth. We are as powerless to explain by physical causes this miracle as we are any other. To hope for an explanation would be as vain as for the human mind to expect to discover by philosophy the agency by which Joshua made the sun and moon stand still. ... Those, therefore, who attempt to render unnecessary the belief in these continuously-repeated creative fiats, seek to explain hitherto unexplained phenomena of the highest order of interest and importance in natural history. Whenever this explanation shall have been given, a similar service will have been done to this science, as was performed by Newton for astronomy, when he enunciated his law of gravitation. Newton's discovery is now found in numerous religious works as a favourite illustration of the wisdom of the Creator; and it is now considered that a hymn of praise is sung to God when we expound the simplicity of the Newtonian laws. The day will doubtless come when he who shall unfold, in all their full simplicity, the laws which regulate the organic world, will be held, as Newton is now, in grateful remembrance for the service he has done not only to science, but also to religion.


Friday, October 12, 2007


Blatant Truthiness

John (formally "John Angus") Campbell continues to live down to creationist standards of honesty. Campbell is a candidate for a school board seat in semirural North Mason County along the Hood Canal in Washington state. Despite being a longtime fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and co-author with Stephen Meyer, director of the Center, of the book Darwinism, Design and Public Education, that experience somehow slipped his mind when it came time to seek a seat on the local public board of education:

Campbell said his resume runs 18 pages. In editing it down to a campaign biography, he said, he simply did not have room for all of his academic honors and affiliations.

In a reply to the Seattle Weekly, which reported in August that Campbell is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, Campbell said, "I am not an advocate of intelligent design, but instead a Darwinian scholar who believes in classical liberal education. I have found that students learn best when teachers have the freedom to expose them to competing ideas and arguments even in science."
You have to give him credit, as a retired communications professor, for having learned the technique of the Big Lie so spectacularly well!


Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts, No Thoughts

Theology professor William Dinges of the Catholic University of America:

[Intelligent design is] a backdoor antievolution initiative, an attempt to turn science on itself and, paradoxically, reject its hegemonic influence. It's an affirmation of the efficacy of biblical literalism, an attempt to make Genesis scientifically respectable, the latest twist in the (pseudo)saga of 'science vs. religion.'
Jerald McClenahan, a science instructor at Berean Academy -- a nondenominational Christian school in Elbing, Kansas, when asked if there were dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden:

Oh, yes! Everyone loves the dinosaurs, don't they? How do I know? Because the Scriptures talked about the deluge of Noah, and before that the dinosaurs were around. They must have died off or drowned. That makes them antediluvian -- before the flood.
An anonymous cab driver from Wichita, Kansas:

As the Bible says, 'Every man beith a liar, and only the word of God is true.' Everyone knows science only confirms God's great creations. Even Darwin repented before he died.. Well, that's what I hear . . . not sure if it's true or not. You might want to look that one up.
As quoted in the Discover article "Creationism battles for the hearts and minds of America's teachers" by Liza Lentini, which is fascinating, if frightening and depressing, reading.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


To the Walls!

First we had Dinesh D'Souza humping his new book as an antidote to the "New Atheists" and now David Kupelian, whose main claim to fame is that he is vice president and managing editor of WingNutDaily, is regaling us, in said electronic rag, with an extended commercial for his earlier book, The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised As Freedom.

Kupelian acknowledges the success of the New Atheists in grabbing public attention, even getting Americans "infatuated" with atheism, despite ... sigh ... America's supposed status as a "Christian nation." This infatuation is, in Kupelian's mind, shown by the fact that 45 percent of us would (gasp) be willing to vote for an atheist for president! Kupelian then pronounces on the cause of this falling away from the faith -- it's Mohammed's fault!

What is responsible for this blooming of atheism in America today?

Dennis Prager, the brilliant Jewish radio talker and columnist, ferrets out some key reasons.

"First and most significant," he points out, "is the amount of evil coming from within Islam." ...
[T]he pathological fanaticism and hair-trigger violence exhibited by brainwashed jihadists around the world today are easily associated by atheists with all religions, especially when they call to mind abuses committed in past centuries – say, the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials – in the name of Christianity.
Oh, right!

Nobody could possibly be sick of the fanatical attempts by some to force their beliefs down everyone else's throat with the aid of our own tax money. And the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on top of our own losses, the millions more displaced due to the ethnic cleansing that has been tacitly condoned, the wasted treasury while many children in the richest country in the world can't get medical insurance –- all of which was supposedly blessed by George Bush's "higher father" -– wouldn't have anything to do with it!

To his credit ... if not greatly ... Kupelian does recognize that often Christian preachers, fund-raisers and their sidekicks bear "eerie, almost surreal" resemblance to the people portrayed mockingly in the film 2004 film "Saved," that mercilessly skewered evangelical Christianity. It goes down hill from there, however.

Kupelian quotes Stephen Prothero's bon mot (quite possibly deserved) that Christopher Hitchens, who claims that some of his best friends are believers:

... doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer.
But Kupelian forfeits any right to criticize Hitchens because he turns right around and sneeringly feigns knowledge of scientists by claiming:

... evolution is a religion, full of incredible and unproven beliefs about man's origin, and by logical extension his destiny, and even his very nature. Any theory/philosophy – especially an unprovable one – having to do with explaining the origin, destiny and nature of man is, by definition, religious. If you don't get that, you're not thinking.
Normally, I'd bow to Kupelian's obvious expertise in not thinking but this time he not only doesn't get it, he is not within range enough of a clue to hit one with an ICBM.

He ridicules the rejection of Intelligent Design because "there are overwhelming academic and professional pressures to embrace evolution" within the current science establishment. Even if that was true (and it isn't ... if anyone had evidence against it on their side), it hardly constitutes support for ID, except by way of a false dichotomy. Kupelian's next attempt at bolstering ID is to trot out another logical fallacy of appeal to authority, claiming "history's greatest scientists, from Galileo to Newton" believed in it. Science always stops in the past with these people. Next, Kupelian drags out the ultimate argument ... the neutron bomb in his arsenal ... his personal incredulity and fear:

I conducted a little thought experiment a while back, while looking out over the Pacific from the Oregon coast. Drinking in the vast expanse of the ocean, the pounding surf, the seagulls, the salt air – ultimate serenity and ultimate power all in one timeless moment – I asked myself: How can one experience all this magnificence without believing in a Creator?

So I tried, just as an experiment mind you, to conceptualize the existence of the fantastic creation I was beholding, yet without a Creator. I consciously tried to adopt an atheistic worldview, even for just a minute, to see what it was like.

What I got was a headache, a psychic shock, a momentary taste of another realm – an empty, prideful, appalling dimension of hell-on-earth, masquerading as enlightenment and freedom.
Who could possibly stand in the face of that argument? ... when rolling on the floor laughing is so much easier?

The rest (and it does go on) includes a lengthy anecdote about C.W. Lewis' angst at the death of his wife and the doubts in providence it caused him. It is a nice tale but hardly relevant to the issue of belief vs. disbelief. So Lewis worked through great pain ... so did Darwin's bulldog, T. H. Huxley, who, wracked with grief at the death of his four-year-old son, nonetheless refused Charles Kingsley's proffered hope of a reunion in the hereafter. So did Darwin himself, after the death of his beloved daughter Annie, the event that probably killed the last of his faith. In fact, this is a story told by our entire species over its entire history. Little, if anything, points to faith being more than one of the answers, out of many, that humans have turned to in times of grief.

Scary enough is Kupelian's call for a Christian jihad by America:

[G]enuine belief in God – the God Who inspired the Holy Bible and sustained America's soldiers throughout all the righteous wars we have fought for freedom, not just for ourselves but for others too – is what has given strength and muscle and sinew to America up until now. And without genuine faith in God, we will never be able to defeat the Islamists in the coming battle.
But a true sense of this screed, a moment of clarity that defines it all, comes when Kupelian quotes Prager to the effect that it is difficult to distinguish between "a liberal Christian or Jew and a liberal secularist," because all three not only accept legal abortion and gay marriage but lastly, and presumably worst of all, "come close to holding pacifist beliefs ..."

Next thing you know, those people will be telling everybody to turn the other cheek.

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