Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Small in the Saddle

More than 800 scientists from Texas universities have formed the 21st Century Science Coalition to fight either the teaching of creationism in public schools or the watering down of evolutionary instruction.

"Texas public schools should be preparing our kids to succeed in the 21st century, not promoting political and ideological agendas that are hostile to a sound science education," said David Hillis, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin.
State Board of Education chairman and creationist Don McLeroy denies he is trying to force religion and the supernatural into Texas schools:

"I'm getting sick and tired or people saying we're interjecting religion," he said. "We're certainly not interjecting religion. Not at all."
I suppose having one's disingenuous strategy constantly exposed can get annoying.

McLeroy says he supports restoring the "strengths and weaknesses" language and said working groups left some form of that language in the proposed standards for chemistry and astronomy. He also said he supports the "testable explanations" approach advocated by the National Academy of Sciences.

"Texas students need to understand what science is and what its limitation are ...
But then he goes and spoils the intended effect:

"I look at evolution as still a hypothesis with weaknesses."
Only a person with a religious or ideological agenda would think that a dentist with no appreciable biological training would be in a better position than experts in the field to pronounce evolution to be merely a "hypothesis" ... and with weaknesses to boot.

Monday, September 29, 2008


English Gets a New Word

funderburk (fun·dur'·burc) v. -burked, -burking, -burks. To endorse insane or wildly dishonest material while holding a position of public trust, particularly political office, and then lying transparently about it.

FORT MILL, S.C. -- Fort Mill Mayor Danny Funderburk says he was "just curious" when he forwarded a chain e-mail suggesting Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama is the biblical antichrist. "I was just curious if there was any validity to it," Funderburk said in a telephone interview. "I was trying to get documentation if there was any scripture to back it up."
'Nuff said.

Via Pharyngula


Which Trials?

This story has been kicking around awhile. The Brunswick County, North Carolina, school board wants to teach creationism in its public schools. The state's Department of Public Instruction has been pretty clear that they can't. Edd Dunlap, science section chief for the department stated that neither creationism nor Intelligent Design may be taught as a required course of study. The department has expanded on that now:

The state school system says that, although creationism cannot be taught in science class or as a standard course of study, it can be taught as part of an elective. It can also be included in history class, as long as it's presented as a cultural perspective along with all other religions and not promoted over any religions or secularism, said Tracey Greggs, social studies chief with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

"Because our society is so pluralistic, it would not be beneficial to teach one religion over another," Greggs said.

Any attempt to craft some elective course that includes creationism might not be all that successful. The high school already offers a Bible as Literature elective but it's not being taught this year because no students signed up for it.

Just to get an idea of the level the "debate" involved, one of the parents who initiated this flap, Joel Fanti, recently had this to say:

It just amazes me some of those responses, how venomous they have been. I don't even know what their definition of religion is. I can argue their views on evolution are a religion, too, because it can't be proven.

So, anything that can't be "proven" (to Joel Fanti's satisfaction) is automatically a "religion"? The mind boggles at the breadth of religion some people see in the world. But we have evidence of where Fanti's attitude comes from: Fanti's pastor, the Rev. Brad Ferguson, had this to say:

There is some scientific evidence supporting creationism. Kids should be presented both sides. … You can't isolate disciplines. Science and faith – they go together.

Except for the fact that they treat completely different subjects, of course.

But here's the funny/sad part:

After reading e-mails by people disgruntled about the idea of teaching creationism, hearing about the state's point of view and consulting with attorney Kathleen Tanner, [school board Chairwoman Shirley] Babson said she thinks the board will not try to go against the law to teach creationism, although she would like to see it in the classroom one day.

Fanti said he learned about the court cases after addressing the board and now thinks the idea of teaching creationism as part of the curriculum will be crushed. But he plans to ask the school board to encourage "evolutionists" in the schools to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of their theory.

"Instead of making it a religious issue, let's make it a scientific issue," said Fanti, who identifies himself as a chemical engineer.

Another data point for the Salem Hypothesis and another data point for the observation that loudly-proclaimed religion is no guarantee of honesty or respect for the law of the land.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Purpose and Science

This is just one of my musings about philosophy that is, doubtless, more interesting to me than to others ... but it's my blog! Feel free to spare your glazed-overed eyes.

There is a common argument for atheism that runs like this:

If purpose was part of the universe then there's no reason at all why science couldn't have detected it. It follows that, if there was purpose to the universe, then we would have scientific evidence of purpose. The facile nonsense of Intelligent Design Creationism notwithstanding, we don't have scientific evidence for purpose, therefore [it is reasonable to conclude that] there is no purpose to the universe [and, therefore, that there is no God].

The parts of the above in brackets are intended to indicate that this argument is stated with varying degrees of certainty and toward various conclusions.

Now, I'm an Apathetic Agnostic ("We don't know and we don't care") . Among the "tenets" of apathetic agnosticism (if we cared enough to actually hold to something as tiring as a tenet) is:

To all appearances, any purported Supreme Being is indifferent to our Universe and to its inhabitants. If there is a God, and that God does not appear to care, then there is no reason to concern ourselves with whether or not a Supreme Being exists.

In short, I agree with the claim that there is no apparent purpose to the universe but I disagree with the atheistic conclusion from that appearance. Okay, you may be asking yourself, but why bring it up? Well it turns out that I, at least, have a purpose and that is to discuss a point made by Elliott Sober, one of the best philosophers of science at work today, in his excellent but difficult (for me, at least) book, Evidence and Evolution: The Logic Behind the Science.

The atheist argument above actually takes the form of what Sober calls a "probabilistic modus tollens." The standard modus tollens is a rule of deductive reasoning as follows:

If H, then O
not O
not H

... which reads: if the hypothesis H entails the observation O, and O turns out to be false, then it follows that H is false. The sticking point is that "entails." In order for the above syllogism to be valid, it must be certain that, if H is true, you will make the observation O.

But science does not work like that. Science is fallibilistic and incomplete. That is the basis of the common saying "the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Otherwise, it would follow, for example, that the universe was not expanding until Edwin Hubble made his observations of stellar redshifts, since, until then, there was an absence of evidence for expansion.

This aspect of science means that the very best that the atheistic argument can state is:

Pr(O \ H) is very high
not O
not H

... which reads: if the hypothesis H says that O will very probably be true, and the scientific observation, O, is not made, then H is false [or, at least, very improbable and, therefore, should be rejected]. Sober explains the problem:

Friends of [probabilistic modus tollens] need to say where the probability cutoff for rejection is located. How low must Pr(O H) be for O to justify rejecting H? Richard Dawkins [The Blind Watchmaker, p. 144-46] addresses this question in the context of discussing how theories of the origin of life should be evaluated. He says that an acceptable theory can say that the origin of life on Earth was somewhat improbable, but it cannot go too far. If there are n planets in the universe that are "suitable" locales for life to originate, then an acceptable theory of the origin of life on Earth must say that that event had a probability of at least 1/n. Theories that say that terrestrial life was less probable than this should be rejected. Creationists also have set cutoffs. For example, Henry Morris [King of Creation] says that theories that assign to an event a probability less than 1/10111 should be rejected, and William Dembski [The Design Revolution] says that a theory that assigns to a "specified event" (a technical term in Dembski's framework) a probability less than 1/10150 should be rejected. Morris and Dembski obtain these numbers by attempting to calculate how many times elementary particles could have changed state since the universe began.

Dawkins, Dembski, and Morris have all made the same mistake. It isn't that they have glommed on to the wrong cutoff. The problem is deeper: There is no such cutoff. Probabilistic modus tollens is an incorrect form of inference. Lots of perfectly reasonable hypotheses say that the observations are very improbable.

What is more, it does not follow that the failure to observe O can even be considered as evidence against H. Converting the probabilistic modus tollens to an "evidential probabilistic modus tollens," the argument now takes the form:

Pr(O \ H) is very high
not O
not O is evidence against H

... which reads: if the hypothesis H says that O will very probably be true, and the scientific observation, O, is not made, then that failure is evidence against H. But consider the counterexample Sober gives:

Suppose I send my valet to bring me one of my urns. I want to test the hypothesis (H) that the urn he returns with contains 0.2 percent white balls. I draw a ball from the urn and find that it is white. Is this evidence against H? It may not be. Suppose I have only two urns; one of them contains 0.2 percent white balls, while the other contains 0.01 percent white balls. In this instance, drawing a white ball is evidence in favor of H, not evidence against it.

In short, in order to make a claim about the evidential value of the failure to make an observation, you need to do more than test the hypothesis against its negation.

[J]udgments about evidential meaning are essentially contrastive. To decide whether an observation is evidence against H, you need to know what the alternative hypotheses are; to test a hypothesis requires testing it against alternatives. In the story about the valet, observing a white ball is very improbable according to H, but in fact that outcome is evidence in favor of H, not evidence against it. This is because O is even more improbable according to the alternative hypothesis.

Simply saying that you are testing a "purposeful" universe against a "purposeless" one doesn't help because you merely run up against the Duhem–Quine thesis, which holds that any test of a hypothesis necessarily entails auxiliary hypotheses that, unless they are also being tested, may affect the outcome -- such as the number of urns involved and the percentage of white balls they hold. In other words, before the absence of scientific evidence of purpose could justify an evidentiary claim, there would have to be a comprehensive account, including all relevant auxiliary hypotheses, of what a purposeful universe would look like. Besides the difficulty, if not impossibility, of constructing such a complete theory of purpose, the very comprehensiveness of the theory would prevent the result from constituting a general refutation of purpose. The evidence of absence would only apply to the now narrow collection of hypotheses and auxiliary hypotheses.

In fact, the atheist argument runs up against the very problem that the IDers face when they claim to demonstrate disembodied "design." Without knowledge of the motives and abilities of the purported "designer" or "purposer," there is no way to differentiate the action (or non-action) of such a being from our state of ignorance.

There is much more that can be said on the subject and Sober exhaustively exposes the philosophical weaknesses of ID, much of which applies as well to this argument for atheism. But it is only fair to ask why, if I think that the argument fails logically and scientifically, do I then accept the lack of apparent purpose in the universe as any basis for agnosticism? For one thing, the question that the lack of evidence bears on is (perhaps subtlety) different. Instead of considering whether there is, in fact, purpose behind the universe, the issue is whether whatever purpose-giver there may be is interested in humans knowing and reacting with that purpose. Given that any being capable of imparting purpose to an entire universe is presumably capable of making its existence and intentions known in unambiguous ways, a tentative conclusion that any such being is uninterested in human participation is, if not logically or scientifically rigorous, at least not unreasonable.

And that leads to my final point. Science is not an appropriate tool to determine matters that are, ultimately, nothing more than personal preferences as to how to approach life. Certainly, science's methods and results can be taken into account by anyone considering those preferences but, in the end, our weltanschauung is made up of a bundle of emotions, attitudes learned in childhood and unconscious value judgments with, at most, only partial imput by reason. Furthermore, science delivers information on what is, not what ought to be. Any assertion that we should determine our values and preferences by scientific rationalism is not, itself, a result of the scientific method, making the claim circular and self-defeating.

When it comes to values, we're on our own.



Gee, Dawkins, What About Santa?

In the course of a review of Stuart A. Kauffman's new book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion, Henry Gee, a senior editor of the journal Nature, presents an amusing answer to scientific reductionists:

In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins boasted that he once told a child that Santa Claus didn't exist. The argument was that Santa couldn't possibly visit all the world's deserving homes in a single night, quite apart from the physical difficulties of flying reindeer, narrow chimney stacks, and so on.

As well as illustrating the intellectual level of Dawkinsian discourse, this anecdote betrays a lack of knowledge of contemporary physics. Santa could do what he does quite handily, you see, if you consider him as a macroscopic quantum object - something that behaves according to the weird world of quantum physics but is large enough to be visible.

In such a guise, Santa could appear in as many places as he wanted to, simultaneously, without having to negotiate chimneys, provided nobody was watching. If he were caught in the act, his wavefunction - the probability that he might be everywhere at once - would collapse and he'd be revealed as your grandpa, after all.

And quantum effects are manifested at the macro scale only in extremely cold conditions, which explains why one routinely addresses one's Christmas list to Lapland or the North Pole, rather than, say, Brazil or Equatorial Guinea.

My Quantum Santa Hypothesis (QSH) works better than Dawkins' classical one because it explains the taboo about watching Santa at work, as well as his traditional location in cold climates - aspects Dawkins fails to tackle. The QSH explains more of the evidence in a single theoretical scheme than his does.

The reaction to the QSH, when it was first advanced in the Guardian on December 14, 2000 was sadly predictable:

Anyone who challenged Dawkins' view on this question was obviously a believer, and therefore not to be trusted.

This simplistic, with-us-or-against-us worldview is as deficient in subtlety as it is in humor. We know what we know because of science, it says. Science explains everything. So anything that falls outside that explanatory system must be false, illusory, even evil.

Gee feels such reasoning is "a dreadful misuse of the scientific method," though he doesn't really expand on that thought beyond discussing the difficulty reductionism has explaining emergent properties in nature. There is the danger that Gee is also setting up his own with-us-or-against-us divide but the recommendation of more humor, humility and respect for the person, if not the ideas, of others can't be bad.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


God and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Martin Nowak, a mathematician and biologist at Harvard, accepts evolutionary explanations of the appearance of altruism in humans and other species.

Yet as a Catholic, he rejects [Richard] Dawkins's notion that believing in evolution precludes belief in a God who included altruism in evolution's bequest to us. Needless to say, he also rejects Dawkins's disdain for believers as scientifically illiterate yahoos. This Vienna-born mathematician says that if you do the math, you'll find that cooperation is more than just a nice leftover from humanity's infancy; it's a winning strategy for living, a way to thrive.

Rather than viewing altruism as an evolutionary hangover from a clan-dominated environment, Nowak views it both as an evolutionary adaptation and a still-winning strategy. But doesn't that make his study, undertaken with Sarah Coakley, formerly of Harvard Divinity School and now at Cambridge University, entitled "The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation," at least half redundant?

Has Nowak unwittingly dispensed with the need for a God by demonstrating that morality and generosity are wise evolutionary adaptations imparted by nature? "I come to the opposite conclusion," he replied. He said he and other scientists try to describe the mechanisms by which creation works, without reference to a creator. "Science a priori excludes any possibility of the interaction between the creation and the creator. . . . You have never, ever actually proven in science that there is no God."

In his view - and he admits that not everyone agrees - the question of whether God exists is forever beyond science's ability to answer. You can never, Nowak believes, come up with deductive proof for God's existence.

Coakley goes further, saying that Christians seeking rational defense for their faith might

... draw strength from considerations about the nature of the universe [and] forms of evolutionary development. . . . These arguments might not persuade a rampant atheist (what would?); but for one at least 'considering' faith, they could have a significant impact.

Nowak is more traditional, appealing to St. Augustine for the proposition that having belief in God is, itself, the result of an act of grace ... raising nasty theological issues if the lack of belief is supposed to have bad post-life consequences. But what may really raise eyebrows is this:

Coakley said the two partners have begun a new project to measure attitudes toward cooperation among both religious people and nonbelievers. Early results, she writes, suggest that the former have more faith, if you will, in the power of cooperation.

I wonder if there is anything more likely to cause friction between believers and nonbelievers than the suggestion that the other group is more cooperative.


If Not Now, When?

The Fifth Carnival of Elitist Bastards has set sail at The Coffee-Stained Writer. And at this time there is one paramount reason for elitism:

By trying to set our towns against our cities, Palin makes the vital mistake of imagining that, despite our differences, we don't need each other, and the equally dangerous mistake of pigeonholing our towns & cities into pre-determined antagonistic roles. If we're stuck in a culture war, it's because people like Palin insist on re-digging our trenches when it's beneficial to their political career. For shame.

Doing the silver lining thingie, I suppose having Palin around makes it so much easier to be an elite.


Friday, September 26, 2008


Garbage In ...

The Discovery Institute's Gofer General, Tour Guide and Custodian of Science Ignorance, Casey Luskin, has delivered himself of another dose of stupidity and/or dishonesty.

He claims that a Yale University news release from earlier this month threatens one of the "icons" of evolution: the notion that "junk DNA" demonstrates, as Michael Shermer put it, that:

Rather than being intelligently designed, the human genome looks more and more like a mosaic of mutations, fragment copies, borrowed sequences, and discarded strings of DNA that were jerry-built over millions of years of evolution.

Quite apart from the fact that Casey's crowing only applies, at most, to those "discarded strings of DNA," leaving the rest of the argument unanswered; ignores the fact that junk DNA is not a prediction of evolutionary theory (especially not the ultra-Darwinist, ultra-adaptionist version the DI keeps inveighing against) and commits the general stupidity of making an argument about science based on a press release, of all things; he is, as is par for his course, just plain wrong about the science. But to make sure the blind pig hadn't stumbled across an acorn of a point, I did what no DI drone would ever think of doing and asked an actual scientist, Larry Moran:

As usual, Casey Luskin illustrates the wisdom of Alexander Pope who said 300 years ago, "A little learning is a dangerous thing..."

Nobody who is up on this subject claims that all "non-coding" DNA is junk. We are well aware of the fact that genes have regulatory regions controlling their expression. We've known that for almost 50 years. Regulatory sequences are not junk DNA as I explain in [Junk in Your Genome: Protein-Encoding Genes]. A generous estimate is that 0.6% of our genome could be regulatory sequences controlling transcription.

Casey Luskin doesn't understand any of this. He thinks that the discovery of a tiny regulatory sequence is an Earth-shattering event. It may be to him, but then any little increase in his learning is a big improvement no matter how much he screws it up.

There is something to be said for someone who maintains perfection ... even if it is being perfectly wrong.

It's just not something that can be said in polite company.

P.S. Abby at ERV also fisks Casey in her inimitable fashion. OMG!

PVM at Panda's Thumb has also deconstructed Casey's nonsense.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Blowin' Up

Since the dust is about to fly in Texas, you might as well know why.

You can find the draft science standards, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (or "TEKS") at the Texas Education Agency's site.

I haven't studied them in any detail but some things stand out. For one thing, there is no mention of evolution by name before high school. Here are some of the relevant parts of the high school standards:

§112.43. Biology

(a) General requirements. Students shall be awarded one credit for successful completion of this course. Prerequisites: none. This course is recommended for students in Grades 9, 10, or 11.

(b) Introduction.

(1) In Biology, students conduct field and laboratory investigations, use scientific methods during investigations, and make informed decisions using critical-thinking and scientific problem solving. Students in Biology study a variety of topics that include: structures and functions of cells and viruses; growth and development of organisms; cells, tissues, and organs; nucleic acids and genetics; biological evolution; taxonomy; metabolism and energy transfers in living organisms; living systems; homeostasis; ecosystems; and plants and the environment.

(2) Science is a way of learning about the natural world. Students should know how science has built a vast body of changing and increasing knowledge described by physical, mathematical, and conceptual models, and also should know that science may not answer all questions.

(3) A system is a collection of cycles, structures, and processes that interact. Students should understand a whole in terms of its components and how these components relate to each other and to the whole. All systems have basic properties that can be described in terms of space, time, energy, and matter. Change and constancy occur in systems and can be observed and measured as patterns. These patterns help to make inferences about past events, predict what will happen next and can change over time.

(4) Investigations are used to learn about the natural world. Students should understand that certain types of questions can be answered by investigations, and that methods, models, and conclusions built from these investigations change as new observations are made. Models of objects and events are tools for understanding the natural world and can show how systems work. They have limitations and based on new discoveries are constantly being modified to more closely reflect the natural world.

(5) Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods. Scientific explanations are open to testing under different conditions, over time, and by independent scientific researchers. Many theories in science are so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter them substantially; however, they are subject to continuing refinement as new areas of science emerge or as new technologies enable observations and experiments that were not possible previously (National Academy of Sciences, 2008, pp. 10-11).

[Similar language appears in the sections on physics, chemistry, Earth and space science, environmental systems, aquatic science and astronomy - JP.]


(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is an explanation for the diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(A) identify how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, physiological, behavioral and developmental;

(B) recognize that natural selection produces change in populations, not individuals;

(C) describe the elements of natural selection including inherited variation, the potential of a population to produce more offspring than can survive, and a finite supply of environmental resources resulting in differential reproductive success;

(D) recognize the significance of natural selection to adaptation, and to the diversity of species; and

(E) analyze the results of other evolutionary mechanisms including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination.
In another religiously touchy area, Earth and Space Science, there is a pretty straightforward statement about the age of the Earth:

Interactions among several forms of energy, cosmic and Earth materials, and living organisms over billions of years formed the planet that humanity depends upon for resources and sustainability of life.
The Earth and Space Science section also touches on evolution:

(8) Earth in space and time. The student knows that fossils provide evidence for geological and biological evolution. Students are expected to:

(A) analyze prominent scientific hypotheses for the origin of life by abiotic chemical processes, such as the transport of organic chemicals to Earth by comets, low-energy clay mineral replication, primitive Earth replication experiments, and the significance of primitive extremophilic archaeans;

(B) evaluate a variety of fossil types, transitional fossils, fossil lineages, and significant fossil deposits with regard to their rate and diversity of evolution;

(C) explain how sedimentation, fossilization, and speciation affect the completeness of the fossil record; and

(D) evaluate the significance of the terminal Permian and Cretaceous mass extinction events, including adaptive radiations of organisms after the events.
I'm no expert on curriculum standards but these seem to be pretty strong in emphasizing evolution ... at least when you consider the state they originated in. Another seeming good feature is that they call for the students to spend at least 40% of instructional time in field and laboratory investigations. If that can be translated into real "hands on" science, it should be more inspiring than mere lectures.

But I'm not making any bets on how much of this makes it into the final product.

Via Curriculum Matters

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


And So It Begins

A six-member committee of teachers, college professors and curriculum experts nominated by the Texas State Board of Education has released its recommendation for new standards for the biology curriculum. The recommendation would eliminate the teaching of ideas "based upon purported forces outside of nature." The proposal would also remove language in the current standards requiring that students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories.

Kevin Fisher, a science coordinator from the Lewisville school district and a member of the committee, said they wanted to ensure that evolution was presented in a "21st century," "unadulterated fashion" and to clarify that a scientific theory is more than just an educated guess.

We actually have more evidence for evolution occurring than we do for the law of gravity. ... Something doesn't become a theory if it's got weaknesses. There may be some questions that may yet to be answered, but nothing that's to the level of a weakness.

It ain't gonna be easy, though. Don McLeroy, the state board chairman, opposes removing the "strengths and weaknesses" language:

I'd argue it doesn't make sense scientifically to take it out. Evolution shouldn't have anything to worry about — if there's no weaknesses, there's no weaknesses. But if there's scientifically testable explanations out there to refute it, shouldn't those be included too?

This is the same person who is on record as believing that there are two systems of science, a creationist system and a "naturalist" system.

The fact that the chairman of the state board of education doesn't understand science and is willing to call a narrowly sectarian religious idea "science" is more than enough reason to fear for science education in the state. And not just in Texas. McLeroy is also on record as saying that he prefers the "strengths and weaknesses" language because it allows the board to reject a textbook that doesn't cover the "weaknesses" of evolution. As the second largest purchaser of school textbooks after California, what Texas demands be included in the books it buys greatly influences what will be available across the nation, since publishers won't want to produce multiple editions.

Mealy mouthed as always, McLeroy will be coming at the issue sideways:

McLeroy said that in addition to leaving the "strengths and weaknesses" language, he would like to include the National Academy of Sciences' definition of science and their discussion of its limitations.

"Even they admit science doesn't have all the answers," he said.

But science has all the scientific answers and why would there be a need to teach nonscientific "answers" in a science class?

It's going to be a tough (and, unfortunately, political) fight. Seven of fifteen board members appear to support, at least to some extent, the teaching of the "weaknesses" of evolution in science classrooms. Six are opposed, and two — Geraldine Miller, R-Dallas, and Rick Agosto, D-San Antonio — are considered swing votes. People in Texas who like being beyond the horse and buggy days will have to get busy.

As is more and more the case these days, the charge of "elitism" and "censorship" has already raised its ugly (and disingenuous) head:

Jonathan Saenz of the conservative Free Market Foundation said it is "outrageous that these educrats have expelled the truth from state standards that have been in place for over 20 years."

"This type of pure censorship in shutting down a debate is the exact opposite of what true science is supposed to be. We strongly disagree with their recommendation."

But "true" science is "elitist," in the sense that not every person's opinion is equal. The person with empirical and testable facts and theories on his or her side wins in science. Of course, science is the opposite of elitism at the same time, since anyone can go out and find those empirical facts and construct those testable theories. Do that and there is no way you can be censored.

What you can't do is just import "facts" and "theories" from bronze age mythologies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Bits and Pieces

A few things from around the intertubes:

Roger Ebert was, in fact, having us on:

Some days ago I posted an article headlined, "Creationism: Your questions answered." It was Q&A that accurately reflected Creationist beliefs. It inspired a firestorm on the web, with hundreds, even thousands of comments on blogs devoted to evolution and science. More than 600 comments on the delightful FARK.com alone. Many of the comments I've seen believe I have converted to Creationism. Others conclude I have lost my mind because of age and illness. There is a widespread conviction that the site was hacked. Lane Brown's blog for New York magazine flatly states I gave "two thumbs down to evolution." On every one of the blogs, there are a few perceptive comments gently suggesting the article might have been satirical. ...

But the purpose of this blog entry is not to discuss politics (a subject banned from the blog). Nor is it to discuss Creationism versus the theory of evolution (that way lurks an endless loop). It is to discuss the gradual decay of our sense of irony and instinct for satire, and our growing credulity.
And speaking of credulity (via The Panda's Thumb), there is William Dembski, among other things, calling James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Dinesh D'Souza and Lee Strobel the "distinguished company" that he'll be sharing the stage with at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics (Remember, folks! ID is all about the science!) and, for the umpteenth time, declaring the demise of evolution:

We've made a good case. What we need now are good legal and political strategies.
It takes massive credulity to think that the central core of ID hasn't been religion and politics all along.

And then there is Adnan Oktar, otherwise known as Harun Yahya, who is many, many things, but credulous is not among them. Here he is on ID:

I find the concept of intelligent design rather dishonest. One should openly stand up for the existence of Allah, should sincerely stand up for religion, for Islam. Or, if one is a Christian, one should honestly stand up for Christianity. This is a theory which claims that things have somehow been created, but it is unknown who created them. I find this rather dishonest, actually. The followers of intelligent design should openly and clearly declare the existence of Allah as the Creator.
I wonder what it feels like to be less honest than Adnan Oktar.

Monday, September 22, 2008


Bring Out the Stakes ... and Beer!

Well, it's come to this at last!

Christians are being asked to donate to a college campus group that will, as one advertising sign put it, "Make atheists read the Bible."

What next? Gangs of Jehovah's Witnesses roaming the streets looking for nuns they can force to recite articles from The Watchtower?

This outrage must be stopped before ... Huh? What?

Oh, it seems that the campus group was the Penn State Atheist and Agnostic Association and its members were reading from religious books, including the Bible, the Quran and, of course, the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, as a way of raising money:

The "Bible-A-Thon" raised about $503, which will go to Doctors Without Borders, an organization that brings medical care to people worldwide.

It was also considered by some members of the organization to be something of a social experiment to see how tolerant people are.

Reactions to the event were mostly positive, [Association President Nat] Jackson said.

"We've only been flipped off like twice," he said.

Others of the faithful were friendlier. Kate Hillenbrand, who said that she found the atheists "cool," despite believing in God herself, went on to say:

"I'm really glad they're doing this," she said, adding, "In America, who stands up for themselves anymore?"

Hillenbrand said she is interested in all kinds of philosophies and beliefs and thinks Penn State students should spend more time pondering those ideas.

"At this school, people care about drinking and football. What ... is that going to accomplish?" she said.

Hangovers, if I remember correctly.

The relative dearth of single digit salutes doesn't mean that the Association doesn't still have a long way to go:

Some people, however, said they support Doctors Without Borders, but don't want to donate to them through atheists, Jackson said. Club members want to change that. Under Jackson's leadership, the club has been steadily increasing its presence on campus over the last year.

Imagination and a dash of self-deprecating humor can't hurt.

Associate professor of theatre Charles Dumas donated to the group because Doctors Without Borders is one of his favorite organizations, he said. He asked to hear a reading from the Quran and thought the event was a smart, interesting idea.

"It's a provocative idea to have atheists reading from holy books to raise money," he said.

I don't know, though ... ain't that kinda like the ultimate accommodationism?

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Page Turner

In hopes of inducing a state just short of terminal envy in Larry Moran, I had the opportunity yesterday to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's special exhibition of J.M.W. Turner's paintings and watercolors.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was an English artist best known for his landscapes and seascapes. He was particularly adept at rendering sky and sea and, as he developed his art, he became more and more fascinated by portrayals of light and its effects. Some critics trace the first stirrings of Impressionism to an appreciation of this quality of Turner's work.

Here are some of my favorite paintings in the show:

Regulus (originally 1828 but reworked and re-exhibited in 1837) tells of Marcus Atilius Regulus, a Roman general and consul who was captured by the Carthaginians and sent back to Rome on parole to negotiate a peace. Instead, he urged Rome to fight on. Rather than break his parole, however, he voluntarily returned to Carthage where the naturally miffed Carthaginians, in this version of the story, cut off his eyelids before exposing him to the blinding rays of the sun. I've often wondered if you could go blind staring into that painting. I can now report that it merely burns the soul.

Fort Vimieux (1831) unlike much of Turner's work, was widely praised in his own time. It depicts an action off Vimereux, near Boulogne, during the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon had gathered together a formidable invasion flotilla, which the British were trying to lure out beyond the protection of the shore batteries. A British cruiser is depicted lying on its side, having run aground during such an attempt. She has been secured by anchors, one in the foreground, but is in a very precarious position, being fired on by the fort in the far distance. The light will soon go, hiding the ship from the gunners and the tide will then allow the ship to slip away to safety.

Mortlake Terrace, the Seat of William Moffatt, Esq.; Summer's Evening (1827) has a story connected with it that is illustrative of the artist. Turner had an unusual method of working. It was customary at the time for painters exhibiting at the Royal Academy to bring their works to the gallery for "varnishing day," when they could see their paintings in the position they would hang, apply any minor finishing touches and then apply varnish. Turner, instead, would paint only the merest outline of his ideas in color (many of which are now admired in their own right for their abstract beauty) and bring one to varnishing day and complete almost the entire painting in the gallery. It is said that a fellow artist, Edwin Landseer, feeling this painting needed an accent in the center, cut out the silhouette of a dog and stuck it on the parapet while Turner was having lunch. As recounted by Frederick Goodall, the son of one of Turner's engravers, when the artist returned, "he went up to the picture quite unconcernedly ... adjusted the little dog perfectly, and then varnished the paper and began painting it. And there it is to the present day."

Fishermen at Sea (1796) is the first oil painting Turner exhibited at the Royal Academy. And yet it forcefully displays the themes that his work would return to over and over again: the dynamic power of water and mankind's struggle with the elemental forces of nature, which was summed up in the title of his epic poem (much less epic than his paintings) "The Fallacies of Hope."

That is only the merest scratch on the surface of Turner's greatness. Turner willed much of his work to the Tate Museum in London and those lucky enough to live or visit there without making a pilgrimage to see Turner's work are making the gravest error.


Hobbes and Choice

There's a review of three books purportedly answering the "New Atheists" at something called The American Thinker (would someone please get poor old Uncle Sam some Kaopectate?). Among their other sins, the folks in charge of The American Thinker maintain that Sarah Palin is an archtype of our "best selves burned into history," the frontierswoman, in the same vein as Maureen O'Hara was. Hollywood make-believe as qualification for high political office? Why not? Who did it better than Ronald Reagan?

Anyway, one of the books allegedly providing "intellectual force and literary grace" in this counterattack is David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Belinski's understanding of science, pretentious or not, is well revealed by his Senior Fellowship at the Discovery Institute.

Singling out "Berlinski's characteristic literary verve," the reviewer can, nonetheless, apparently do no better than the following example:

To a Nobel Prize scientist's [Steven Weinberg] argument -- offered at a conference on "science, religion and reason" -- that "for good people to do evil things, [it] takes religion," Berlinski responds: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?"

"If memory serves," he writes, "it was not the Vatican."
It's an old canard but it's worthwhile dragging it out into the light every now and then and delivering it a few swift kicks.

Poison gas, Zyklon B (repetition for literary effect or just an attempt to circumvent Godwin's Law?), high explosives and napalm are all the result of the expansion of our knowledge of chemistry, which has also greatly increased the standard of living of human beings and made previously unimaginable products -- including lifesaving ones, such as pharmaceuticals -- available.

It's true that cluster bombs, attack submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons could not be made without science and technology. But, then again, neither could communication and weather satellites, cell phones, computers, automobiles, airplanes, diagnostic medical scanners, radiation therapy for disease, electric lighting and the myriad other results of that selfsame scientific and industrial revolution that have saved millions of lives and reduced poverty, death and disease. That's not even counting the additional benefit of further knowledge those technologies have made possible in the form of electron microscopes, space probes, atom smashers, space telescopes and the like.

And, if memory serves, it wasn't coalitions of scientists out to conquer the world who built and deployed those weapons. It was nations led by politicians, not unlike Sarah Palin, who were, more often than not, willing to call war a "task from God" to get the populace to agree to pay for and wield those weapons against others. Those evils were not "imposed" on the human race by science or scientists, they were gleefully taken up in an orgy of aggression and hate as old as the species.

Yes, genetics and the now defunct idea of "orthogenesis" (not evolution) were given as rationales for the ancient practice of eugenics, but scientists also argued that eugenics was bad science and could not work. But what sort of spectacular illogic does it take to blame pseudo-science on science in the first place?

In worlds in which simplistic answers, crudely painted in black and white, don't count as either intellectual or forceful, it is obvious that all human advance in knowledge bears a double edge. But the alternative to science is not return to an ideal state where humans, guided by some benevolent religion, live in a harmonious and happy state of nature. The option is to return to a medieval -- or worse -- world where the universal lot is an existence notable for being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


On Attention Spans

John Polkinghorne weighs in on the Michael Reiss affair:

I believe that he has been the victim of our sound-bite culture, in which a phrase is plucked from a considered speech and, out of context, is made to seem as if something quite contrary to the speaker's actual intention was being said. In a letter to The Times a week ago, Reiss sought to put the record straight. His first sentence unequivocally stated that "creationism has no scientific validity" and a little later he said that "evolution is recognised as the best explanation for the history of life on Earth, and for the diversity of species". He also made the reasonable remark that "If a young person raises the issue of creationism in a science class, a teacher should be in a position to examine why it does not stand up to scientific investigation". I know Michael Reiss to have a sensible and sensitive concern for educational matters relating to science and religion, and I very much regret that misrepresentation of his views has led to his resignation.

And on creationism:

The irony of this notion of creationism is that it not only involves many scientific errors, but is also the result of a bad theological mistake. When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love "is like a red, red rose", we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose, through the eight-times reiterated phrase "And God said, 'Let there be . . .", is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Torah Torah Torah

The Clergy Letter Project, begun by Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University, to demonstrate support for science, particularly evolutionary theory, among members of the clergy of all Christian denominations has garnered 11,672 signatures to date to a statement that reads, in part:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.

The Project has now begun a similar letter for Jewish clergy that reads:

As rabbis from various branches of Judaism, we the undersigned, urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution. Fundamentalists of various traditions, who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs, are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism. We see this as a breach in the separation of church and state. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and private schools. To teach it in the public schools would be to assert a particular religious perspective in an environment which is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.

The Bible is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us and for many others, though not everyone, in our society. It is, however, open to interpretation, with some taking the creation account and other content literally and some preferring a figurative understanding. It is possible to be inspired by the religious teachings of the Bible while not taking a literalist approach and while accepting the validity of science including the foundational concept of evolution. It is not the role of public schools to indoctrinate students with specific religious beliefs but rather to educate them in the established principles of science and in other subjects of general knowledge.

Rabbi David Oler of Congregation Beth Or in Deerfield, Illinois, one of 237 signatories so far, put it particularly well:

I would say that as Jews, being a minority, we're particularly sensitive to not having the views of others imposed on us. Creationism and intelligent design are particularly religious matters that don't belong in public school system.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Stuffed Turkey

A court has denied access by internet users in Turkey to the official Richard Dawkins website based on, of all things, a complaint by Adnan Oktar, the creationist who publishes under the name Harun Yahya. One of Oktar's more notable activities recently was to mail tens of thousands of copies of something called The Atlas of Creation, unsolicited, to schools, researchers and research institutes throughout Europe and the United States.

The basis of the ruling was, apparently, that Dawkins has "insulted" Oktar. Amazingly, Oktar was convicted in May on charges of using threats for personal benefit (i.e. blackmail) and creating an organization with the intent to commit a crime. Among the allegations was one by a fashion model who claimed she was blackmailed in an attempt to force her to have sex with Oktar and, when she refused, she was then slandered as a "prostitute" in fax messages sent to hundreds of different newspapers, TV channels, major business companies, foreign consulates and government offices. Naturally, Oktar denies the charges and promises an appeal.

This is not the first time Oktar has used this tactic, having had other sites, including Google Groups, blocked on complaints of libel.

Whatever the truth of any particular charge against Oktar, one thing is pretty certain ... no matter how much Dawkins insulted him, it wasn't enough by half.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Stumbling on the Truth

When last we left beautiful downtown Butteville, California, trustees of the Union Elementary School District had agreed to seek legal counsel regarding the "information/action agenda item" entitled "Evolution versus Intelligent Design Taught in the Classroom." Furthermore, the board president, Stephen Darger, was encouraging the move because:

I think this will be a big issue in the Supreme Court before long. Maybe it will be with this school.
Some overly suspicious and cynical people might have thought that members of the board were religious fanatics intent on teaching creationism and turning the children into test cases for another try by Intelligent Design Creationism to pass Constitutional muster. Not so!, says Darger.

Darger said that there was a misconception about the board's intentions regarding Intelligent Design.

"There was never any action planned" on the topic, he said, but instead the intent was "just to investigate the status of intelligent design in terms of education. We simply did our job."
And how did they go about that?

Darger said that the board sought counsel from an attorney on the subject, and found that Intelligent Design is not an acceptable scientific theory, and therefore they decided not to pursue the topic.
I assume that Darger means something like "a theory that is sufficiently scientific to be legally acceptable under the Constitution." It would be pretty remiss of a school board to consult a lawyer about what is or is not scientifically acceptable. But at least they got good legal advice.

Did I mention that Darger is himself a practicing lawyer? It seems strange that he would think himself familiar enough with the legalities surrounding IDC to declare that it "will be a big issue in the Supreme Court before long" but was so uninformed that he didn't know that it is not a legally acceptable scientific theory. But, hey! ...

Board member Steve Hart said that there was a motion made at the meeting by board member Craig Dilley to not teach anything of a religious nature at Butteville, including Intelligent Design, and that "the board voted unanimously" to drop the subject.
No matter what circuitous route they took, at least the board reached the right result: IDC is religion and their duty to the children was to drop the whole bad idea.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Another One Bites the Dust

Michael Reiss, the center of much recent controversy, has resigned his position as the Royal Society's Director of Education. The Royal Society has issued a press release:

Some of Professor Michael Reiss's recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society's Director of Education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the Society, he will step down immediately as Director of Education a part time post he held on secondment. He is to return, full time, to his position as Professor of Science Education at the Institute of Education.

The Royal Society's position is that creationism has no scientific basis and should not be part of the science curriculum. However, if a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not, in any way, scientific.

The Royal Society greatly appreciates Professor Reiss's efforts in furthering the Society's work in the important field of science education over the past two years. The Society wishes him well for the future.

Richard Dawkins has been moderately conciliatory and moderately apologetic for his own statement about the matter:

[W]hat [Reiss] actually said at the British Association is not obviously silly like creationism itself, nor is it a self-evidently inappropriate stance for the Royal Society to take. ...

Unfortunately for him as a would-be spokesman for the Royal Society, Michael Reiss is also an ordained minister. To call for his resignation on those grounds, as several Nobel-prizewinning Fellows are now doing, comes a little too close to a witch-hunt for my squeamish taste. Nevertheless -- it's regrettable but true -- the fact that he is a priest undermines him as an effective spokesman for accommodationism: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he!" If the Royal Society wanted to attack creationism with all fists flying, as I would wish, an ordained priest might make a politically effective spokesman, however much we might deplore his inconsistency. This is the role that Kenneth Miller, not a priest but a devout Christian, plays in America, where he is arguably creationism's most formidable critic. But if the Society really wants to promote the accommodationist line, a clergyman is the very last advocate they should choose. Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch. Nevertheless, thoughts of Trojan Horses are now disturbing many Fellows, already concerned as they are by the signals the Society recently sent out through its flirtation with the infamous Templeton Foundation.

Strangely, Larry Moran, the very last person I would think of as an accommodationist, seems to think Reiss was on the right track.

One shot that Dawkins and PZ Myers send Reiss' way seems to me somewhat unfair. They suggest that "rather than resign his job with the Royal Society, Professor Reiss might consider resigning his Orders." PZ thinks that would be similar to what he sees as calls that they give up their atheism in favor of promoting science. But is there an equivalency? PZ admits that he and Dawkins "feel strongly that the only way to achieve a lasting investment in understanding science is by reducing the pernicious influence of religion." But did Reiss raise his religion or his position in the clergy as justification for his position? It was, as far as I can see, other people who made much of Reiss' Orders. Is anyone really suggesting that PZ and Dawkins give up their association with or leadership in atheist organizations on pain of being denied offices related to education in science organizations? If so, I'd protest strongly.

Why do I get the feeling that this whole thing is a horrible waste?

John Wilkins, rightly I think, takes Dawkins on for the non-conciliatory, unapologetic part of his statement.

Monday, September 15, 2008


High Tech Justice

George Bush's wet dream may be in the offing. And if that's not enough of a reason to be suspicious, here's the rest of the story:

The new technology is, to its critics, Orwellian. Others view it as a silver bullet against terrorism that could render waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods obsolete. Some scientists predict the end of lying as we know it.

... India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from this controversial machine: a brain scanner that produces images of the human mind in action and is said to reveal signs that a suspect remembers details of the crime in question. ...

The Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test, or BEOS, was developed by Champadi Raman Mukundan, an Indian neuroscientist who formerly ran the clinical psychology department of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore.

BEOS is, essentially, an EEG taken while an investigator reads aloud details of the crime to the suspect -- as prosecutors believe them to be -- and the resulting brain images are processed using Mukundan's software.

The software tries to detect whether, when the crime's details are recited, the brain lights up in specific regions — the areas that, according to the technology's inventors, show measurable changes when experiences are relived, their smells and sounds summoned back to consciousness. The inventors of the technology claim the system can distinguish between peoples' memories of events they witnessed and between deeds they committed.

Naturally, this has been rigorously tested and peer reviewed, thoroughly testing both the premise and the technology, before being used in court to decide anyone's fate, right? Silly person! I said it was George ("waterboard 'em first, ask questions about the accuracy of the information" later) Bush's wet dream, didn't I?

[E]xperts in psychology and neuroscience were almost uniformly troubled that it was used to win a criminal conviction before being validated by any independent study and reported in a respected scientific journal.

Publication of data from testing of the scans would allow other scientists to judge its merits — and the validity of the studies — during peer reviews.

"Technologies which are neither seriously peer-reviewed nor independently replicated are not, in my opinion, credible," said [J. Peter] Rosenfeld a psychologist and neuroscientist at Northwestern University and one of the early developers of electroencephalogram-based lie detection. "The fact that an advanced and sophisticated democratic society such as India would actually convict persons based on an unproven technology is even more incredible."

Hey! The US is (allegedly) an advanced and sophisticated democratic society and we're prepared to convict people in kangaroo courts based on old-fashioned torture despite the fact that even an idiot like Cully Stimson realizes that it produces bad intelligence.

As we enter more fully into the era of mapping and understanding the brain, society will face an increasing number of important ethical, legal and social issues raised by these new technologies," [Henry] Greely, the Stanford bioethicist, and his colleague Judy Illes wrote last year in the American Journal of Law & Medicine.

If brain scans are widely adopted, they added, "the legal issues alone are enormous, implicating at least the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, the potential benefits to society of such a technology, if used well, could be at least equally large."

Yeah. We could do away with those expensive and inconvenient court thingies altogether.


Trouble in Paradise

Well, maybe not paradise ... but it is the home of Charles Darwin and the place where the theory of evolution, now accepted as the bedrock of biology, originated in earnest.

According to the BBC, Britain now has its own creationism museum, though there's no word whether it matches America's monument to the waste of money.

Museum curator Ross Rosevear describes himself as a "Young Earth" creationist, who believes that the earth was created in six days "less than 10,000 years ago."

Standing before the museum's prize exhibit - a mock gravestone inscribed: "Here lies the Theory of Evolution" - he rejects as "unreliable" the scientific tests that fix the age of the earth at more than four billion years. While he concedes his convictions are intimately connected with his Christian faith, he insists the evidence presented in the displays could convince even non-believers of the "fatal flaws" in Darwin's theory of evolution.

"All we are saying is that it is not unreasonable to present an alternative explanation of how life began," he says.

That would be nothing more than amusing if it wasn't for this:

A 2006 survey for the BBC found that more than a fifth of those polled were convinced by the creationist argument. Less than half - 48% - chose evolution.

Keith Porteous Wood of the Secular Society agrees:

There is no question that creationism is growing. It is increasingly well funded, and well organised.

The article also notes that Muslims and Christians are finding common ground in creationism:

The Rev Greg Haslam, who preaches the creationist Christian creed to his 400-strong congregation at Westminster Chapel in London, welcomes the determination of Muslims to impart a religious-based view of the world.

... "I believe the current debate over creationism versus evolution is beginning to draw more and people over to our side of the argument

"The materialist explanation of the creation has nothing to offer - if we came from nothing and go into nothing, then that encourages people to lead reckless and materialistic lifestyles.

"Evolution is a world-view that leads to futility. It's no wonder people are dissatisfied with it."

Added to the flap over Michael Reiss, it sounds like British science education has at least the first rumblings of a problem.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


No Apologies

Christian apologetics is the discipline which deals with a rational defense of Christianity. Our term, "apologetics" comes from the Greek word apologia, which means "to give a reason or defense." It has nothing to do with saying, "I'm sorry."

-The National Conference on Christian Apologetics

The National Conference on Christian Apologetics is holding a meeting of what is described as the "nation's leading Christian apologists" at Hickory Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina on November 7th and 8th. The theme of the conference is, "A Summit On Defense of the Biblical Worldview."

Among the speakers will be Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Chuck Colson of Breakpoint and Prison Fellowship Ministries; Dinesh D'Souza, author and former senior policy analyst during the Reagan administration; and Lee Strobel, a journalist and author of such books The Case for Christ and The Case for a Creator. That certainly is quite a lineup of rationalists to field in defense of Christianity.

Sessions will be offered on various subjects, including

... the trustworthiness and authenticity of the Bible, the resurrection, and ancient evidence for the life of Christ, absolute truth, and why it matters; discuss Creation vs. evolution; overcome spiritual doubts; reach skeptics with the Gospel; provide a Christian response to Islam; answer atheism / agnosticism; provide a Christian response to cults, a Christian response to the occult and respond to popular media themes related to the Christian faith [such as popular books like The God Delusion and Misquoting Jesus], and more.
Oh, yes. There's one more notable speaker: William Dembski. Funny, I didn't see where one of the subjects was going to be science. It can't be that session on "Creation vs. evolution." We know that Intelligent Design isn't creationism because the Discovery Institute tells us so.

Gee, I wonder what kind of apologetics Wild Bill will be discussing.


Royal Row

The repercussions over the statements of Michael Reiss, director of education for Britain's Royal Society, concerning creationism being discussed as another "worldview" in science classes, are continuing, despite his "clarification." Now two Nobel prize winners, Sir Harry Kroto and Sir Richard Roberts, are demanding that the Royal Society sack Professor Reiss.

Kroto said of Reiss, a Church of England minister and former biology teacher:

I warned the president of the Royal Society that his was a dangerous appointment a year ago. I did not realise just how dangerous it would turn out to be.

And Roberts added:

I think it is outrageous that this man is suggesting that creationism should be discussed in a science classroom. It is an incredible idea and I am drafting a letter to other Nobel laureates - which would be sent to the Royal Society - to ask that Reiss be made to stand down.

Richard Dawkins, as might be expected, was even harsher:

A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch.

The Royal Society, however, rejected the contention that the fact that Reiss is a member of the clergy is, in and of itself, enough to disqualify him from the position and went on to say that "'Michael Reiss's views are completely in keeping with those of the Royal Society."

Kroto, who teaches at Florida State University and was involved in supporting the recent upgrade in that state's science education standards, may be speaking from that experience when he said:

The thing the Royal Society does not appreciate is the true nature of the forces arrayed against it and the Enlightenment for which the Royal Society should be the last champion.

It certainly sounds familiar, at any rate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dysfunction Junction

John Wilkins (an excellent, if antipodean, philosopher of science) is fond of what might be called the "social glue" theory of religion, as expressed in a recent post at his highly recommended blog, Evolving Thoughts:

The crucial role of religion proper, I think, is to mark out those who one can expect aid from, because they have demonstrated the "costly signaling" religion requires (a view of Richard Sosis and colleagues), from those who are more likely to cheat. Agriculture makes possible a society not based on close kinship, which makes religion the solution to that dilemma only after societies of that kind arise.

Craig T. Palmer, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri and Lyle B. Steadman, emeritus professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University have published a book, The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success in which they claim that "the clearest identifiable effect of religious behaviour were the promotion of cooperative family-like social relationships -- including parent/child-like relationships between the individuals making and accepting the supernatural claims, and sibling-like relationships among co-acceptors of those claims."

As Palmer explained:

We noticed that communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim tends to promote cooperative social relationships. This communication demonstrates a willingness to accept, without skepticism, the influence of the speaker in a way similar to a child's acceptance of the influence of a parent.

Steadman added:

Almost every religion in the world, including all tribal religions, use family kinship terms such as father, mother, brother, sister and child for fellow members. They do this to encourage the kind of behaviour found normally in families - where the most intense social relationships occur.

In short, religions are enterprises that function as expanded families intended to promote kin-like cooperation across a larger group.

I suppose it is inevitable that some turn out to be dysfunctional families.

Friday, September 12, 2008


The Science of Religion

There is an update on the story of the statement by Michael Reiss, director of education for Britain's Royal Society, that teachers should discuss creationism as another "worldview" in science classes. As reported by New Scientist, the Royal Society has issued a statement affirming that it is opposed to creationism being taught as science and Reiss has released a clarification of his comments:

When young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.
The problem remains, as far as the US is concerned, that our Constitution prohibits a public school teacher from teaching that creationism, because it is non-scientific, is therefore false, just as much as a public school teacher is prohibited from teaching that creationism, or any other religious proposition, is true. To address it at all puts the teacher in philosophical and legal waters that many, if not most, are ill-prepared to navigate and which are best addressed in a class on philosophy (including the philosophy of science) and/or comparative religion with a developed curriculum and teaching materials and with training for the teacher.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


And Now For Something ...

Oh, goody!

Matt Nisbet is criticizing Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers again. That means the science-oriented blogosphere will have some other topic -– and some other target of venom -– than Sarah Palin to obsess over for a while.

Nisbet is humping a couple of articles he's written, one at Skeptical Inquirer and one in Kean Review. This is how Nisbet describes his criticism:

I draw attention to the confusing messages that scientist pundits such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers continue to send to the wider American public. By combining their attacks on religion with their defense of evolution, they blur the lines between science, religion, and atheism, providing fodder to creationists who claim that evolution is part of a larger atheist agenda.
It'll be a welcome break from all the recent lipstick smears turning up on the American electorate's naughty bits.


God's Laboratory

Michael Reiss, director of education for the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific organization, has come out as against keeping creationism out of science classes.

Professor Reiss, a Church of England minister and former biology teacher, said he strongly believed in teaching the theory of evolution to children.

But rather than dismiss creationism as wrong or stupid, teachers should be prepared to discuss it as another 'worldview'.
According to Professor Reiss, approximately one in 10 British schoolchildren come from families with creationist beliefs.

Some science teachers think that because creationism and intelligent design are scientifically invalid that anybody holding them is just being a bit stupid. That’s not something I would want to convey.

Although pupils might have other irrational beliefs – about ghosts, tarot or astrology - creationism should be treated as a special case.

The depth of sincerity with which people believe creation narratives from the scriptures – whether it is Islam, Christianity or some other religion – tends to be much greater than the belief that people have in horoscopes or astrology.
Naturally, Britain does not have a constitutional requirement of separation of church and state as we do in the US. But even if we didn't, I don't see why the "depth of sincerity" of the religious/philosophical beliefs of children (much less of their families) should dictate how science should be taught, much less require including "scientifically invalid" concepts in a science class.

If it should, then won't there also have to be special provision made for the children of deeply sincere atheists or "theistic evolutionists," accommodating any scientifically invalid material they'd like included as well?

And just how "deep" is deep enough? Why should the strong beliefs some people hold against the big bang, stem cell research, global warming or science-based medicine (rather than faith healing or "alternative" medicine) not be taken into account too? How long will it be before the scientifically invalid concepts start to overwhelm the valid ones and the class stops being about science at all?

Why shouldn't a simple (but deeply sincere) explanation to the effect that the class is about science and religious/philosophical questions should be addressed to the student's parents or pastor suffice?

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How to Support Science Education