Tuesday, December 30, 2008



A thought:

Intellectualism should not mean that one must possesses a graduate degree in order to embrace it. It means we cannot allow oversimplification to trump responses to complex issues that require more than a sound bite.

It also means that our civic duty did not end on November 4, 2008. Our elected officials will treat us however we dictate. If rote, simplistic responses will suffice that is what we will get. But we should demand more because we deserve it.

-Byron Williams, "Is 2009 the Year of the Intellectual?," The Huffington Post, December 26, 2008

Monday, December 29, 2008


The Coming Darwin Year

In all the hoopla to be expected in the next year over Darwin, it may become a cottage industry to spot and correct the errors in popular accounts of his life and work (not to mention the deliberate distortions of creationists). Just to warm up a bit, here is an account in The Independent by Archie Bland entitled "The Big Question: How important was Charles Darwin, and what is his legacy today?":

It's a mark of how extraordinary a step Darwin took on humanity's behalf that a principle that seems so straightforward and uncontroversial today – that random mutations would make some species better suited to their environments than others, and that those species would be more likely to breed – could have caused such extraordinary upheaval as recently as 1859. Still, that's what happened.

Except that competition between species wasn't Darwin's key idea. As Peter Bowler points out in his excellent Evolution: The History of an Idea, Darwin focused on competition between individuals within a population, not on competition between species. Alfred Russel Wallace came much closer to the latter idea, possibly envisioning competition between subspecies as the driving force behind evolution, though there is no absolute statement to that effect in his original paper. Darwin did allow for such competition as a source of divergence and, eventually, speciation, but to him the source of evolutionary change was competition between individual organisms.

On the other hand, Mr. Bland avoids a common mistake by crediting Darwin's recognition of the variation in mockingbirds on different islands in the Galapagos as Darwin's crucial early insight, not, as many suppose, the variation in "Darwin's finches," a legend that Darwin himself contributed to in recounting his visit to the islands.

It's going to be an interesting year.


How ID Can Enhance Your Reputation

From Felix Salmon at Condé Nast's Portfolio.com, about a claim by Ben Stein that he turned down an offer by "a little delegation from a major investment bank" to invest his money with Bernie Madoff:

For one thing, "major investment banks" are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to the roster of Madoff's victims. ...

[F]aced with some suits offering to manage his money for an annual fee of 2%, Stein didn't simply say no; he invited them into his home, took their offer seriously, and then roped three of his friends into looking into the offer and trying to replicate Madoff's returns.

Why would Stein spend so much time listening to and second-guessing the claims of private bankers promising improbable returns? After all, he knows full well (or says he does) that such claims never pan out ...

Clearly Stein isn't giving us the whole story here -- if he was, he would have named the bank in question. But he's not the only person telling "I said no to Bernie Madoff" stories. He should be treated like anybody else with such a story: pay very little attention. People turn down investment opportunities, both good and bad, every day. And the main thing we learn from Stein's story is not how smart he was to say no to Madoff, but rather how much he wanted to believe: when he thought it was too good to be true, he still went to three different friends in the hope that they could change his mind.

Then again, it's public knowledge that Stein believes in fairy tales like Intelligent Design. So none of this should be much of a surprise.
I'd say that Stein's venture into ... um ... science policy had cost him his reputation in financial circles ... but I doubt he had much to lose in that department to begin with.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Hush, Hush, Sweet Scientist

The traveling exhibit that started at the American Museum of Natural History and moved to the Museum of Science, Boston, the Field Museum, Chicago and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, has now reached its natural home at the Natural History Museum, London. And, wouldn't you know it, those dogmatic British Darwinists are displaying their intellectual bias against "alternative science," namely, Intelligent Design! As Martin Belam paraphrased it:

There was also a video loop at the end showing members of the Natural History Museum staff expressing their views on the topic. 'Intelligent design' was decried as pseudo-science, and the mutations of organisms like the HIV virus and MRSA were cited as examples of natural selection in action around us. Sandy Knapp put it clearest, saying she felt that evidence based theories should be taught in science class, and faith-based beliefs should be taught in religious class.

I was really heartened to see that rather than opting for a safe "Well, some people believe x and that's ok too" attitude, a scientific exhibition had decided to say outright "Well, some people believe x and it is unscientific nonsense".

Next thing you know, they'll be decrying the danger to the public from alternative medicine and other non-traditional approaches to health or to scientific understanding, such as vaccine "denial," homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, among others.

Where will it end?


Going Where No Elitist Bastard Has Gone Before


The Carnival of Elitist Bastards, Version 8.0, is up and soaring at Submitted to a Candid World. Here's one of my (many) favorites bits:

Just when I thought the la guerre de Noel n'aura pas lieu, in walked Bill. Sometimes I can't decide what the best thing about O'Reilly is---his pugnacity or his stupidity. Right now, I'm gonna say both.

There's no doubt that Billo is a virtual Renaissance man among the illiterati, combining ignorance and confidence to paint a veritable Sistine ceiling of stupidity that mesmerizes a minuscule, but commercially exploitable, fragment of the populace. The only real issue about O'Reilly is whether his work is the result of his own genuine dullness or just the cynical manipulation of the imbecile.

Much other flaying of the de-elitist can be found at the final frontier.




Greg Laden, in his end of the year reveries, is reviving Crackergate. Okay, I thought PZ was wrong in obtaining and disposing of the Communion host the way he did but what really interests me is this from Greg, who reveals that he is an erstwhile altar boy:

PZ intones "It's a cracker!" But you know, it's not a cracker. It's a flat dried up piece of bready stuff. Crackers are round and brown and have a little salt. This thing is not a cracker. Too chewy.

Chewy? Where was his church getting its wafers from? For as long as I was forced to undergo that ritual the hosts were ephemeral slices of library paste that melted at the first touch of saliva and promptly stuck to the roof of your mouth. Youthful speculation was that its inevitable resting place involved a minor miracle in the form of the host floating from your tongue upwards. And more tongue effort was required to dislodge it from its perch than that icon of mouth roof gumminess: peanut butter coated Wonder Bread.

One of us is having tricks played on us by our memories.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


History in the News

Michael Barton of The Dispersal of Darwin got a nice write-up in The Billings Gazette for the work he did at Yellowstone National Park's Heritage and Research Center a while back when he was working as an intern there.

Barton found that use of religious language in descriptions of the park was common during the Romantic movement, a reaction to the 18th century's Enlightenment that stressed science and objectivity. Romanticism was about emotions and imagination. It was a period that produced such American literary giants as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. But it also carried over to the writings of travelers to Yellowstone and is found in newspaper accounts, journal entries and letters sent to family and friends. Barton catalogued the references in more than 50 documents - everything from short journal reminiscences to published books and U.S. Geological Survey writings.

There's no mistaking the references, especially when they were highlighted. Following an 1871 trip to Yellowstone Lake, journalist Calvin Clawson wrote: "We could not help feeling that we were lifted up BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HELL, for while the seething, sulphurous lakes were on each side and far beneath us, the placid sky hung in grandest beauty above us." ...

Barton said he saw scientists in the 1870s steer away from Romanticism and be more descriptive about what they saw, rather than describing sites in emotional terms.

"They started to write more about the height of a geyser, the times of eruptions rather than the raw emotional scenes," he said.

Perhaps the best part of the research, Barton said, was having access to the park's extensive archive collection in its newly built facility, to view the original watercolors of artist Thomas Moran stored there and to travel to some of the places he'd read about.


Via Evolving Complexity


A Tory Take On Christmas

British MP John Redwood:

It is typical of evil governments down the years that they think nothing of the convenience of their citizens. I am sure the last thing Joseph wanted with a pregnant Mary, and all the extra bills fatherhood would bring, was to down his carpenter's tools and travel to Bethlehem just to register and pay a tax.

On the other hand, here's Tory blogger Iain Dale on receiving a Christmas card from a Middle East TV station:

If an Islamic TV station owned by Iran can wish me a happy Christmas, all is well with the world.

I guess all would have been well if only Augustus had cared enough to send the very best.


Friday, December 26, 2008


Revisionist Christmas

Just to follow up on the excerpt from The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford I posted, here is a commentary by one A.W.R. Hawkins, a columnist for Human Events (an outlet that seems to think Ann Coulter is a serious political voice):

It's Christmas time but Christmas cheer isn't abounding as it did when we were kids.

The lack of cheer is not due to the recession (which the mainstream media can't quit talking about) but because of the myriad atheistic "Grinches" who have made it their life's goal to steal Christmas.

The way in which Europeans have long referred to Christmas as "holiday" as always bothered me. I've understood it for what it is: an example of their cultural secularization. But when I see the same tendency here in the United States, a nation founded in large part by Puritans who sought to "build a shining city on a hill [to] glorify God," I am not only bothered but surprised, for I never dreamed that citizens of "one nation under God" would allow Leftists and a bunch of two-bit fringe groups to intimidate them into trading the Christmas message for secular, Euro-talk.
Riiight! It's not the recession, or the fact that unemployment filings reached a new 26 year high, that is making this Solstice Season a somber one, it's the news media refusing to ignore the biggest economic news perhaps since the Great Depression and secularists refusing to accept the Puritan's hope of making the American colonies a theocracy that is at fault, and to hell with little historical realities like the Puritans fining people who celebrated Christmas.

It's always puzzled me why our conservatives, who supposedly revere tradition, are so willing to make history up to suit their present beliefs.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


More War on Christmas

Here is an excerpt of an excerpt from The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, available at the NPR website:

... There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England [when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol], no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of "Yuletide greetings," no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no orgy of gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), no holiday lighting extravaganzas, and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior. In fact, despite all of Dickens's enthusiasms, the holiday was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter, causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day does today. In the eyes of the relatively enlightened Anglican Church, moreover, the entire enterprise of celebrating Christmas smacked vaguely of paganism, and were there Puritans still around, acknowledging the holiday might have landed one in the stocks.

In fact, for much of the first two centuries of settlement in New England, Christmas was scarcely celebrated. As Yule scholar Stephen Nissenbaum points out, from 1659 to 1681 there was actually a law on the books in the Massachusetts Colony that forbade the practice and levied a fine of five shillings upon anyone caught in the act. Sitting down with their new native friends for a Thanksgiving feast might have been perfectly acceptable, but when Governor William Bradford discovered a few of his fellow Pilgrims trying to celebrate Christmas the year after their arrival, he broke up the ceremonies and ordered everyone back to their jobs.

Drat those un-American Christians!


Ridin' the Range

The National Center for Science Education is reporting that the third draft of Texas's proposed new science standards has removed the latest version of the "strengths and weaknesses" language that is an obvious ploy for injecting creationism into public schools.

The first draft of the revised standards replaced the "strengths and weaknesses" language with "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing." ...

[W]hen the Texas board of education began to hear testimony about the new standards on November 19, 2008, it was presented not with the first draft but with a second draft, in which the "strengths and weaknesses" language was replaced with a variant: "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate strengths and limitations of scientific explanations including those based on accepted scientific data, and evidence from students' observations, experiments, models, and logical statements." At the meeting, defenders of the integrity of science education argued that "strengths and limitations" was no improvement over "strengths and weaknesses." ...

[T]he third draft is similar but not identical to the first draft. According to the first draft, "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." The third draft reads, "Science, as defined by the National Academy of Sciences, is the 'use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.' ... Students should know that some questions are outside the realm of science because they deal with phenomena that are not scientifically testable."
This third draft will be considered by the SBOE at its meeting on January 21-23, 2009, with a public hearing scheduled for January 21, 2009 followed, presumably, by a period for further public comment and a final vote to occur at the board's March 26-27, 2009 meetings. It has to be remembered that the conservative wing of the SBOE is not above throwing out the work of professional educators and substituting their own, ideologically-driven, substitute standards at the last minute, which was what they did with the English standards recently. Indeed, it was suggested that the board's treatment of the otherwise not-very-controversial English standards was just a dry run for how it will go about mangling the science standards.

Texans, make sure your powder's dry next March.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Holiday Prayer

A loved one is going through a difficult illness and, on top of the big issues, some smaller, but not insignificant, annoyances, exacerbated by bureaucrats, have cropped up to make matters worse ... okay, making the bureaucrat squirm was a minor consolation.

One thing that never occurred to me was that somehow the universe was interested. Neither I nor my love sense any animus or support, approval or condemnation from above and beyond.

Strangely, people fear indifference but I find it comforting. Life sucks ... and sometimes doesn't ... and sometimes is the exact opposite of that ... and then you still die. How horrible a thought it is that every sling and arrow we suffer was loosed by some anal retentive bean counter capable of making a cosmos full of wonder but obsessed with the minutia of the brief flickerings of ephemerals like us.

On the other hand, we have had many close friends and relatives -- good, intelligent and loving people -- tell us that they are praying for us. And I find myself genuinely grateful for their efforts. We may not think it will do us much good with the universe but it is comforting to bask ourselves in the warmth of their shared humanity.

That's all the holiness me and mine need.



Because of life's circumstances I may not be posting for a while.

Merry Christmas!

Happy Chanukah!

Cheery Kwanzaa!

Super Solstice!

Happy Monkey!

Special Saturnalia!

Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 22, 2008


Bleedin' Choir Invisibile

PZ Myers gives a pointer to some excellent work done by Allen MacNeill in tracking the crash and burn of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Clubs, apparently the idea of Casey Luskin and fomented by the Discovery Institute, that had a brief presence at some colleges, community colleges and high schools.

Just to add another small data point to that, it's now been almost two months since the DI established the YouTube site for its Academic Freedom Day Video Contest and over two weeks since the Discovery Institute announced the contest at its Evolution News & Views ("The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site.") blog.

So far, there have been zero student videos posted. The only video is one featuring Ben Stein that appears to have been made for the DVD release of Expelled humping the "Academic Freedom Petition" (i.e. the "Keep Our Children as Ignorant as Us Petition"). There are a total of 11 "members" and one "discussion," consisting of a single comment: "Great idea! I look forward to viewing the entries."

It's hard to believe there is so little interest, given the fabulously lucrative prize involved:

The grand-prize winner will be awarded $500, and one essay runner-up and one video runner-up will receive $250. Up to 10 finalists will receive their choice of a free book or DVD.

Ya know, I was looking forward to the videos too. The last one I saw on the topic was really funny.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Year's Gifts

National Geographic has a list of the "Top Ten Dinosaur & Fossil Finds" of 2008:

10. "Amazing" Dinosaur Trove Discovered in Utah

9. Odd Fish Find Contradicts Intelligent-Design Argument

8. PHOTO IN THE NEWS: DNA-Based Neanderthal Face Unveiled

7. "Bizarre" New Dinosaur: Giant Raptor Found in Argentina

6. PHOTO IN THE NEWS: New "Sea Monster" Species Identified

5. Giant "Sea Monster" Fossil Discovered in Arctic

4. PHOTOS: Bizarre New Dinosaurs Found in Sahara

3. Bull-Size Rodent Discovered—Biggest Yet

2. Giant "Frog From Hell" Fossil Found in Madagascar

1. Ancient Praying Mantis Found in Amber

Saturday, December 20, 2008



Thanks to the Discovery Institute for reminding me that today is the third anniversary of Judge Jones' so far highly influential decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board. Happy Birthday!

I won't bother to link to John West's little blurb, since it is just a series of links to the DI's bogus arguments (such as that Judge Jones "cut and pasted" from the ACLU's proposed findings of fact), a couple of contrary (if not contrarian) opinions from legal authorities who, for the most part, have little grasp of what ID is (or, more correctly, isn't, namely science) and citing the exchange in the Montana Law Review between West (a non-lawyer), Casey Luskin (barely a lawyer) and David DeWolf for the DI and Professor Peter Irons, which has, to say the least, an interesting history.

Of course, if the DI really thinks that Judge Jones' decision was so bad, I suppose we can expect them to be out beating the bushes for another test case ... so all those DI "experts" who had to withdraw at the last moment can have another shot at using Billy Dembski's famous vise on the "Darwinists."

Let's all take a deep breath now ... and hold ...

Friday, December 19, 2008


Hard on Pants

Who said this?

[Darwinists] state that "medicine has already suffered from a widespread lack of appreciation of evolutionary principles" and imply that the overuse of antibiotics was due to ignorance of those principles. This is simply nonsense. The vast majority of scientists and physicians involved, indoctrinated in evolutionary theory, were well aware of these principles and would have proceeded in exactly the same manner with or without the theory. The simple fact is that in any population of bacteria there is considerable genetic variability. Long before these bacteria were exposed to antibiotics, some of these individuals possessed enzymes able to destroy certain antibiotics-an ability purely coincidental to their normal function in the metabolic activities of these bacteria. When in the course of time man exposed these bacteria to antibiotics, a few individuals in each population that possessed those enzymes had the ability to destroy the antibiotic and survive. They flourished and in some cases have replaced the original susceptible populations. Evolutionary theory had nothing to do with the discovery and utilization of this knowledge ....
You would certainly be justified in guessing it was Dr. Michael Egnor, the Discovery Institute's highly skilled meat cutter. After all, he has been pushing this bogus line of argument hard of late.

But, no, it wasn't Egnor, though it was certainly a fellow traveler ... Duane Gish.

I don't know if one is copying the other. They may have come up with this argument independently. That wouldn't be any surprise ... after all, they have so much in common.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


It Must Be Somethin' In the Water ...

I touched on "chemtrails" once before, in connection with the hypothesis of Bill Ellis that conspiracy theories are ways of making order out of disorder:

"I like to compare conspiracy theories to intelligent design theories because they basically make the same claim -- that the world that we see is not a complex system of random or near-random events, but rather it's designed by a group of very clever, evil people who are working behind the scenes ..."

It's the nature of the human mind to bring order out of disorder, Ellis said, and conspiracy theories often erupt in an attempt to do just that, explaining a wide variety of information in a fairly simple way.
You can go see that in operation in the article, "Chemtrails: Strong Competitor for Dumbest Conspiracy Theory Ever" by Ray Stern in the Phoenix New Times and even more clearly, perhaps, in the comments to the article so far.

One person, Alan, seems to think that Mr. Stern's assertion that contrails are formed when jet exhaust condenses in cold air is disproved because his "first sighting" took place "in NYC on a very warm, dry summer day," apparently unaware that temperature drops with altitude.

Another, Joya, can't understand why some jets flying directly above her, at the same time, leave "normal" contrails, which evaporate quickly, and others leave trails that last for hours, seemingly not knowing that not only temperatures but winds are different at different altitudes.

It's all the same, as Stern notes: the multiple assassins of JFK, the Pearl Harbor attack, the "murder" of Princess Di, the 9/11 attacks, rampant alien abductions, faked moon landings, Jewish world domination, Biblical creationism and chemtrails. A little ignorance, mixed with the perhaps evolutionarily instilled tendency of human beings to attribute any event of significance to us to the action of some intelligent agent, and out pops elaborate explanations for things that are merely the result of natural law and contingency.

Sad and funny at the same time.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Don't Let the Door …

Another reminder of why we won't miss him when he's gone:

Another organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has documented hundreds of instances of political interference throughout government agencies charged with researching — and then regulating — issues of public and environmental health and safety. This past spring, UCS followed up earlier investigations at the FDA, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with a survey of scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 1,586 staff scientists who responded to a questionnaire, 889 said they had experienced some political interference.

Two-hundred and eighty-five said they had experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.” And 224 said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.”

“What we’ve seen under President Bush,” said Michael Halpern, program manager of UCS’s Scientific Integrity program, “is a culture of secrecy and suppression where if scientific information doesn’t fit with predetermined policy decisions they wanted to put forward, that scientific information was summarily distorted, suppressed or misused to justify the decisions they wanted to make.”



Larry Moran is crowing about a study ("The intelligence-religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans," as detailed by Razib at Gene Expression) that purportedly shows that, in the sample, atheists scored 1.95 points higher on IQ tests than agnostics. Now Greg Laden, at his cleverly named Greg Laden's Blog has picked up on it as well.

What Larry and Greg fail to mention is that Episcopalians / Anglicans score 2.35 points higher than atheists.

And everybody knows Episcopalians / Anglicans are really agnostics anyway!


My apologies in advance to Michael Siemon for the joke.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


As Others See You

A thought:
[The following are] the ideal assumptions of anti-intellectualism. Intellectuals, it may be held, are pretentious, conceited, effeminate; snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive. The plain sense of the common man, especially if tested by success in some demanding line of practical work, is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools. Not surprisingly, institutions in which intellectuals tend to be influential, like universities and colleges, are rotten to the core. In any case, the discipline of the heart, and the old fashioned principles of religion and morality, are more reliable guides to life than an education which aims to produce minds responsive to new trends in thought and art. Even at the level of elementary education, a schooling that puts too much stress on the acquisition of mere knowledge, as opposed to the vigorous development of physical and emotional life, is heartless in its mode of conduct and threatens to produce social decadence.

- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life


Monday, December 15, 2008


Dangerous Fool

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent must-read post on why Dr. Michel Egnor's blather about evolution being useless in medical practice because natural selection is supposedly a tautology ("what survives, survives") is not only wrong, it would be, even if true, only trivially so and why Egnor's misrepresentations, on the other hand, are not themselves trivial and must be constantly and forcefully opposed.

Egnor is wrong because he leaves out the crucial and well supported observation that offspring aren't exactly the same as their parents, and those changes can be inherited by their offspring. That means that populations are not merely shifting between preexisting traits but that new traits are arising that have immense import for medical practice.

But even if we ignore this fundamental error of Egnor's, all science can have crucial bits reduced to apparent tautologies because logically valid syllogisms, on which inferences can be based, have to be tautological in order to be valid.

Finally, Mark demonstrates from personal experience why Egnor's misrepresentation can lead to tragic results:

My father died a year and a half ago. What finally killed him was pneumonia. But what caused his death was the stupidity and ignorance of an asshole doctor. My father died of an antibiotic resistant infection. His doctor was, unfortunately, a fundamentalist christian, but for some reason, my dad trusted him. This doctor watched as a series of infections ravaged my father's body, and at pretty much every step, he did the wrong damned thing. The reasoning behind his errors relates directly to the kind of argument Egnor makes: antibiotic resistance isn't the production of new traits; it's merely the selection of existing traits in a population. So he prescribed antibiotics in a way that anyone with a damned clue about how bacteria evolve would have predicted would increase the antibiotic resistance of the bacteria.

Egnor is not just a ludicrous shill for religious denial of science, he is a dangerous one.


Not Perfect Yet

Here we go again with more evidence of what is in store for Texas children if the creationist wing(nuts) of the State Board of Education get their way. Ken Mercer is a member of the SBOE and here is what he thinks the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory are:

The controversial "macro" evolution was commonly understood as those major changes that could occur if one species jumped to another. For example, have you ever seen a dog-cat, or a cat-rat?
That's right, the old "if evolution is true we should see present-day mosaics made up of random parts of animals slapped together" argument that does nothing but show that the speaker is totally ignorant of what evolutionary theory is.

Then there is Haeckel's embryo drawings and Piltdown man (the latter is a Google cache link while the Talk Origins Archive is down).

There are misrepresentations aplenty as well. Not only are the above phoney "weaknesses" but Mercer misrepresents what the scientists were saying when they testified that they were no weaknesses in evolution. The most that those examples would represent, even if they were fair criticisms, are errors of fact or the present absence of evidence that would be overwhelming outweighed by the other evidence for evolution that Mercer is ignorant of and wants to keep the students in his charge ignorant of. And I doubt very much that anyone said that "students are "'unqualified' to ask questions." What was almost certainly said was that high schoolers and below have neither the information nor the maturity to follow the highly complex issues that are the real controversies in evolutionary theory. And there is this:

They [the scientific witness] argued that allowing discussion of weaknesses would lead to teaching religion and subsequent litigation.

The fact is Texas has allowed teaching scientific weaknesses in science textbooks for the last 20 years. In that period of time, not one lawsuit was filed; and for the record, the teaching of creationism and intelligent design is not found in any current textbook adopted by the State of Texas.
But as Don McLeroy, the creationist Chairman of the SBOE, himself discussed, it wasn't for lack of trying:

Back in November 2003, we finished about four or five months of adoption process for the high school biology textbooks in Texas. ...

But I want to tell you all the arguments made by all the intelligent design group, all the creationist intelligent design people, I can guarantee the other side heard exactly nothing. They did not hear one single fact, they were not swayed by one argument. It was just amazing. I mean all the, my fellow board members who were really not even the scientists in the group, they were not impressed by any of this. They said, "Oh well, it's just two opinions. And there were only the four really conservative, orthodox Christians on the board were the only ones who were willing to stand up to the textbooks and say that they don't present the weaknesses of evolution.
Since creationism has no positive scientific evidence, teaching the tired old canards against evolution that it is exclusively comprised of is the same thing as teaching creationism. In any event, as so often seems the case, the proponents of the "teach the weaknesses" cannot help but reveal the real motivation behind the ploy. As noted above, it's "macroevolution" that they find controversial.

Most people of faith agree with what is commonly referred to as "micro" evolution," small changes that are clearly visible.
So it is the same "people of faith" who are pushing the "weaknesses" ploy because they don't like the idea of common descent.

I shouldn't be surprised at the duplicity ... it's just that you'd think they'd be better at it, given all the practice they've had.


Update: Wes Elsberry at The Austringer has done a thorough job of demonstrating Mercer's misunderstanding of science in general and evolution in particular and his reliance on what Wes mercifully terms "old school creationism" (blithering idiocy is more like it).


This Explains a Lot

David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. He has an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that, among other things, makes this extraordinary statement:

The latest scientific theory holds that particular brain functions evolved for purposes suited to the survival of the species, but then got "hijacked" by religious and other supernatural beliefs. Maybe that's right, but explanations like that partake of a certain pat, naive quality reminiscent of a Rudyard Kipling "Just So Story" ("How the Leopard Got His Spots" ... "How the Human Got His Belief in Demons"). They are also suspiciously unfalsifiable. If people had over the centuries completely abandoned the supernatural, evolutionary psychologists could spin out an equally plausible tale to explain that.

Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions. It could be that materialism -- the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff -- is a prejudice rather than a fact. Perhaps an unseen reality does exist, revealed in flashes that can be confusing or misleading, to which we sometimes give flaky designations. Like "Bigfoot."

Klinghoffer may well be right about current hypotheses (not "theories," which require much more support to reach that level) about the evolutionary origin of religion being "just-so stories." But on what rational basis can he level that criticism and then turn around and propose an even more unfalsifiable belief in a supernatural "unseen reality" inhabited by ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night? The answer may well come later when he calls rationalism "pallid." I guess being able to make any old crap up you like could be described as more "vivid" than the boring ol' everyday real world.

But it's not just more vivid, it can be much more ... um ... exciting. It seems that Klinghoffer thinks that the "invisible world" that guided "Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather" was a good thing. Nothin' like a few burnings at the stake to spice life up.

This has me scratching my head, though:

... U.S. polling data from Gallup, reported by Baylor University researchers, shows that belief in the occult is more common among non- or infrequent churchgoers or those belonging to a liberal Protestant denomination than it is among frequent churchgoers and conservative evangelicals.

Is that supposed to be an argumentum ad populum or evidence that belief in the occult is functionally the same to the human psyche as conservative evangelicalism? Whatever it is supposed to be, it is spectacularly confused.

But it can't be denied that occultism is completely compatible with the notion that human existence must owe something to an unseen creator and that anti-rationalism is fully explanatory of support for ID.


Via Rationally Speaking

Sunday, December 14, 2008



Because of the recent need to replace my computer, and the general havoc it has caused, I have been slow in my blog perusing. I have managed to be late to reading several good posts on Dr. Steven Novella's Neurologica Blog:

Dr. Steve follows up on his "Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part I – Background" with "Skeptical Battlegrounds: Part II – Creationism."

There is a nice piece on why SETI is really scientific, "SETI Science."

And, in one of my favorite egregiously uneven matchups of intellectual combat, he also bodyslams Dr. Michael Egnor's latest efforts to make neurology the new ID creationism (including Egnor's attempt, that I previously noted, to hijack the work of philosopher David Chalmers) in "More Neuroscience Denial."

There are other posts over the over the last week that are equally worthy. If you aren't already, you should be reading Neurologica Blog on a more regular schedule than I have been of late.


Firing Squad

Heh! Ed Brayton notes that the Washington State Department of General Administration has declared a moratorium for exhibits and displays in the Legislative Building:

[A]ll pending applications - including one for a Festivus pole - an homage to the made-up holiday featured in the comedy series "Seinfeld" - have been put on hold until the department completes a review of the current policy for exhibits and displays in the Legislative Building.

In a statement the department said it made the decision after receiving more applications than anticipated and can be "reasonably accommodated" in the building's display area. ...

State officials had allowed the anti-religion placard to be displayed during the holidays at the Capitol, along with a Christian nativity scene and a decorated Christmas tree, in response to a lawsuit filed [by the conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund] over seasonal religious displays on state property.
The simplest solution to this is to remove all "holiday" displays from government property. Naturally, Christians are, instead, demanding special rights:

"It wasn't just a statement of atheist sentiment that there was no God," says rally organizer Steve Wilson. "It went on to say that religion hardens hearts and enslaves their minds, which is actually an insult of people of religious faith."
Christians can organize to deny people a court-recognized right to marry but, it seems, they have a government-enforced right not to be "insulted."

Hypocrisy is apparently a major "family value."


Siege Mentality

According to Misty Upton, "Christians are under siege again."

Why? Because people dare to say there is no God ... gasp ... in public!

[T]he American Humanist Association is launching an ad campaign appearing on Washington, D.C. buses. The ads read, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."

The spokesman for the group stated, "Our reason for doing it during the holidays is there are an awful lot of agnostics, atheists and other types on non-theists who feel a little alone during the holidays because of its association with traditional religion." The ad features a man in a Santa costume, hands mid-air, shrugging. Since Santa Clause is traditionally associated with Christmas, this ad seems not to be geared at attacking all religions, but solely attacking Christianity.

Well, of course, the connection with Santa is the thoroughly secular song "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." And it isn't just Christianity. In this "holiday season," Judaism also celebrates Yom Kippur and Chanukah. But I guess Jews are just the junior partners of Christians.

Naturally, if people say "Happy Holidays" (even acknowledging that not everyone celebrates Christmas) that is violating "Christians' fundamental rights ... to freedom of religion." Apparently, Christians have a constitutional right to force you to say "Merry Christmas."

Strangely, Easter, which is presumably a much more important Christian holiday than Christmas and which has been much more secularized -- when was the last time you saw Jesus, instead of the Easter Bunny, portrayed in the Easter parade? -- brings out no such angst.

But this is the real crux of Ms. Upton's complaint:

In the case of Murray v. Curlett in 1963, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to absolish mandatory school prayer and Bible readings in public schools. Oddly enough, it is reported not a single Christian organization filed a brief in support of school prayer. In 2003, it was ruled that Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore should remove a granite monument of the Ten Commandments from the rotunda of Alabama's judicial building. Moore stated, "It is a sad day in our country when the moral foundation of our law and acknowledgment of God has to be hidden from public view." The majority let these things slide. After all, they were little things. Tiny. Not a big deal and we should have separation of church and state. Right? ...

[I]f Christians continue to allow the government to bully individuals to keep their religious convictions confined to their homes and locked behind Church doors, Christians will also evolve. Christians will evolve into Christians without Christ. In order to survive and adapt in a politically correct society, Christians have stood by and let tiny changes occur at the expense of religious freedom.

It is, according to these sort of Christians, their right to use their majority position to force the government to do their proselytizing for them, in the form of Bible readings in public schools and Christian symbols displayed in government buildings. They don't think they should have to go out in the street and compete against other voices or try to get people into their churches. They feel entitled to move their beliefs outside their homes and churches by the simple expedient of turning government institutions into Christian places of worship.

There is no "war against Christmas." There is only a continuing war against theocracy, begun by the founders of our country and, sadly, still necessary today.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Educational Malpractice

What's wrong with this Op-Ed piece about the upcoming curriculum fight in Texas?:

In response to the Express-News editorial of 12/1 ("Don't Water Down Science Curriculum") we at San Antonio Bible Based Sciences Association would like to ask how you can water down a curriculum which is almost exclusively evolution already by changing the wording which has existed in the curriculum for many years? Also, no creationist organization in this state is trying to insert new language, change the evolutionary science curriculum of this state or insert creationism in any way during this adoption cycle. Further, all board members of the State Board of Education(SBOE) are unanimous in stating that they have no intent to insert new language, change the curriculum or in any way try to insert creation into the curriculum. How then may we ask is our children's education so imperiled, and how will it be changed in any way from what it has been? The following is a letter I sent to all of the SBOE members and which has had a positive response from two members, one of which invited me to testify in Austin. ...

[O]ur children need to be challenged with critical thinking and critical evaluation of data. Teachers do not need to worry whether responding to a students query about an ID or creationist's idea which dovetails onto the evolutionary material they are covering can be answered without fear of reprisal and that they can praise the student for their questioning mind, for that's what we want to foster! Inclusion of this phrase will not alter what is taught in our school in any significant way in terms of content since that content is all geared towards TAKS and next to the End of Course Exams (neither of which will have questions on ID not creation), but this phrase does enable an atmosphere of free dialogue we should want in our science classrooms and which promote the open, questioning minds we need as future researchers!"
In response to the several letters in the paper over the past two months SABBSA would be very happy to oblige and provide scientific evidence of weaknesses in evolution and for creation. We stand ready to go to any venue you invite us to, and can present several hours of scientific evidence which supports creation. Included in these will be the fact that evolution violates the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, as well as the Law of Biogenesis. We can show you creation evidence in the fields of microbiology, genetics, probability, biochemistry, biology, geology and physics which support creation and undermine evolution. You are also welcome to peruse our website at www.sabbsa.org. On the newsletters page you will find almost ten years worth of newsletters, most with a discussion of recent evidences uncovered for creation. On the links page you will find links to national creation organizations which specialize in providing creation evidences.
No, it isn't the claim that evolution violates thermodynamics. That is, as PZ Myers points out, an old canard and it would only be surprising if creationists left it out of the alleged "weaknesses" they want to be able to misinform innocent children with.

Nor is it the fable that Pasteur showed that abiogenesis was false (which, strictly speaking, wouldn't be a weakness of evolution in any case).

It isn't even the fact that the letter writer lost his train of though and, despite claiming that neither the Texas State Board of Education nor any "creationist organization in this state is trying to ... insert creationism in any way" into the state's curriculum, he promises to "provide scientific evidence of weaknesses in evolution and for creation," clearly seeing no difference between them. Is there any doubt that those two board members who 'responded positively' also see them as one and the same? And what will that "free dialogue" with the students look like if the creationists on the Board get their way?

This is what's wrong with the letter:

I am a math and science teacher in our public schools [and] my personal belief is that Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design have more than sufficient scientific evidence to support their inclusion in classroom science discussions ...
The poor unsuspecting kids of Texas.

Update: Richard B. Hoppe at The Panda's Thumb has made an expedition into the darkest heart of the San Antonio Bible Based Sciences Association website and come back alive (and, more amazingly, with his sanity intact) bearing tales of the natives' strange beliefs and rituals. For a glimpse of what Texas children have in store for them if the creationist members of the SBOE get their way, go check out Richard's article.

Friday, December 12, 2008


The Party of Lincoln Hoover

Um ... why did the short-term rescue of US automakers fail?

[Sen. Bob] Corker [Rep. KY.] said he proposed that wages and benefits of U.A.W. members be competitive with lower rates at American plants run by foreign rivals — Toyota, Honda, Nissan and B.M.W. — during 2009, and offered the union the opportunity to pick the date next year when the changes, which would be certified by the Labor Department, could be put in place.

Let's see ... we are in a deep financial crisis because millions of Americans are having their homes foreclosed because they can't pay their mortgages, retail sales are in the tank, deflation is rearing its ugly head and, generally, money is not circulating in the economy. So the Republican strategy is to further push down wages as fast as possible and send the retail side of the economy into a deeper freeze.

I suppose making sure there is a depression is one way to "fix" the economy. I'm sure it will be more efficient in 10 or 20 years when the recovery finally comes.

Vote Republican! Because one term of Herbert Hoover was not enough.


Hoisting the Holidays

Concerning the continuing contretemps in the Capitol of Washington State, Ed Brayton has pointed out that the Governor has no choice but to allow access to the atheist group due to a settlement the state made last year in a suit brought by the conservative Christian Alliance Defense Fund. Here is how the ADF described the settlement:

“In fact, the state capitol rotunda is open for displays and exhibits during the holiday season. The state cannot bar a Christmas nativity because of its religious viewpoint and allow other displays like a menorah and ‘holiday tree,’” [ADF Senior Legal Counsel Byron] Babione added.
Those interested can find a pdf copy of the settlement here. Notably, the settlement includes an amended “Department of General Administration, Policies, Procedures & Task Outlines, Capitol Campus Facilities” that the state is required to adopt, that determines the "coordinated, nondisruptive use of capitol facilities by the public and by commercial organizations."

The "Background" section of the policy, setting forth the general requirements that must be met, states:

The buildings and grounds of Washington's capitol campus are maintained by its citizens for the purpose of conducting the business of state government. Public participation and involvement by citizens is encouraged. Therefore, where and when access is allowed, state government must provide for non-discriminatory access to and use of capitol facilities by all citizens.
The restrictions that can be placed on citizen use are:

~ First priority goes to government use and, after that, any use that does not disrupt government use of the facilities is scheduled on a "first come, first served" basis.

~ The size and time schedule of the proposed activity must be consistent with the intent and decorum of the seat of state government and the appropriate, non-disruptive use of public facilities. For example, weddings may not be conducted in the capitol when the legislature is in

~ Consumption of alcoholic beverages in the public areas of the capitol campus buildings or grounds is prohibited, with the exception of official affairs of state.

~ No activity may be authorized or permitted if there is potential for conflict with a previously scheduled activity, or conduct of the activity may lead to damage or injury to persons or property.

~ The activity must not violate any federal, state or local constitutional requirements, statutes or ordinances.

~ The activity must not 1) disrupt orderly flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic; 2) interfere with the conduct of state business on the capitol grounds; or 3) block access to state buildings.
Now, let's see ... the atheist group's sign itself is not disrupting state government business, interrupting the flow of pedestrian traffic, blocking access to the capitol, or the like ... any more than the crèche is, at least.

There's no drunken wedding dances involved.

As much as conservative Christians might wish differently, advocating atheism does not violate any federal, state or local constitutional requirements, statutes or ordinances.

I suppose you could argue that the "conduct of the activity may lead to damage or injury to persons or property," since the atheist sign was already stolen. But the only reasonable interpretation of that provision is that the activity itself, not the illegal acts of others in response to the activity based on their own motives, must pose a danger of injury. Words on a sign are not, except perhaps in the most extraordinary circumstances, physically dangerous.

Now, does advocating atheism "conflict with a previously scheduled activity" of having a crèche, menorah and holiday tree in the rotunda? That is the closest possible excuse that could be used to deny permission for the atheist sign or to move it to another part of the capitol. But it would be a poor basis for the state to defend a complaint of viewpoint discrimination on.

Obviously, there is no physical conflict that makes the concurrent displays difficult or dangerous. The only conflict is an emotional one, in that Christians don't like their beliefs criticized, particularly at this time of year or in connection with the quaint tale of the little baby Jesus. But as was made clear in the case of the Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois, the hurt feelings of those hearing or seeing the exercise of other people's free speech is not grounds to deny that speech. Certainly, it would be a clear violation of the Free Speech, Establishment and Freedom of Religion clauses of the First Amendment for the state to try to put atheists, or any other group with disfavored beliefs, into a free speech ghetto, tucked away from the favored religious symbols.

It was conservative Christians who wanted the capitol rotunda opened up for displays by the public. It's high time they get used to living with what they asked for.

That thing up on the right is a petard, by the way.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Thinking Design

Here’s an interesting article by Hania Köver for the Berkeley Science Review entitled “The psychology of teleology.” It is a brief report on a study by Berkeley psychologist Tania Lombrozo on why some people find teleological explanations, such as Intelligent Design Creationism, so compelling.

Lombrozo was motivated by the observation that young children often explain the existence of objects and phenomena with reference to their function, a kind of reasoning termed teleological. Ask a three-year old why it rains, for example, and you are likely to hear something like "so that plants have water to grow." ... This tendency of children to infer design suggests an explanatory default: In the absence of competing knowledge, the best explanation for an object with a plausible function is that it was designed to fulfill that function.

Unlike children, most educated adults know that clouds form because water condenses, and that mountains exist because of plate tectonics. However, Lombrozo was interested in whether adults would fall back on teleological reasoning in the absence of background knowledge.

In order to study the question, Lombrozo and her colleagues Deborah Kelemen and Deborah Zaitchik studied Alzheimer's patients, who:

“ ... have some characteristics of adults and some characteristics of children," says Lombrozo. "Like adults, they have undergone normal development and have presumably gotten rid of any reasoning strategies associated only with children. But like pre-school children, they might not have access to the kinds of rich causal beliefs that adults typically have access to."

The patients and a control group of healthy age-matched people were asked to choose the best explanation for a set of phenomena from a choice teleological and non-teleological explanations and the Alzheimer's patients chose the teleological explanations about twice as often as the healthy controls.

This part may be a bit controversial:

"The results support the idea that adults and children have the same sorts of cognitive mechanisms at work, and that adults are just overriding the explanatory default with background knowledge," says Lombrozo. They also fit in with findings from other studies that show more frequent use of teleological explanations in less educated adults, and in educated adults making speeded judgments.

Lombrozo believes this may explain why intelligent design and creationism are still so pervasive in today's society. But that doesn’t quite explain why it is much more prevalent in the US than in the rest of the developed world -- unless Americans are much less educated than most other people in the First World ... or much more childlike.

There are, of course, the just-so explanations for the origin of teleological thinking:

"One possibility is that if you look at our evolutionary past or at our experiences growing up, one of the things we did most often was explaining human behavior. And human behavior is generally goal-directed — it does involve intentions and functions. We may be taking the mode of explanation that we're best at and then applying it to other domains," she says. "Another possibility is that it's more effective. We're going to learn more about the world if we go around assuming that things have functions and then sometimes discovering we were wrong, rather than the reverse."

Whatever the value of those suggestions, I think Lombrozo is probably right about this:

[M]ost of the time, functional explanations don't do a lot of harm. In fact, they can sometimes help people understand concepts that might otherwise be too difficult. In chemistry, for example, it can be helpful to think about the electron wanting to go to where it's positive, or, when learning about evolution, that the moth doesn't want to be visible to its predator.

In fact, teleological language is rather common in science, which served as the basis for one of the more ingenious arguments for design.

Thanks to TomS for pointing out this other article, in Evolution: Education and Outreach, by Tania Lombrozo, along with Anastasia Thanukos and Michael Weisberg, on a study on how best to teach the nature of science and evolution:

Teaching science with the aim of changing students’ beliefs about evolution raises difficult questions about the proper role of teachers and science education ... But, applying the insights of evolution to medicine, public policy, environmental issues, and decisions about what to eat and how to live requires not only understanding evolution but accepting it as well. We suggest that if we want our students to understand and accept evolution, a more realistic picture of the nature and process of science is essential.


Let the Games Begin!

This should be interesting:

A Kansas-based church that has blamed deaths in Iraq on U.S. tolerance of homosexuality has asked Gov. Chris Gregoire's office to approve a "Santa Claus will take you to Hell" message to display among other religious statements in the Capitol's third-floor hallway. ...

According to Spokesman-Review reporter Rich Roesler, the first part of Westboro's proposed message:

“You'd better watch out, get ready to cry, You'd better go hide, I'm telling you why 'cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell. He is your favorite idol, you worship at his feet, but when you stand before your God He won't help you take the heat. So get this fact straight: you're feeling God's hate, Santa's to blame for the economy's fate, Santa Claus will take you to hell."

Westboro Baptist, led by Fred Phelps Sr., has protested at funerals for gays and at military funerals, blaming the nation's tolerance for gays for the loss of U.S. military personnel in Iraq. The actions prompted the Washington Legislature to pass House Bill 1168 in 2007, making it a misdemeanor crime of disorderly conduct to disrupt a funeral or protest within 500 feet of a funeral or funeral procession.

Others now seeking displays are the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and someone wanting to erect a "Festivus" pole (from the mock holiday "Festivus for the Rest of Us" originated on "Seinfeld").

Somebody ship Bill O’Reilly some faux blood pressure meds to go along with his next round of faux outrage.

Free speech is a wonderful thing to watch in action.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Poll Cats

The Harris Poll released a new nationwide survey of 2,126 U.S. adults surveyed online between November 10 and 17, 2008. Some of the results:

-- 80% of adult Americans believe in God - unchanged since the last time we asked the question in 2005. Large majorities of the public believe in miracles (75%), heaven (73%), angels (71%), that Jesus is God or the Son of God (71%), the resurrection of Jesus (70%), the survival of the soul after death (68%), hell (62%), the Virgin birth (Jesus born of Mary) (61%) and the devil (59%).

-- Slightly more people - but both are minorities - believe in Darwin's theory of evolution (47%) than in creationism (40%).

-- Sizeable minorities believe in ghosts (44%), UFOs (36%), witches (31%), astrology (31%), and reincarnation (24%).

-- Catholics are more likely than Protestants to believe in Darwin's theory of evolution (by 52% to 32%), ghosts (by 57% to 41%), UFOs (by 43% to 31%), and astrology (by 40% to 28%). Protestants are slightly more likely than Catholics to believe in creationism (by 54% to 46%).

Okay, if this poll can be believed, it’s good that more American believe in evolution (even if needlessly labeled “Darwin’s”) than in creationism but that may be more than overcome by the depressingly large numbers that believe in ghosts, UFOs, witches and astrology. I’m more sanguine about the religious beliefs because there are social factors preventing critical examination of those beliefs by the believers. But those factors should be missing in the “secular” subjects, like UFOs, etc.

But maybe this is the most telling result of the poll:

-- only 26% of all adults believe that the Torah is the word of God, even though it is the same as the first five books of the Old Testament. Presumably many people do not know this.

Maybe the most significant finding about Americans is their ignorance.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Of Birds, Feathers and Flocks

Mike Dunford of The Questionable Authority has a bit of a (justifiable) rant about the lack of honesty of Dr. Michael Egnor, The Discoveryless Institute’s brainless surgeon. Perhaps, in the end, what is most notable about Mike’s post is the fact that, once circumstances were pointed out to him that suggest that the example from Egnor's article he was particularly focusing on might have been the result of sloppiness on Egnor’s part (a peculiar trait for a neurosurgeon) rather than the result of malice, Mike acknowledged it immediately, though Mike still thinks Egnor is ethically challenged. Let’s see if Egnor can muster the integrity to acknowledge his errors, much less his greater sins.

In any event, I agree with Mike’s overall assessment, since I noticed that Egnor utilized the following quote:

This irrelevance of evolutionary stories to real scientific work was pointed out by biologist Adam S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, in 2000:

…most [biologists] can conduct their work quite happily without particular reference to evolutionary ideas … Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.

That just happens to be an entry in the Quote Mine Project, that is there because the very next paragraph reads:

Yet, the marginality of evolutionary biology may be changing. More and more issues in biology, from diverse questions about human nature to the vulnerability of ecosystems, are increasingly seen as reflecting evolutionary events. A spate of popular books on evolution testifies to the development. If we are to fully understand these matters, however, we need to understand the processes of evolution that, ultimately, underlie them.

Also, as PZ Myers points out, the quote miner is playing on some ambiguity in the meaning of that phrase “particular reference”:

Yes, I can go into my lab right now, make up some solutions, run a pH meter, collect embryos, use a microscope, etc., without once using the principles of evolutionary biology. Likewise, I can do a lot of the day-to-day stuff of the lab without even thinking about developmental biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, or physiology; that does not imply that these disciplines are not central to how life works. We don't need evolutionary biology . . . except whenever we want to think about how these narrow, esoteric little experiments we do fit into the grander picture of life on earth. You know, biology.

But the amusing thing is that the exemplars of abusers of this quote mine in the Project’s entry are Jerry Bergman and Answers in Genesis, both hard-core young-Earth creationists.

By their friends shall you know them.



Navel Observatory

In an exercise with more than a little midrift gazing, Australian astronomer Dave Reneke, who is also news editor of Sky and Space magazine, has announced yet another candidate for the “Star of Bethlehem.” Using a computer program to map the night sky as it would have appeared over the Holy Land more than 2,000 years ago and using Matthew's Gospel as a reference, he pinpointed the slightly inconvenient date of June 17 in the year 2 BCC as when:

"Venus and Jupiter became very close ... and they would have appeared to be one bright beacon of light.

"We are not saying this was definitely the Christmas star - but it is the strongest explanation for it of any I have seen so far.

"There's no other explanation that so closely matches the facts we have from the time.

"This could well have been what the three wise men interpreted as a sign. They could easily have mistaken it for one bright star. ...

"Astronomy is such a precise science, we can plot exactly where the planets were, and it certainly seems this is the fabled Christmas star." ...

Now it seems to me that there were more than a few good astronomers in the Mideast in and around that time and more than a few literate civilizations. But is there any other account of this strange new “star” in the sky? Wouldn’t the supposedly sky-savvy Magi have already known about planetary conjunctions? And why believe the Magi were even there and were not some later-added embellishment to the tale?

"This is not an attempt to decry religion. It's really backing it up as it shows there really was a bright object appearing in the East at the right time.

"Often when we mix science with religion in this kind of forum, it can upset people. In this case, I think this could serve to reinforce people's faith."

Well, if you need a naturalistic explanation of what is supposed to be a supernatural event, it doesn’t sound like much of a faith to begin with.

Monday, December 08, 2008


Cracker in Training



Surprise, Surprise

The Supreme Court has refused to hear an emergency appeal from Leo Donofrio of New Jersey, who claims President-elect Barack Obama is ineligible for the office because he had dual nationality at birth, since his mother was American and his father was a British subject from Kenya and, therefore, he cannot be a "natural born citizen." Donofrio is an equal opportunity loon, claiming that John McCain isn't one either because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

There is another appeal pending of dismissals of lawsuits by "9/11 Truther" Philip J. Berg, claiming that Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii. Charitably, those suits are based on evidence at the same level of believability as what has been produced to show that Bush blew up the Twin Towers.

No Bush v. Gore this time around.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Please Stand By


Because of technical difficulties, I've had to replace my computer and I expect it will take some time before I can become proficient on the new one. Therefore, I expect posts may be somewhat sparce for a few days at least.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

Saturday, December 06, 2008



The ... um ... select few readers of this blog will probably be thoroughly sick of Richard Hofstadter's renowned book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life by the time I get done reading it but this section has a clear lesson for us now:

Today the evolution controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era to intellectuals in the East, and it is not uncommon to take a condescending view of both sides. In other parts of the country and in other circles, the controversy is still alive. A few years ago, when the Scopes trial was dramatized in Inherit the Wind, the play seemed on Broadway more like a quaint period piece than a stirring call for freedom of thought. But when the road company took the play to a small town in Montana, a member of the audience, rose and shouted "Amen!" at one of the speeches of the character representing Bryan. Today intellectuals have bogies much more frightening than fundamentalism in the schools; but it would be a serious failure of imagination not to remember how scared the intellectuals of the 1920's were. Perhaps not quite so much appeared to be at stake as in the McCarthyist crusade of the 1950's, but the sense of oppressive danger was no less real. ... The Scopes trial, like the Army-McCarthy hearings thirty years later, brought feeling to a head and provided a dramatic purgation and resolution. After the trial was over, it was easier to see that the anti-evolution crusade was being contained and that the fears of the intellectuals had been excessive. But before the trial, the crusade had gained a great deal of strength in many states, including several outside the South.
Of course, as we now know, anti-evolution and the anti-intellectualism that fueled it had not been vanquished but had merely gone underground, like some giant fungus waiting to send up its mushrooms in a better climate. As Hofstadler acknowledges, after Scopes, evolution was being taught in public schools only by indirection, if at all. And, shortly before Hofstadter's book was published, but well below the notice of those no-longer-overwrought intellectuals, Morris and Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood that, a scant two decades later, would have two states giving "creation science" equal time with evolution in public schools and many more lined up to do the same, until the Supreme Court put an end to it and sent the creationists back to the drawing board, with results we are all familiar with.

The evolution controversy and the Scopes trial greatly quickened the pulse of anti-intellectualism. For the first time in the twentieth century, intellectuals and experts were denounced as enemies by leaders of a large segment of the public. No doubt, the militant fundamentalists were a minority in the country, but they were a substantial minority; and their animus plainly reflected the feelings of still larger numbers, who, however reluctant to join in their reactionary crusade, none the less shared their disquiet about the trend of the times, their fear of the cosmopolitan mentality, of critical intelligence, of experimentalism in morals and literature.
We need look no further back than the past election, with its charges of elitism, its exaltation of the proudly unschooled, its insinuations that anyone the least intellectual or cosmopolitan was not a "real" American, to see that this vein still runs strong through our body politic and remains only barely below the surface.

There is no easy answer to this problem, no simple way to avoid the danger. Unless and until we can make it part of being "just plain folks" to be well-read; to include in "Main Street" American values the exercise of true critical thinking; to have it be as respectable to be knowledgeable for knowledge's sake as it is to be famous or wealthy or to "fit in" with everyone else, we will be vulnerable to this dark streak in our national culture and a danger to ourselves and the rest of the world.


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