Thursday, April 30, 2009


What Was That About Reaping ...

According to Chairman Mike Jackson of the Nominations Committee of the Texas State Senate, the confirmation of State Board of Education Chairman Don McLeroy is dead in the water.

McLeroy's nomination will be left pending in committee because there is enough opposition on the floor of the Senate to block his confirmation, which requires approval of two-thirds of the senators.

McLeroy would keep his seat as a board member even if he was not confirmed as chairman by the end of the legislative session.

[Gov. Rick] Perry would then pick a chairman from among the other board members who would not face Senate confirmation until 2011.
Given the other yahoos on the Board that ["lets start the Civil War over"] Perry can chose from, this may not make much difference. However, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill to take away the elected board's authority over curriculum and textbooks.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, authored the bill that would remove the board's textbook and curriculum authority; it is pending in the Education Committee.

He said the ideological direction of the board is all right with him now that Republicans are in charge.

"What happens when the worm turns and my party is no longer in the majority?" Seliger asked.

He said the long-term best practice is to take the partisanship and politics out of the decisions about educational materials.
Unfortunately, a key conservative leader, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, who has already achieved some notoriety and who supports teaching both creationism and evolution in public schools, objects to stripping the board of any of its education oversight, so it isn't clear that the effort will succeed. But Chisum has a warning for the Board:

[H]e said that the legislators' wrath might signal to the board that it needs to look internally and focus on its core responsibilities.
It's clear that the best thing would be to turn curriculum and textbook decisions over to professional educators. Next best would be for the conservative wing to heed the word to the wise given by their allies in the legislature and avoid another brouhaha over textbook selection ... but there is no history of wisdom there.

We can only hope that if the Board makes Texas public education a laughing stock again, it'll be the last time.


P.S. The Discovery Institute whinning about that noted bastion of Darwinist thugs, the Texas State Legislature, will start in 3 ... 2 ...


Gandalf Shrugged

Okay, I've never gotten into Ayn Rand and only know her work secondhand. But this is good snark (via Brian Leiter):

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Counting Religiously

Here are some interesting numbers from Dr. Elaine Howard Ecklund, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Associate Director for the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University. Professor Ecklund previously conducted the "Religion Among Academic Scientists" (RAAS) study in 2005-2007 that found that it wasn't true that scientists lose their religion upon professional training, due either to an inherent conflict between science and faith or to institutional pressure to conform. Professor Ecklund has now surveyed 300 scientists over a three-year period from 2005-2008 and found:

Less than 5% of scientists have no faith at all. 35% claim to be "spiritual atheists" which they define as having a belief in something larger than themselves. This group has rather eclectic views, using a bit of Eastern religious thought integrated with scientific thought as foundation for that belief. 68% of scientists on the whole have some sort of compatibility in their beliefs with science and religion. 50% of them are committed to their religious faith.

For the most part Dr. Ecklund did not find incompatibility between science and religion among academic scientists. 96% believe, however, in evolution and only a miniscule number in Intelligent Design. 5% may believe in evolution but have some problems with the theory.

During the research Dr. Ecklund also found a number of scientists had some sort of evangelical belief but wouldn't be identified as such because they believe that doing so might get them categorized in some way as anti-science. Only 1% of the scientists actually state they are evangelicals while 8 to 10% practice it.

Besides not finding much support among scientists for the "incompatiblist" position in her survey, her conclusions are also pertinent to the "accommodationism" debate:

"The discussion of science and religion has [not?] been undertaken well. For the most part there has been silence, and this is sad for the community and for American democracy. The public thinks scientists are against religion, and they are not. Furthermore young people believe they might be discriminated against if they enter the field of science. This is dangerous for the future."

Science needs to be translated to the religious community, Ecklund declares. The compatibility scientists have with religion needs to be known. Without it, folks will be less trustworthy of science, considering it to be anti-faith.

Another important fact Ecklund the public needs to know is that for the most part declared atheists in the population of scientists are not opposed to religion. They do have a sense of something in the universe that is bigger than themselves. Knowing this might make a big difference in how people of faith regard science and the scientific community. Not to regard science and science as valuable and having compatibility in the arena with religion, Ecklund declares is a very serious matter.

Evangelical theists and Richard Dawkins-style atheists may make up about the same percentage of the scientific community? If true, that is a fascinating correlation.


Accommodating Education

Arri Eisen, director of the program in science and society and a senior lecturer in biology at Emory University's Institute for Liberal Arts, and David Westmoreland, a member of the Board of Directors of the Catamount Center for Geography of the Southern Rockies, have a commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Teaching Science, With Faith in Mind" that bears on the whole "accommodationist" flap.

I've already mentioned Massimo Pigliucci's blog post taking Richard Dawkins to task for suggesting that "we" (presumably the scientific establishment, since he is referring to Jerry Coyne's complaints about the NAS, AAAS and NCSE) go beyond humorous ridicule (which I was unaware those bodies were adept in) and treat the "deeply religious" with "naked contempt." Beyond the ethical question of educators taking such an attitude toward their students, there is the question of how effective it would be as a strategy. Eisen and Westmoreland present a case that it is counterproductive.

Considering science in light of alternative worldviews also often leads to a more thorough analysis of that science and those worldviews — and so, inevitably, people learn the science better. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted a study on teaching evolution to high-school students. The control group was taught in the traditional didactic fashion, while the experimental group instead read original work from Darwin, Lamarck, and William Paley (a founder of intelligent-design ideas). The latter group compared and contrasted the three thinkers, their approaches, and how well one could test their ideas using scientific criteria. The researchers conclusively demonstrated that the experimental group learned evolution better. Such an approach exposes students to alternative views and belief systems without explicitly endorsing or rejecting any, without crossing the church/state line, and without any discussion of the personal views of the teachers.

Of course, it is a little hard to engage students in considering alternative views that one openly holds in naked contempt. It can also have a cost that some of us don't think worth paying:

One of our former students is a case in point. Near the end of her time in college, she reflected upon why she had turned away from her dream of becoming a physician, and perhaps away from science altogether. She had grown up in a devoutly Christian community in the South. She loved science; her mother taught at a Christian high school, engaging both evolution and creation. She came to Emory University because it has a strong liberal-arts program known for preparing students well for medical school. However, over the course of her college career, in various forums — but especially in her science classes — her point of view was dismissed, ignored, ridiculed. Her beliefs, instilled in her from childhood, were not acknowledged or positively engaged at any level.

I have no problem ridiculing silly arguments and treating those who act contemptuously with the appropriate disdain. But they can't gain the favor of my naked contempt just because they are deeply religious; they have to get it the old-fashioned way and earn it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Science Or Philosophy

And so it continues ...

Richard B. Hoppe has restated his position on "accommodationism" with, as he says, "(a little) less snark, fewer red herrings, and the admission of a change of mind in one respect." PZ and Jerry Coyne have responded graciously to Richard's restatement.

Actually, however, Richard appears to have made two changes in his position.

First, while he previously defended the National Academy of Sciences' book, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, and its treatment of the compatibility of science and religion by saying:

NAS has not taken a "philosophical" position that I can see. ... The NAS statement points out two plain facts: some good scientists are believers and some denominations do not see a conflict between their version of Christianity and evolution.
... he now says:

The latter two [NAS and AAAS] are organizations of professional scientists, and it's reasonable to expect them to focus solely on science advocacy in their public efforts.
His second change was in regard to the National Center for Science Education:

I think (writing now as a Life Member) that NCSE has recently made a mistake in going beyond simply pointing to individuals and organizations who have somehow reconciled their science and religious beliefs to counter the creationist equation of evolution with atheism. In the essays by Peter M. J. Hess that apparently are the basis of the NCSE Faith Project, there is an endorsement of a particular view of the relationship, an adaptation of Gould's Nonoverlapping magisteria with a dose of complementarian thinking.
These are among the examples brought forth by Jerry Coyne which I previously expressed my doubts about.

I have to say that Richard is right about the second change but I can't agree with the first. Last time I looked "science advocacy" involved a considerable amount of "down in the trenches" political work. It's no accident that the President was speaking at a NAS meeting the other day. If there is something incompatible in the air right now, it's the notion of scientific purity going with science advocacy.

Science education, particularly in evolution, is deeply political and largely rests at that most vicious level of politics: the local school board. And as with every other area of American politics, it is thoroughly entangled with religion. To have our most prestigious scientific organizations retire like monks to their abbey to preserve their "purity" is to concede the field to the likes of Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute, who will take full advantage of the vacuum.

Contrary to one claim made by Coyne, our success in court decisions over the years is aided by the NAS stance. If a court were to accept as true the constant drumbeat from AiG and the DI that "Darwinism" and atheism are one and the same, it would have to relegate evolution education and perhaps all of science to comparative religion or civics classes, since it is just as violative of the First Amendment to teach that atheism is true in public schools as it is to teach that Christianity is.

As Massimo Pigliucci points out, the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism, on which this entire kurfuffle ultimately rests, is a valid demarcation of the limits of science. The philosophy of science is certainly a valid subject for any science organization.

If Coyne and PZ and Dawkins disagree with that philosophical position of the NAS as to the nature of science -- if they want to turn science into philosophical materialism -- they have the right to agitate for a change in science's definition -- at least as much right as the DI does. But if they succeed in having it redefined as philosophical naturalism/materialism, they will guarantee that it can no longer be taught as true in American schools.

Absent that outcome, the NAS statement is a correct explanation of the philosophy of science that it can and should make.



The Eldest

... so far, at least.

From NASA:

NASA's Swift satellite and an international team of astronomers have found a gamma-ray burst from a star that died when the universe was only 630 million years old, or less than five percent of its present age. The event, dubbed GRB 090423, is the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen. ...

Beyond a certain distance, the expansion of the universe shifts all optical emission into longer infrared wavelengths. While a star's ultraviolet light could be similarly shifted into the visible region, ultraviolet-absorbing hydrogen gas grows thicker at earlier times. "If you look far enough away, you can't see visible light from any object," he noted. ...

The source appeared in longer-wavelength images but was absent in an image taken at the shortest wavelength of 1 micron. This "drop out" corresponded to a distance of about 13 billion light-years.

That, of course, is evilutionist propaganda. But it has to be admitted that God had to create a lot of light already in transit to make it look like it was that old.

Monday, April 27, 2009


Inside the Third Clownatorium

Dana Hunter points out this report in The New York Times:

The program began with Central Intelligence Agency leaders in the grip of an alluring idea: They could get tough in terrorist interrogations without risking legal trouble by adopting a set of methods used on Americans during military training. How could that be torture?

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees — investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate. ...

The process was "a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm," a former C.I.A. official said.
There it is. If we do prosecute the architects of our torture program, we won't be putting the likes of Hitler, Himmler and Eichmanm on trial ... it'll be Larry, Moe and Curly.

I don't know if that isn't more horrible.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Long Horns

Jeremy Mohn at stand up for REAL science has a link to audio of the confirmation hearings for Don McLeroy, the creationist chair of the Texas State Board of Education, for another term. The Texas Freedom Network live-blogged the event and there sounds to be some interesting moments.

The TFN also notes some ominous signs for McLeroy (good signs, of course, for science education in the Lone Star State). Jeremy discovers another, all the while placing it in correct ... and funny ... context:

[T]he Discovery Institute just sent out an ominous email to its supporters claiming that the "Darwin lobby" is trying to "expel" McLeroy because he "took a stand for academic freedom" and showed "support for critical thinking on evolution." I guess the political process in Texas is just as bad as "Big Science."

Let me see if I have this right...

Apparently, showing "support for critical thinking on evolution" involves quote mining evolutionists, plagiarising from Creationist sources, redefining science to include supernatural explanations, lying about your past statements, crafting incomprehensible amendments, admittedly not reading the authoritative sources from which you quote, and consistently misunderstanding evolutionary theory.

Do I have that right?
Not that we should get our hopes up or expect that, even if they are fulfilled, it will make much of a difference but any sign that the grown ups in the state government are beginning to consider the damage all this anti-science hoopla is doing to the truly important business of the state will be welcomed.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Blinded By the Light

The Carnival of Elitist Bastards Partie Douze is up at Slobber And Spittle.

For a real stunner,1 there is this:

Science education was - how to put this gently - pretty weak at our kids' school. There was the teacher who informed the class that the reason it was warmer in Summer is that the Earth is closer to the sun. There was the textbook that, in the glossary section, defined "extinction" as "when an animal is dead". Or the teacher who downgraded one of my kids' science projects because "the Van Allen belts didn't have anything to do with space". The one who ridiculed one of my kids for not being creative enough to write about a triangular planet. (Unlike his teacher, my son was well aware that planets can really only be more or less spherical.) The one who just couldn't believe that the child had read a book by Arthur C. Clarke called "Dolphin Island". (No, that's not right; are you sure it wasn't "Island Of The Blue Dolphins"?)

But, worst of all, there was a total eclipse of the sun and the school decided to ignore it instead of making it a (literally) once in a lifetime educational experience.

Sometimes it's not easy being an elitist bastard and having to contemplate such stupidity.


1 At Decrepit Old Fool



We the People

Jeremy Mohn at the excellent stand up for REAL science has a response to Jerry Coyne's latest post against "accomodationism" that I largely agree with. I see no reason that the NAS, NCSE and other science organizations shouldn't counter the propaganda, largely from the Religious Right but also from some atheists, that science and religious belief are necessarily incompatible. Such statements by scientific organizations seem to me to be nothing more than acknowledging an empiric fact of the world that is not obviated by the fact that Coyne does not understand how some people are capable of doing it or because the means they use to do so do not meet Coyne's personal standards of how theology "should" be done.

The extent that such organizations should go in acknowledging this fact is, of course, a matter of fair debate and I must say that some of the examples of biblical exegesis Coyne points to at the NCSE site seem to me to be of questionable appropriateness for a science organization.

One of the complaints made by Coyne and others is that the "accomodationist" program is not working, based on the polls that show that the acceptance of evolution has remained stable over the last 60 years or so. But is that contention, by the standards of science itself, well founded? Certainly, the acceptance of a complex and (perhaps evolutionarily) counterintuitive idea such as evolution is itself a complex phenomena. At least one other major variable has changed over that same time period that reasonably should have increased the public's rejection of evolutionary theory: the great increase in Evangelical/Pentacostal/Fundamentalist Protestantism, generally antithetical to evolution and naturalistic science, at the expense of the "mainline" Protestant sects that have been more science-friendly.

In my own (admittedly unscientific) view, I suspect that these numbers are stable because they represent some basic way people differ in how they look at the world and attempt to explain it. Be that as it may, focusing on one statistic is a highly suspect way to judge the effect of any program. Look, for example, at another statistic:

According to a 2006 study sponsored by the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative of the Center for American Progress and conducted by the firm Financial Dynamism ... [e]ighty percent of those questioned agree that "faith and science can and should coexist. We can respect our belief in God and our commitment to the dignity of every human life by using our scientific knowledge to help those who are sick or vulnerable." The same overwhelming number endorses the view that "stem cell research can be a force for moral good rather than a moral failing."

Why should we not attribute this highly encouraging result, at least in significant part, to the "accomodationist" campaign?


Update: Russell Blackford takes a position endorsed by Coyne; Wes Elsberry takes an opposite view and John Wilkins is collecting opinions.


Update II: Richard B. Hoppe, at Panda's Thumb, has made a frontal assault on Coyne and his allies (read it and see why the bellicose metaphors).


Update III: PZ responds to Richard B. Hoppe and Larry Moran joins in.


Update IV: And for some fireworks, Chris Mooney has taken a hand.

Friday, April 24, 2009


God, Inc.

I previously mentioned John Micklethwait's and Adrian Wooldridge's new book, God Is Back, and quoted from an article of theirs in The Wall Street Journal. Hanna Rosin has now reviewed it in The New York Times. Some parts of it cannot be a comfort to secularists, much less atheists:

[T]he book's strength is in dissecting exactly how God managed to morph and evolve and become indispensable to the world at a time when he should have faded away. ...

While fundamentalists of all kinds get most of the attention, the authors zero in on another phenomenon: the growth and global spread of the American megachurch. With no state-sanctioned religion, American churches began to operate like multinational corporations; pastors became "pastorpreneurs," endlessly branding and expanding, treating the flock like customers and seeding franchises all over the world. The surge of religion was "driven by the same forces driving the success of market capitalism: competition and choice." ...

All the while, religion began shedding its association with anti-­intellectualism, and became the province of the upwardly mobile middle class. Evangelicals began graduating from college in record numbers, and Christian philanthropists began building an "intellectual infrastructure," including programs and endowed chairs in the Ivy League. A new class of thinkers emerged representing what some have called "the opening of the evangelical mind," and a solid religious left began to take shape, symbolized most powerfully by Barack Obama. Obama beat Hillary Clinton for many reasons, but one was his ability to "out-God" her, they write.

If right, this hardly bodes well for religion fading away, or even becoming significantly less influential, either politically or culturally, anytime soon.


Governor's As High As An Elephant's Eye

Oklahoma is lucky to have Brad Henry.

The state's governor has been willing to stand up against the wing-nut extremist religious right in the past, despite it's considerable political power in the state. He's done it again and, what is better, has made his action stick.

Gov. Henry vetoed a law that would have banned embryonic stem cell research in the state and would have made it a misdemeanor to engage in such science. The vote to override the veto passed in the House but failed by six votes in the state Senate. The business community, particularly the Chambers of Commerce of Tulsa and Oklahoma City, had opposed the law, seeing it as having an adverse effect on Oklahoma's research community (no kidding!) and likely to have discouraged research-based industries locating in Oklahoma (nothin' gets by those guys!).

Congratulations Governor!


Via Erv

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I Knew Him When

John Wilkins' book draws closer and gets some pretty impressive blurbs:

"Few topics have engaged biologists and philosophers more than the concept of species, and arguably no idea is more important for evolutionary science. John S. Wilkins' book combines meticulous historical and philosophical analysis and thus provides new insights on the development of this most enduring of subjects."—Joel Cracraft, American Museum of Natural History

"This is not the potted history that one usually finds in texts and review articles. It is a fresh look at the history of a field central to biology, but one whose centrality has changed in scope over the centuries. Wilkins' book will be a standard source for all kinds of people working in systematics. There is not another book on the subject, amazingly enough, and his perspective is so comprehensive and well-taught that it will replace any standard review articles and older histories."—Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Endangered Specious

PZ Myearshertz found a good lawyer (with more stamina than I) who waded deeper into the ICR complaint.

Andrew at Evaluating Christianity is the stalwart soul and between him and a commenter there, Kurt Denke (particularly here and here), they've pretty well demolished the legal basis of this soon-to-be-short-lived suit.

By the way, anyone who wants an OCRed copy of the complaint can now get it at Steven Schafersman's site.

Hurry up! It's going to be a collector's item soon!


Crash Landing

Here's another little drive-by snarking at David Klinghoffer. I know ... but it's so easy and things are such in my life right now that I don't have the time or the energy to expend on anything more challenging at the moment.

Klinghoffer is out to defend his latest attempt to blame every bad thing that's happened in the last 150 years on Darwin. Having strayed from the friendly (and commentless) confines of the Discovery Institute's "blog" ("The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this site"), he is getting raked over quite well on his home turf.

But there's one little area I'd like to address:

Darwinism's social record is simply and nothing more than a good reason to take a second look at the science behind it.

This is a constant refrain of Klinghoffer's. For some reason, he seems to think that because something is put to bad use, that raises questions about its underlying truth.

Let's look at that. On September 11, 2001, two airliners were flown into the World Trade Center towers with much loss of life. A third was crashed into the Pentagon, also with a substantial death toll. What's more, all around the world, at this very moment, airplanes are delivering bombs and missiles that are killing people, quite often innocent women and children.

Is our first impulse to question the science of aerodynamics and to doubt that airplanes can fly?


P.S. David, that isn't Darwin's tree you have up at your place. His is the one up there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Horse Race

This baby is going to provide hours of fun!

That would be the Institute for Creation Research's lawsuit ... that can only be described as possessing all the cogency and forceful logic of the ICR's science.

If you want a serious treatment of the suit, you might want to go to Tony Whitson's curricublog for some links, not least of them Steven Schafersman's, where you can read the complaint in all its overblown rhetorical glory. (If you are particularly nice to me and would like a pdf copy that has been OCRed, I can email you one.)

Not myself being the poor sod who is the law secretary to the Federal judge unlucky enough to be assigned this case (sure to draw even more loonies out of the creationist woodwork than did Dover), I don't have to try to wrap my brain around the intellectual pretzels this complaint has tried to make out of the law. This much I'll say: the thrust so far as I've gotten seems to be that, as long as any private school is not merely a diploma mill, the state has no right to control whatever standard the school chooses to award degrees or what it calls them. For example (p. 18):

ICRGS, which conspicuously affirms its Biblical creationist viewpoint as an institutional distinctive, should not be required to academically "shut its mouth" or "go to the back of the [postsecondary science education] bus" just because it affirms the truth of Genesis 1:1, or because ICRGS corroborates the Biblical account of the Genesis Flood (the historicity of which has been repeatedly corroborated).
And on page 23:

[D]efendants have no constitutional right to hinder ICRGS's academic freedom to offer, educate for, educationally assess, and/or grant master's and doctor's degrees (so long as such is done in good faith, and not as a "diploma mill" "sham") ...
In other words, they can teach religion, call it science and award a science degree, all in the great American tradition of caveat emptor, and there is nothing the state or its education department can do about it. I await with bated breath the masters degrees in astrology and UFOlogy.

But there is much mirth to be had in the meantime. For example, I bet you didn't know that molecular and cellular biology are nothing more serious than the hula hoop or pet rocks:

Legally relevant, to ICRGS's institutional academic freedom, is another theme recurring in Dr. Skoog's criticisms of ICRGS's M.S, curriculum, science fads. The necessarily implied criticism is that ICRGS doesn't try to be "fashionable" by mimicking whatever its evolutionist counterparts are now doing, thematically speaking. For example, Dr. Skoog remarks: "The anatomy of these organisms ["'the jawless, cartilaginous, and bony fishes, amphibians (mudpuppy & frog), reptiles (turtle), birds (pigeon), mammals (fetal pig and rat), humans and other unusual mammals"] has traditionally been emphasized in high school and introductory college biology courses. However, this emphasis has been decreasing dramatically in recent decades as emphasis is placed on molecular and cellular biology." In other words, ICRGS's curriculum is faulted, in Skoog's opinion, if ICRGS continues to scientifically investigate and analyze Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, because "the (evolutionary) Joneses" are not wearing that fashion much nowadays. (p. 19)
And what a shame it is that medicine ever decided to move beyond bleeding it patients.

But this has to be my very favorite legal footnote ever:

21 As a point of clarification, THECB Commissioner Paredes' unquestioned faith in a "Big Bang" of "14 billion years ago" (which he may believe in by faith, but he bas no eye-witness knowledge of such) should not be confused with the "great noise" mentioned in 2nd Peter 3:10. The evolution-only viewpoint discrimination is further illustrated in Commissioner Paredes' opinion (on 4-23-2008) that evolutionary thinking as "foundational" to "modern science". (p. 21)
The ICR has been losing out of late to Answers in Genesis in the "bring the crazy" sweepstakes. It's surged right back into the lead.


College Test

The American River College Student Council gained some notoriety by supporting Proposition 8, California's anti-gay-marriage Constitutional Amendment, last year. Some of the more reality-based students are now seeking to oust the old council. Based on these statements by one of the incumbents, it is none too soon:

Christian students feel like they can't speak their mind in class, said Viktor Choban, a student council member who is running for re-election as part of [incumbent president George "Yuriy"] Popko's slate. He said he is tired of professors' support for feminism and science teachers whose tests ask how old the Earth is.

"It depends on your religion," said Choban, 25. "I would say 6,000 years based on my religion. The evolutionists would say 2 million years."

Yeah! How dare a science professor expect you to give science's answer to a question instead of religion's? ... Much less know science's answer within a couple of orders of magnitude?

The best of luck to David Fisher and his slate of people who actually think attending a college should involve learning a little something about the world!

Monday, April 20, 2009




My irony meter melted ...

... went straight through the floor boards

... the concrete floor of the basement

... and, based on a blast of steam that just went through my living room, is now China-syndroming its way through the water table beneath my house.

What happened was I clicked on this article by David Klinghoffer, one of the Undiscovery Institute's chorus of "Darwin caused the Holocaust" dissemblers. This time he has chosen the announcement of Stephen Hawking's serious illness to chide the Catholic Church for actually having the intellectual integrity to invite Hawking to a conference at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. According to Klinghoffer, the Vatican was giving Hawking "a forum" for a challenge by "his work to a most fundamental tenet in any Biblically based religion -- that the universe had a beginning."

Never mind that just a little over a month ago Bruce Chapman, head dance instructor at the Disco Tute, was frantically saying that the similar Pontifical Council on Culture is not an office of the Vatican and represented neither the Vatican nor the Pope. The funny thing is this:

The great psychologist William James...observed that most of us arrive at our opinions -- whether on religion, politics or science -- based not on a judicious weighing of evidence, but rather on the prestige of the ideas in question. That is, the prestige they confer on us. Even Vatican officials aren't immune from such human tendencies, and the fact is that, the merits of his theories aside, Stephen Hawking is a very prestigious scientist. As I have come to realize from countless frustrating personal interactions, lots of religious folks feel a social need to affirm certain ideas, including scientific ones, outside the realm of their expertise. With their personal prestige at stake, they will not be dissuaded.

Quite apart from the admission that the real thing that that IDeologists hate about science is the fact that not enough people are willing to appear -- and be -- stupid enough to deny it, the irony is that this is also a perfect description of why ID Creationists want so desperately to see their blather accepted, at least popularly, as science ... for the prestige. Not content with making philosophical or theological arguments for their beliefs, people like Klinghoffer, with no discernible scientific training, cannot be dissuaded from claiming, totally outside the realm of his expertise (whatever that might be), a better knowledge of science than scientists have. Thus, we have dentists like Don McLeroy proclaiming his right to "stand up" to experts and tell them what science should be.

If they weren't doing so much damage to the country that they so often loudly profess to love, it would be really funny.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Moral Primacy

A thought:

To explain human behavior as a "mere" product of evolution, however, is often seen as insulting and a threat to morality, as if such a view would absolve us from the obligation to lead virtuous lives. The geneticist Francis Collins sees the "moral law" as proof that God exists. Conversely, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that "If there is no God, I am free to rape my neighbor!"

Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed to form a livable society, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked rules of right and wrong before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need or complain about an unfair share? Human morality must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization. It may, in fact, be older than humanity itself. Other primates live in highly structured cooperative groups in which rules and inhibitions apply and mutual aid is a daily occurrence. ...

We never seem to doubt that there is continuity between humans and other animals with respect to negative behavior — when humans maim and kill each other, we are quick to call them "animals" — but we prefer to claim noble traits exclusively for ourselves. When it comes to the study of human nature, this is a losing strategy, however, because it excludes about half of our background. Short of appealing to divine intervention as an explanation, this more attractive half is also the product of evolution, a view now increasingly supported by animal research.

This insight hardly subtracts from human dignity. To the contrary, what could be more dignified than primates who use their natural gifts to build a humane society?

- Frans de Waal, essay, "Obviously, says the monkey," in reply to the question "Does evolution explain human nature?" at the John Templeton Foundation website.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Designing Theology

It's never a surprise when any of the Discovery (sic) Institute drones admit that "The Designer" they are going on about is really God, though it's important to document the dishonesty. David Klinghoffer is the latest, though he does still waive a fig leaf in front of God's constitutional "naughty bits."

In the evolution debate, a common charge against intelligent design is that it insults God by implying He set up His world so poorly that it requires constant modifications and inference to keep things going along the track He had in mind to begin with. You could make the same criticism of any alleged miracle -- that is, any interference by a transcendent creator or designer in the course of natural or human history.

... I've been seeking a compelling positive reason that God would have -- as He or some designer seems to have done -- devised natural laws that are not sufficient by themselves to account for the course that life's history has taken.

... Is it in any way a "slight to God" to think His laws are insufficient to get all the work of creation done? If so, why? If not, why not?
Wielding that "some designer" the way another dissembler once used "But it would be wrong," cannot paper over the fact that it is the existence of a transcendent being performing miracles that Intelligent Design Creationists like Klinghoffer are proposing to teach as science. One anonymous commenter made a nice theological response to Klinghoffer's question:

Intelligent design creationism is an insult to God, because Johnson and its other creators deliberately left God out of the picture. In an effort to get around the US Supreme Court 1987 decision prohibiting the teaching of "creation science" in public schools because it is blatantly obviously religion, Johnson et al took God and Genesis and Adam and Eve and Noah and all the good parts out of the creation story. They proposed an anonymous invisible supernatural "intelligent designer," publicly denying for years that it was God. They created another creator - another God! A Vatican theologian has stated that this is technically heresy - an insult to God. How any serious creationist could support intelligent design creationism is a mystery.
It will be interesting (in the same sense as rubbernecking a fender bender) to see Klinghoffer expound on the theology of ID.


Friday, April 17, 2009



Jen Pollard, a student at the University of Washington (in biology, no less), doesn't like the recent decision of the Iowa Supreme Court invalidating the state's marriage law, to the extent that it did not permit marriages between gays and lesbians, and complains about an earlier column in the student newspaper on the subject. Her reasoning is, however, somewhat ... unique:

[T]his is a republic! You might remember that from saying the pledge of allegiance as a kid in school. The major issue is that a few judges changing the law is not how a republic works. This is not the way to change the system. This is a much bigger issue than gay marriage. The republic is being distorted and changed by a few people. This only leads to an oligarchy, which isn't good for anybody.

Of course, the judges didn't "change the law." They found that one provision of the law was in conflict with another provision of the law and, since one of them was a higher authority -- the state's Constitution, which was adopted collectively by the people of the state -- they ruled the marriage law was invalid. But this is where it gets funny. Ms. Pollard then complains of the column's assertion that the ruling doesn't mean churches would be forced to recognize gay marriages:

I'd like to know where you get you research from? You should cite or give specific examples as a journalist. You're not the only one, as it seems to be the trend these days. There is a very real threat against churches' ability to continue practicing their religions. Pastor Ake Green preached a sermon in his church from the New Testament saying that homosexuality is sinful. Then came a criminal prosecution against Pastor Green for allegedly violating Sweden's "hate-speech" law prohibiting expression criticizing a minority group, in this case, persons who engage in homosexual behavior.

He was sentenced to prison for a period of 30 days for preaching his religion in his church. Luckily, the Swedish Supreme Court reversed this decision. This is what happens when the definition of marriage is changed.

Now, quite apart from the validity of citing a Swedish law, subject to the Swedish Constitution, as an example of the "danger" faced by religion under the Iowa and United States Constitutions, what, exactly, does she think the Swedish Supreme Court was doing when it overturned Rev. Green's conviction but "changing" the law in precisely the same way that she was just complaining about?

It's one thing to be more concerned about your own ox being gored, it's quite another to not even notice a dead ox at your feet.


Heading to China

Dr. Egnor continues to display his ignorance, not only of evolutionary biology, but of the law as well. He's still trying to dig himself out of the hole he excavated in his attempts to counter Timothy Sandefur's demolition of his position and, naturally, is succeeding in only making it deeper. He does it this time by quote mining the Supreme Court in the case of Edwards v. Aguillard:

The Supreme Court, in Edwards v. Aguillard, ruled that it is permissible to "require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught." This is my view, again, stated succinctly, so Mr. Sandefur can grasp it:

We should teach and study the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, with public funds, without hindrance. We need more academic freedom, and more teaching and research on evolution, not less.

Mr. Sandefur believes that teaching public school children that evolutionary theory has weaknesses is unconstitutional. He's wrong on the law, and transparently so. If I didn't know better, I'd think that Mr.Sandefur was merely trying to silence criticism of Darwinism in public school classrooms, and he's grasping at any premise he can think of to do it.
Sandefur has never said that he opposes teaching scientific critiques of evolution. The obvious bone of contention is whether the "strengths and weaknesses" the Discovery Institute and its openly creationist allies on, say, the Texas State Board of Education, are promoting are, in fact, "scientific critiques." Notably, the only "weakness" Egnor made reference to in his latest round of babblings is the supposedly "large unexplained gaps in the fossil record." Does that count as a "scientific critique" in the sense advanced by the Supreme Court?

The concurring opinion by Justice Powell, joined by Justice O'Connor, goes deeper into the nature of the claims of "creation science" and why it could not qualify as a "scientific critique." In doing so, they favorably cite the decision in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Judge Overton there found that:

The proof in support of creation science consisted almost entirely of efforts to discredit the theory of evolution through a rehash of data and theories which have been before the scientific community for decades. The arguments asserted by the creationists are not based upon new scientific evidence or laboratory data which has been ignored by the scientific community.
Egnor's "weakness" is the exact same claim that can be traced back at least as far as Henry Morris and his "classic" creationist book, Scientific Creationism. And it was carried into Intelligent Design Creationism by no less a "light" than Phillip Johnson. As I recently noted, geology and taphonomy have already addressed the reason for gaps in the fossil record and there is nothing new raised about this "weakness" since it was originally argued 30 years ago and more. The mere absence of evidence, especially when there are well-understood reasons for the evidence to be missing, is not a "weakness" in a theory. It is only when there is evidence that cannot be reconciled with the theory that there is a weakness. While there are many open questions and interesting issues in evolutionary theory, there are no weaknesses that call into question the basic fact that evolution has occurred ... as attested by the judgment of the scientific community as a whole.

In point of fact, there is nothing new in the "weaknesses" that have been proposed in the DI's campaign. All the IDers like Egnor have done is stripped their "arguments" of the overt claim that it is evidence for creation. And all Sandefur and everyone else who values good science education oppose is the attempt by Egnor and his ilk to bring "creation science" back into public school science classes through the back door.


P.S. In perusing these decisions, I'm reminded of some other similarities to the DI:

Judge Overton noted: "[Duane] Gish's book [Evolution -- The Fossils Say No!] also portrays the large majority of evolutionists as 'materialistic atheists or agnostics,'" which is certainly a constant theme of Egnor's screeds.

Justice Powell noted testimony to the effect that there were "recognized creation scientists in the United States, who 'numbe[r] something like a thousand [and] who hold doctorate and masters degrees in all areas of science,'" which rather puts the DI's list of 700 "dissenters from Darwin" to shame.

Update: Timothy Sandefur has now responded to Dr. Egnor's latest.

Thursday, April 16, 2009



There is a review by Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman of Lewis Wolpert's new book, How We Live and Why We Die: the Secret Lives of Cells that prompted some early morning musings.

Appleyard is already on PZ Myers' list of hack journalists who produce "smug blatherings of a truly stupid person." PZ points to a potentially interesting connection between Appleyard and James Le Fanu, recently discovered by the otherwise Discoveryless Institute, who may, in fact, be the person who made the complaint that caused New Scientist to pull Amanda Gefter's article on "How to spot a hidden religious agenda."

Anyway, Appleyard's review of Wolpert (who he calls a "distant friend") has all the indicia of what Wolpert once called him: a "closet Christian." There is talk of cells being "improbably complex;" and of the condition of being alive and aware as "a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word" and as a "wildly improbable process," a conclusion Appleyard reaches based, apparently, only on "a moment's introspection." And there is the "complaint" about the fact that humans have only about 30,000 genes, which "just doesn't seem to be enough," which Appleyard apparently got from Le Fanu.

All that is prelude to what caught my eye:

Under all this are signs of Wolpert's familiar folly of overvaluing contemporary knowledge. This may be merely a rhetorical problem. For example, he writes that Aristotle "was a wonderful thinker but wrong about almost all the science he wrote about". This may be true, but an alert reader will reasonably conclude that if Aristotle was wrong about so much, then it is safe to assume that, 2,500 years from now, it will be apparent that Wolpert was wrong about just as much.

This is not a point that he or any other hard-science thinker ever fully takes on board – it requires humility, not a common virtue among prominent scientists, often found clutching a microphone and a book contract. It also requires an awareness that, as we can never know the limitations of our science, one must fall back on more durable forms of wisdom. Wolpert, however, has spent far too much of his career trashing these forms, which he, along with all those militant atheists, insists on seeing as the enemy.

Now, I'm no science triumphalist. I don't think that ours is the lucky generation that has finally arrived at the truth of the universe, leaving only a few inconsequential details to fill in. Appleyard is right that we can never know the limitations of our present science but the conclusion he draws from that -- that we have made no advance in our knowledge at all and we are as equidistant from the truth as any of our ancestors -- is flat out wrong. No matter how far we are from the ultimate truth of the cosmos, we are still demonstrably closer to it than Aristotle was.

And what, exactly, are those "more durable forms of wisdom," anyway? What area of human knowledge has remained unaffected over the last 5,000 years by our increase in knowledge of the material world? Certainly not ethics; not philosophy; and, particularly, not theology or religion.

Appleyard is merely engaging in the production of soothing sounds to lull those who would rather not contemplate the implications of the real and measurable world -- a class Appleyard almost certainly belongs to himself -- into thinking they don't have to.

It's an insidious narcotic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


East Side, West Side

Oh, just a word more on Dr. Michael Egnor's most recent outbreak of foot-in-mouthitis. In his "reply" to Timothy Sandefur a few days ago, Dr. Egnor insisted:

The term creationist in this debate refers to young earth creationism. I’m not a young earth creationist. Therefore when Mr. Sandefur calls me a “creationist,” he’s misrepresenting my views.
It is always well to keep track of creationists' statements, particularly Egnor's, because you can count on them changing frequently, depending on the rhetorical advantage of the moment. That's a sad result of not having a principled argument in favor of a consistent logical position but, instead, campaigning solely to evade the Constitutional prohibition against turning public school science classes into an opportunity for religious proselytizing.

Not very long ago, Egnor reacted to the announcement of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) that it would move its annual meeting from New Orleans to Salt Lake City because of Louisiana's passage of a law permitting the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution to be taught in the states' schools. Despite the "debate" being on exactly the same issue, Egnor, in support of a blatant threat of a politically enforced de-funding of evolutionary biology, had quite a different definition of "creationist":

... [m]ost Americans are creationists, in the sense that they believe that God played an important role in creating human beings and they don't accept a strictly Darwinian explanation for life.
It would be interesting to know the process by which Dr. Egnor decides which side of his mouth to speak out of at any one time.


Gaps In His Arguments

Dr. Michael Egnor must imagine himself a Renaissance man.

The evidence is clear that he feels himself qualified to lugubriously lecture experts in fields, such as evolutionary biology and the law, that he, himself, has no detectable expertise in.

One of these days it may occur to Dr. Egnor that his true talents lie in the direction of slapstick.

The latest example is his foray into Constitutional law with Timothy Sandefur that ends no better than an earlier attempt of his.

But something else caught my eye:

... Mr. Sandefur apparently believes that teaching public school students that there are large inadequately explained gaps in the fossil record is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Yet, as it happens, there is substantial publicly funded ongoing research being conducted by evolutionary biologists on these large inadequately explained gaps. Mr. Sandefur has no Establishment Clause objections to the public funding of the research on this topic; he only objects to publicly funded teaching on this topic. Yet the teaching and the research both address the same premise — that there are large unexplained gaps in the fossil record.

Naturally, given that his métier is, as Sandefur says, "distortion, vagueness, and rhetorical manipulation," Egnor gets no more specific than that but it is reasonable to assume he is talking about funding to search for fossils that creationists like to call "missing" -- until they're found, at which point they call them the point in between two newly missing fossils.

My question is: are the gaps unexplained and do the newly discovered fossils explain anything about the gaps?

In point of fact, we know that many more individual organisms have existed than there are discovered fossils, i.e. that only a tiny fraction of the once-living beings on Earth have been fossilized and found. We have a pretty good (and, as with all good science, constantly improving) understanding of the process of fossilization within the field of taphonomy and there is no reason to believe that gaps in the record will ever be eliminated.

So the gaps themselves are well explained, even if you think, as creationists like Egnor do, that some gaps cannot be explained because they represent "poof moments" when God ... opps, "The Designer" ... did something, somehow, in some non-materialistic way and organisms came into existence with no precursors.

Therein lies the problem for creationists: how to you distinguish the gaps resulting from the reasonably well-understood, natural process of fossil formation from those caused by the totally unknown (and deliberately unexplored) processes used by the "Designer"?

Of course, it is only a "problem" if you assume that logic is a requirement for an argument. Egnor has actually complained about his arguments being labeled as "god-in-the-gaps" formulations. But here he is, borrowing directly out of the young-Earth creationist playbook, despite his earlier imperious decree that he is wrongly called a "creationist" because only young-Earth creationists count as "creationists," and making the very claim about gaps in the fossil record that "god-in-the-gaps" originally took its name from.

Dr. Steven Novella has joined in the fray, addressing Egnor's previous effort, and makes the point:

It is also worthy of note that the young earth creationists on the Texas school board think some of the weaknesses of evolutionary theory include things like - the absence of transitional fossils in the fossil record and the second law of thermodynamics. To them the "strengths and weaknesses" language was used to justify including decades-old debunked creationist arguments against evolution - the same arguments that failed to get into science classrooms under the "creation science" strategy, or the "teach the controversy" strategy. The "strengths and weaknesses" strategy is being used to promote the same creationist pseudoscience as all the previous creationist strategies.

So, Dr. Egnor, given your invocation of young-Earth creationist arguments, how is it again that you aren't a creationist?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Uh, Where? ...

Hey, remember this outfit?

The pro-evolution Clergy Letter Project currently has a list of nearly 12,000 ministers who affirm that evolution is true and that the Genesis record is a teaching myth like Aesop's Fables. Since 2006, they have successfully promoted the celebration of an Evolution Sunday in churches throughout the world. The Clergy Letter Project is often cast in the faces of Creationists to insinuate that we are merely a fringe element of Christianity, because there has not yet been an answer to their challenge. Our silence is used as an admission of our alleged irrelevance.

It is disgusting that this modern-day Goliath gets to mock the people of God, flaunting the compromise of some of our ministers as if it represented the majority opinion, with no answer in kind.

The Creation Letter Project now provides an opportunity for Christians, clergy and churches who affirm Biblical Creationism to answer the challenge that the Clergy Letter represents.

Wonder how they're doing? It looks like they have 112 signatures.

Only another 11,779 to go.

Monday, April 13, 2009


Barely Armed

Timothy Sandefur is at The Panda's Thumb/Freespace spanking Dr. Michael Egnor for his latest (successful) attempt to make a fool of himself, not least over his continuing habit of outright lies.

But his other constant habit is making statements of illogic so truly breathtaking as to leave you gasping. He doesn't disappoint this time either:

The second definition of religion — the definition favored by sociologists of religion — is that religion is liturgy, a set of customs and practices of worship. Traditional religions certainly meet this definition, and atheism ironically comes close as well. ... The modern atheist adulation of Darwin has religious overtones — P.Z. Myers desecrated Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion along with the Koran and the Eucharist. The act of desecration presupposes sacredness.

Now, what PZ did on that occasion was not my favorite among his attacks on irrationalism but to make the claim that Egnor does is mind-bogglingly silly. All one needs do is follow the link Egnor gives to PZ's post, with a title dripping with sarcasm: "The Great Desecration," to see just the opposite:

By the way, I didn't want to single out just the cracker, so I nailed it to a few ripped-out pages from the Qur'an and The God Delusion. They are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity's knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Maybe Egnor simply can't fathom that someone would hold the Eucharist to be without any sacred character, but the Koran? It would seem to be a tenet of the Catholic faith Egnor loudly proclaims that the Koran is just another book. Surely he can grasp the notion that it is not sacred and that someone might not hold it in any higher reverence than a book by a scientist? Cannot he just stretch his mind a little further and imagine that someone might hold all three to be equally non-sacred, rather than to have to assume that the person holds all three to be sacred?

Or is it just that Egnor really cannot mount any better logic than ridiculous word-games, so he has to cling to those poor weapons he can manage, more or less, to wield?

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Found in the Warren

Here's a perfect note for this day of egg-bearing Leporidae.

The University of Cambridge's zoology museum has come across a long-forgotten egg that Charles Darwin collected during his famous voyage on the Beagle. The 4.7-centimeter-long egg (left), from a partridge-like bird, is cracked: "The great man put it into too small a box, and hence its unhappy state," according to records found with it.

"It's the only egg that we know for sure was collected by Darwin," even though he collected eggs and nests from at least 16 types of birds on his travels, says museum Director Michael Akam.

The egg was rediscovered when the museum's egg collection, which has lain uninventoried for a century, was being catalogued. It was from what was then known as the Common Tinamou, now the spotted nothura or Nothura maculosasa.

Thank you, Peter Cottontail.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Theocratic Marriage

Ed Brayton, at Dispatches From the Culture Wars, takes Maggie Gallagher of National Review to task over her defense of opposition to gay marriage. In particular, Gallagher tries to avoid the comparison between resistance to gay marriage and anti-miscegenation laws:

Same-sex marriage is quite different from bans on interracial marriage in one powerful respect: It asks religious Americans to surrender a core belief -- not only Leviticus (disapproval of gay sexual acts), but Genesis (the idea that God himself made man as male and female and commanded men and women to come together in a special way to image the fruitfulness of God).

Ed rightly points out that no one is being forced to "surrender" anything. Christians of that ilk can go on thinking gays are "icky" and that the pleasant poetry of Genesis is something more than a fable told around the campfires of Bronze Age shepherds. What's more, anti-miscegenation laws were fervently defended as the God-imposed "natural order" of things, including by the judge who sentenced Mildred and Richard Loving, in the case where the Supreme Court belatedly struck down barriers to interracial marriage:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

While interracial marriage is the most clearly relevant case to gay marriage, it is hardly alone as an example of "core beliefs" that have been held up as justifications for denying basic rights to others. Here is an example from the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow, in his Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery of 1856:

It is branded by one portion of people, who take their rule of moral rectitude from the Scriptures, as a great sin; nay, the greatest of sins that exist in the nation. And they hold the obligation to exterminate it, to be paramount to all others.

If slavery be thus sinful, it behooves all Christians who are involved in the sin, to repent in dust and ashes, and wash their hands of it, without consulting with flesh and blood. Sin in the sight of God is something which God in his Word makes known to be wrong, either by preceptive prohibition, by principles of moral fitness, or examples of inspired men, contained in the sacred volume. When these furnish no law to condemn human conduct, there is no transgression. Christians should produce a "thus saith the Lord," both for what they condemn as sinful, and for what they approve as lawful, in the sight of heaven.

It is to be hoped, that on a question of such vital importance as this to the peace and safety of our common country, as well as to the welfare of the church, we shall be seen cleaving to the Bible, and taking all our decisions about this matter, from its inspired pages. With men from the North, I have observed for many years a palpable ignorance of the divine will, in reference to the institution of slavery. I have seen but a few who made the Bible their study, that had obtained a knowledge of what it did reveal on this subject. Of late their denunciation of slavery as a sin, is loud and long.

I propose, therefore, to examine the sacred volume briefly, and if I am not greatly mistaken, I shall be able to make it appear that the institution of slavery has received, in the first place,

1st. The sanction of the Almighty in the Patriarchal age.

2d. That it was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God.

3d. That its legality was recognized, and its relative duties regulated, by Jesus Christ in his kingdom; and

4th. That it is full of mercy.

Now, it must be said that many Christians just as fervently opposed slavery on religious grounds -- that's why Stringfellow wrote his book and why the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in the first place -- just as some Christians today support, or at least do not oppose, gay marriage. It is here that I think Gallagher is even more off-base than in what Ed points out. For Gallagher does not merely want to use those allegedly "core beliefs" as a grounds for denying others their rights but as a bludgeon against other Christians:

Many religious people and groups will bow to, if not exactly endorse, the power of gay activists. Witness Rev. Rick Warren, who on Larry King Live this week came very close to recanting his opposition to Prop 8. What he did is what many good people will do in the face of the massive campaign of intimidation and harassment designed to silence Christians and others of goodwill who support marriage: He dodged. Rick said, more or less: I am not now and never have been an anti-gay-marriage "activist."

Let me be clear: I have enormous respect for Rick Warren. What has happened to Rick, who did nothing more than speak from his pulpit to the members of his own church on Prop 8, is what lies in store for many good men and women. The deal they will be offered by the government and the culture dominated by same-sex marriage is: Mute your views on marriage so you may continue your other good works. Many good and brave people, to preserve their ability to save lives in Africa or protect the poor in this country, will take that deal.

I'm not here to criticize him or them, merely to point out the underlying power of the movement than can get a Baptist minister to recant about marriage on national television.
Whether the way Warren went about it was craven or not isn't the issue. If, as Gallagher claims, allowing gays to marry deprives some Christians of the right to exercise their consciences about a "core belief," then continuing the ban is depriving other Christians of the right to their consciences as to what are, in fact, the core beliefs of Christianity. That's why the state should not be in the business of enforcing anyone's religious beliefs: it will inevitably have to take sides in matters of theology. That is a role government and the bureaucrats who run it are singularly unfit to perform, as the Founders of this country foresaw.

Gays are human beings seeking legal relationships between consenting adults, subject to all the limitations and safeguards that apply to heterosexual marriage contracts. Leaving theology out of it, there is no rational reason that they should be treated differently, anymore than interracial couples should have been.

That should be the end of it as far as government is concerned.

Finally, in the spirit of this blog, I cannot help pointing out what may be one of the most amusing Freudian usages that I've seen in a long time. Gallagher chides the Democratic party for acceding to "its richly endowed base of gay supporters."

Now we know what her real interest in gay men is.

Blog Against Theocracy 2009



A Tree Grows in Australia

John Wilkins has a post on the origin of tree diagrams in taxonomy. As John notes:

According to the received history, tree diagrams were either entirely new with Darwin or go back to Aristotle, depending on how you define things.

John discusses an example by the German naturalist, Peter Simon Pallas, in his Elenchus Zoophytorum (1766). As it happens, I was reading Michael Ruse's Monad to Man and was at the exact page where Ruse gives the above diagram by Martin Barry from 1837. Ruse's description (p. 111) is:

BloDevelopmental tree as envisioned by the Scottish physician Martin Barry (1837, 346), an attempt to illustrate von Baer's theory of embryology. Although von Baer was critical of the excesses of Naturphilosophie, Barry manages to give a firmly progressionist message, with Man prominently ensconced at the top. We do not know whether Darwin saw this picture before he drew his own tree diagrams (see Chapter 4), but clearly such ideas were in the air. There is no suggestion that Barry, unlike Darwin, was promoting evolution.

It's not as early as John's reference (which had a description of a tree but no diagram) but interesting nonetheless.

Friday, April 10, 2009


109 Lives

A thought:

America has long stood out among developed countries for its religiosity. This has less to do with innate godliness than with the free market created by the First Amendment. Pre-Revolutionary America was not that religious, because the original Puritans were swamped by less wholesome adventurers -- in Salem, Mass., the setting for "The Crucible," 83% of taxpayers by 1683 confessed to no religious identification.

America became religious after the Constitution separated church from state, thus ensuring that religious denominations could only survive if they got souls into pews. While state-sponsored religion withered in Europe, American faith has been a hive of activity: from the Methodists, who converted close to an eighth of the country in the half century after the Revolution, to the modern megachurches.

Has this model really run out of steam? Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool's game. In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that "the churches are dying out all over the land." In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked "Is God Dead?" on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.

-John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, "God Still Isn't Dead," The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2009

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Right and Righter

Harry Collins, director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge Expertise Science at Cardiff University, had an essay in Nature decrying post-modernist and social constructivist criticisms of science. Collins himself had "contributed" to that criticism by "demonstrat[ing] that scientists could not always check a result by simply repeating it." Collins recommends a "third wave" (after the "first wave" of scientific positivism and the "second wave" of post-modernism) where both scientists and sociologists agree that their views are not absolute and "godlike."

By definition, the logic of a sceptical argument defeats any amount of evidence; one can deduce that no inference from observation can ever be certain, that one cannot be sure that the future will be like the past, and that nothing is exactly like anything else, making the process of experimental repetition more complicated than it seems. The work of sociologists was simply to show how this played out in the practice of the laboratory.

Nowadays, however, I wonder if the science warriors might have been right to be worried about the (unintended) consequences of what social constructivists were doing. We may have got too much of what we wished for. The founding myth of the individual scientist using evidence to stand against the power of church or state — which has a central role in Western societies — has been replaced with a model in which Machiavellian scientists engage in artful collaboration with the powerful.
Collins points to the example of South African President Thabo Mbeki's policies denying anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers and correctly, I think, diagnoses the problem:

... Mbeki's ideas about the danger of anti-retrovirals were developed by reading the views of a small group of maverick scientists on the Internet and advising his ministers to do the same. But the view gained from the Internet is not always the view developed within the scientific community. Although in principle the logic of the mavericks' position cannot be defeated, a policy-maker should accept the position of those who share in the tacit knowledge of the expert community.
Certainly we see the same process at work with the acceptance by so many in the US of Intelligent Design Creationism and its list of 700 "Dissenters from Darwin" or Sen. James Imhofe's list of "650 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims."

However, as John Dupré and Paul Griffiths point out, Collins himself has fallen into the same trap, confusing the consensus view of the philosophy of science with an outlier:

Collins dismisses philosophy of science as a 'first wave of science studies' largely coinciding with post-war confidence in science and superseded by the work of sociologists of knowledge like himself. In fact, mainstream philosophy of science — which was being developed before the Second World War by Rudolph Carnap, Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach and others — remains a thriving discipline in most universities. It teaches students that science is neither the 'voice of a God' nor merely the view of one social group, just as Collins advocates.

The only contemporary 'philosopher' Collins mentions (though not by name) is Steve Fuller, whose statement to a US court that intelligent design is science Collins uses as evidence that post-modern scepticism pervades science studies. However, Fuller is a professor of sociology. All the philosophers of science who, like Fuller, were witnesses or advisers in the Dover Area School District case (see Nature 439, 6–7; 2006) appeared for the other side, supporting evolution.

Working in an interdisciplinary research centre alongside historians and sociologists of biology and medicine, we can assure Collins that post-modern science sceptics are thin on the ground. The 'science wars' of the 1990s were whipped up by a selective focus on the work of a very few scholars, many of whom did not work in the philosophy, history or sociology of science. Let us hope that Collins's remarks do not reignite this unproductive controversy.
Right medicine, wrong patient.

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