Saturday, August 20, 2005

The New York Times Shocks Me Twice

After pondering all day all the ways I could rip The New York Times' anti-academic freedom editorial to shreds, I then read this article on the Discovery Institute that is equally shocking in its reasonableness, at least for the Times.

The article states:
As much philosophical worldview as scientific hypothesis, intelligent design challenges Darwin's theory of natural selection by arguing that some organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, pointing to the possibility of supernatural influences. While mutual acceptance of evolution and the existence of God appeals instinctively to a faithful public, intelligent design is shunned as heresy in mainstream universities and science societies as untestable in laboratories.

I am not sure the writers intended to suggest by the use of the phrase "shunned as heresy" that Darwinism functions as a religion, but it does.

The article debunks some of the popular fodder for ad hominem attacks:
Detractors dismiss Discovery as a fundamentalist front and intelligent design as a clever rhetorical detour around the 1987 Supreme Court ruling banning creationism from curriculums. But the institute's approach is more nuanced, scholarly and politically adept than its Bible-based predecessors in the century-long battle over biology.

I was especially impressed effort to portray the moderation and reasonableness of the DI's policy positions (for the most part), and distinguish them from the more aggressive actions by other groups:
One sign of any political movement's advancement is when adherents begin to act on their own, often without the awareness of the leadership. That, according to institute officials, is what happened in 1999, when a new conservative majority on the Kansas Board of Education shocked the nation - and their potential allies here at the institute - by dropping all references to evolution from the state's science standards.

"When there are all these legitimate scientific controversies, this was silly, outlandish, counterproductive," said John G. West, associate director of the science center, who said he and his colleagues learned of that 1999 move in Kansas from newspaper accounts. "We began to think, 'Look, we're going to be stigmatized with what everyone does if we don't make our position clear.'"

Out of this developed Discovery's "teach the controversy" approach, which endorses evolution as a staple of any biology curriculum - so long as criticism of Darwin is also in the lesson plan. This satisfied Christian conservatives but also appealed to Republican moderates and, under the First Amendment banner, much of the public (71 percent in a Discovery-commissioned Zogby poll in 2001 whose results were mirrored in newspaper polls).

You probably will never see me endorsing any New York Times article, and this one made me groan a few times. But it still really surprised me.

Having said this, I note that the mainstream media loves to spin this whole issue as religious or political. The title of this article makes the Times' political angle clear in this case. I would not mind their pursuing either of these themes in an article if they would just examine both sides of the debate, as I do with the underlying religions/philosophies/wordviews here.

I looked long and hard, but there was no mention of Cornelia's Creed. Only the more reasonable statement: "Mainstream scientists reject the notion that any controversy over evolution even exists." The statement is true; the mainstream scientists are so obviously wrong.

Friday, August 19, 2005

More on Von Sternberg

The full letter from the OSC can now be found here. My previous posts can be found here and here.

If He Weighs the Same As a Duck . . .

The Wahington Post has picked up on the Richard von Sternberg story here, which I previously discussed here. Of special note is this little tidbit from the ever trustworthy Eugenie Scott:
Scott, of the NCSE, insisted that Smithsonian scientists had no choice but to explore Sternberg's religious beliefs. "They don't care if you are religious, but they do care a lot if you are a creationist," Scott said. "Sternberg denies it, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it argues for zealotry."

Wha? If they "don't care if you are religious," why did they have "no choice but to explore Sternberg's religious beliefs"? Why not just respectfully ask about his scientific views? And why is that even relevant, and not simply whether he followed the proper procedures for approving the publication of an article (which apparently he did)? Does she mean if he is a creationist, or if someone calls him a creationist? And if it walks and quacks like a duck, do you try to learn more, or do you jump to conclusions and destroy his career?

Of course, this kind of statement is par for the course for Scott, who has honed the "label and dismiss" style of ad hominem argument to perfection.

She asked if "it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck," but she forgot to ask if "it weighs the same as a duck":
Bedevere: Tell me. What do you do with witches?
Villagers: BUUUURN!!!!! BUUUUUURRRRNN!!!!! You BURN them!!!! BURN!!
B: And what do you burn apart from witches?
Villager: More Witches!
Other Villager: Wood.
B: So. Why do witches burn?

(long silence)
(shuffling of feet by the villagers)

Villager: (tentatively) Because they're made of.....wood?
B: Goooood!
Other Villagers: oh yeah... oh....
B: So. How do we tell whether she is made of wood?
One Villager: Build a bridge out of 'er!
B: Aah. But can you not also make bridges out of stone?
Villagers: oh yeah. oh. umm...
B: Does wood sink in water?
One Villager: No! No, no, it floats!
Other Villager: Throw her into the pond!
Villagers: yaaaaaa!

(when order is restored)

B: What also floats in water?

Villager: Bread!
Another Villager: Apples!
Another Villager: Uh...very small rocks!
Another Villager: Cider!
Another Villager: Uh...great gravy!
Another Villager: Cherries!
Another Villager: Mud!
Another Villager: Churches! Churches!
Another Villager: Lead! Lead!

King Arthur: A Duck!

Villagers: (in amazement) ooooooh!

B: exACTly!

B: (to a villager) So, *logically*...

Villager: (very slowly, with pauses between each word) If...she...weighs the same as a duck......she's made of wood.
B: and therefore...


Villager: A Witch!
All Villagers: A WITCH!

With apologies to Monty Python. Full text of the Holy Grail scene can be found here. Acknowledgements for the witch hunt theme to Pros and Cons and Penraker. Another post on the duck theme is here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Von Sternberg Saga at the Smithsonian

Don't miss this article on the treatment of Richard von Sternberg at the Smithsonian after he allowed an article sympathetic to Intelligent Design in a journal he edited. Note that he is not even a proponent of Intelligent Design. Here is an excerpt regarding an investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel:
A lengthy and detailed letter from OSC attorney James McVay, dated August 5, 2005, and addressed to Sternberg, summarizes the government's findings, based largely on e-mail traffic among top Smithsonian scientists. A particularly damning passage in the OSC letter reads:

Our preliminary investigation indicates that retaliation [against Sternberg by his colleagues] came in many forms. It came in the form of attempts to change your working conditions...During the process you were personally investigated and your professional competence was attacked. Misinformation was disseminated throughout the SI [Smithsonian Institution] and to outside sources. The allegations against you were later determined to be false. It is also clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing you out of the SI.
One of Sternberg's allegations was "that his supervisor, Zoology Department chairman Jonathan Coddington, called around the museum to check out Sternberg's religious and political affiliations."

For The New York Times version of the story . . . oh, wait, the Times hasn't picked up on this story yet. "All The News That Fits Our Worldview," I guess. If the roles were reversed, it might have made the front page.

You can find von Sternberg's statement of the facts here, as well as his position in the origins debate. To read the journal article in question, go here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Steel-Toed Boots and Brass Knuckles

One aspect of religious fundamentalism that I did not expect to see mirrored by the Darwinian fundamentalists is the tendency to act on one's dogmatism by advocating the use of force to accomplish one's ends. Yet in a remarkable post Prof. Paul Myers, who is one of the esteemed and trustworthy scientists who assure us that there is no scientific challenge to macroevolutionary theory, has this to say:
I say, screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots. If you don't care enough for the truth to fight for it, then get out of the way.

Now don't worry, because he continues with these comforting words:
[D]on't even suggest that we're being too partisan. I am on the side of reason and human rights, and my only failing is that I'm not partisan enough.

Whew! That's a relief. It's ok to resort to violence, as long as you feel that you are on the right side and your opponents are on the wrong side.

As for me, I am sticking with reason, evidence and civil discourse. At the same time, I think I'd better brush up on my Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

This came to my attention through Telic Thoughts, through Wittingshire, and Mike Gene's commentary can be found here.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Yet More Fun

One recent post contains this quote:
Harvard University has proven over the years that the more complex something is, the less likely you are to find any intelligence behind it.

Another recent post contains this quote:
I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science.

Which one is the parody and which is from a prominent biologist?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Scientific Dogma and Common Sense

John Horgan has an Op-Ed piece in the August 12, 2005 New York Times entitled "In Defense of Common Sense," which discusses the role of common sense in scientific inquiry in light of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. He calls for skepticism whenever scientists make grandiose claims for their theories:

A related set of "quantum gravity" theories postulates the existence of parallel universes - some perhaps mutant versions of our own, like "Bizarro world" in the old Superman comics - existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. "Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist," the normally sober Scientific American once hyperventilated on its cover.

All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

. . .

OVER the past century, moreover, mind-science has been as faddish as teenage tastes in music, as one theory has yielded to another. Everything we think and do, scientists have assured us, can be explained by the Oedipal complex, or conditioned reflexes, or evolutionary adaptations, or a gene in the X chromosome, or serotonin deficits in the amygdala. Given this rapid turnover in paradigms, it's only sensible to doubt them all until the evidence for one becomes overwhelming.

Earlier he comments on the tendency toward "dogma" in science:
[M]any scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. "What, after all, have we to show for ... common sense," the behaviorist B. F. Skinner asked, "or the insights gained through personal experience?" Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book "The Unnatural Nature of Science," "I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Dr. Wolpert's view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or - more often - criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

This essay ran without much attention. However, if he had applied his ideas more directly to any significant aspect of macroevolutionary theory, the bees would have left their hive in a fury. He probably would have been branded a creationist. As we have seen, many scientists do more than "roll their eyes" when macroevolutionary theory is questioned, even in part.