One Long Argument:
One small primate helping to defend science education against the advance of neocreationism.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Curses, you discovered my evil plan!

Huh. Always thought I went around saying that evolution is compatible with religion (if not strict biblical literalism) because I believed it. Turns out I don't, and it's all a clever ploy to hold the line until the universal acid of evolution can corrode away people's faith. ( I feel like I should let loose an evil laugh right about now . . .)

That's what Jacob Weisberg says, anyway, in a recent Slate article:
Many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is.
Granted, I'm not a biologist, or scientist of any sense, so maybe it really is all true! But on second thought, perhaps we should look a little closer. In the interests of actually getting the lawn mowed today, I'm just reposting a slightly modified version of comments made at Thoughts from Kansas.

Weisberg discusses a 1993 NORC survey, mentioning that found that 63% and 35% percent of the U.S. public believed in God and evolution respectively, while the corresponding figures for Great Britain were 24% and 77%. (The survey apparently asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement ""I know God exists and I have no doubts about it," and was combined with another survey which asked "In your opinion, how true is this? ...Human beings developed from earlier species of animals.."). It would be one thing if he simply said "You can believe in both - but not many people do" as a descriptive statement and left it at that (although what sort of thing it would be . . . . well, we'll see in a minute).

Instead, he immediately goes on to claim that it's evolution that erodes religious faith, completely skipping over any tricky questions about correlation or causation. True, I would be surprised if popular understanding of evolution had nothing at all to do with this. At the same time, if someone's an atheist or agnostic for some other reason, what explanation will they turn to for biological diversity? Could belief in evolution be one of several interacting factors? Are both actually the result of some other process(es)? These questions aren't even entertained: instead, they're sent to bed without supper and never get to join the party.

It gets worse. Several paragraphs prior to the NORC survey mention, he cites the following results from the 2004 (over a decade later) Gallup poll:

Creationists: 45%
Theistic evolutionists: 38%
Unguided evolution: 13%

So "not many people" refers to 38% of Americans. Interesting. A similar theme will appear later in the article. It also notes that " belief that evolution is well-supported by the evidence is strongest 'among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and ... Catholics.'"

(The remaining 4% "offered different or no opinion" - I wonder what they'd say?)

[Edit: Don P. over in comments at the Panda's Thumb pointed out I hadn't read closely enough to realize that Weisberg was specifically referring to the "prevailing scientific view of evolution as an unguided, random process." That's an excellent point against my argument here. But does "believ[ing] in both require a metaphysical commitment of this nature, or is it sufficient to agree that science can only understand it as an unguided process? In this case I was going by's categories, and defining the Gallup statement "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process" as theistic evolution, and considering it a valid from of "believ[ing] in both." I also felt that the "unguided" statement - "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process" - might shift people who believed in a less hands-on God over to the middle category. However, that 38% is probably also harboring some unknown percentage of IDers. Certainly, my original impression that Weisberg was just being internally inconsistent to an absurd degree is not accurate. What remains to be seen is how well it matches up with the notoriously flexible reality insides people's heads. More study is needed! - DS, 8/14/05]

Additionally, when he claims that "many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is" - with a comparison to ID rhetoric, no less - well, perhaps he's trying to say that biologists just don't understand how people think. Maybe, but it's hard to see how this might to refer to anything but a deliberate act of deception, one echoing ID claims of Darwinian conspiracies. Now, I dunno, maybe all the biologists do get together and chuckle about how clever their little scam is, but that seems a wee bit unlikely . . .
"Evolutionary theory . . .surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions"
I suppose you could make an argument for kin selection undercutting "Love your neighbor as yourself" - but that seems a little shaky. I mean, if "basic teachings and doctrines" actually translates to "explanations for natural phenomena," if your beliefs require you to read the bible as a science textbook, well, he might be right. In that case, of course, evolution is almost the least of your worries. You also have to deal with physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics . . .

One line I hadn't even noticed until I started writing:
To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians.
Geez, why not just write "so-called Christians," complete with scare quotes? I mean, I'm a Jewish atheist (is too possible!) andI can feel the burn off this one. He really is intent on painting a certain picture, whatever polling data - or people - might say.

Weisberg wants to make grand proclamations about the nature of science and religion. Ultimately, the only thing he manages to is prove is how little he understands either.

Oh yes, Weisberg also claims that evolution "destroyed the faith of Darwin himself, who moved from Christianity to agnosticism as a result of his discoveries." Funny, I always though those wasps that lay their eggs in paralyzed caterpillars for their offspring to devour from the inside out, along with his daughter's death, had something to do with it. You know, the whole problem of reconciling belief in a merciful God with the existence of suffering and evil - but that couldn't have existed long before Darwin, right? (Shake head.) Well, for a view of Darwin's life and beliefs that's actually based on, like, evidence and stuff, read Carl Zimmer's excellent post: A Dog and the Mind of Newton.

One last thing. According to the Gallup poll, 35% said evolution wasn't well supported by evidence, and 29% said "they didn't know enough about it to reply." That's our job.

posted by Dan S. on 2:47 PM |

Tuesday, August 09, 2005
A prediction

Today the New York Times reports on a striking case of convergent evolution. It appears that two (relatively) unrelated groups of poison frogs - the poison-dart frogs of South America and the Mantella poison frog of Madagascar - independently came up with roughly the same convoluted way to be poisonous. Both dine on ants that produce toxic alkaloids, with the frogs storing the alkaloids in their skin sacs until some foolish creature decides on a frog dinner. Helping guard against the merely posthumous revenge of poisoning the one who ate you, both frogs have evolved bright coloration that serves as a warning. And don't forget the unsung heroes of this story, the little people (ok, insects) who make it all possible - the ants. In both cases, they also seem to have separately evolved the use of alkaloids, something rare among ants; researchers don't yet know what they do with them. (Interestingly, researchers found a single Madagascan frog that had nicotine in its system, without any apparent sources in the plants or insects sampled.)

So to recap: on two separate continents, different ants evolved the use of alkaloids (either from food or by making it themselves), then, two different groups of frogs evolved to not only eat the ants, but store the alkaloids, and then they both evolved bright warning colors and patterns. Indeed, the article points out close similarities in appearance.

It's amazing. It can't quite be called irreducible complexity, but it's pretty impressive. Indeed, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear it being used as "evidence" against evolution, and for the idea of intelligent design. So, let me make a two-part prediction.

1) Within a reasonable time, scientists will develop a plausible, evidence-based hypothesis on how this specific case of convergent evolution happened. Again, evolutionary biology will prove to be a practical tool to help us understand the material world. For some, it will also add to an appreciation of our varied and astonishing world, whether evolution is seen as a purely materialistic practice or one set in motion (even untestably guided) by the Divine.

2) Intelligent design won't.

I'm fairly confident in (1), but maybe it won't come to pass. When it comes to (2), I'm certain. So let's see.

The Times:
As evolutionary biologists see it, the underlying principle of evolutionary convergence - that often there is one right tool for the job, and that selective pressures will reinvent the bio-utensil whenever the need arises - exemplifies just how non-random and ostensibly purposeful natural selection can be, and how readily it may be mistaken for evidence of supernatural "design."

The researchers see the nicotine-containing frog as "some of the most convincing evidence that plant-insect-frog toxin food chains do exist." It's astonishing to think about - the whole interlocking, interactive dance of change over time. Think of the all different factors in this small story, if that's accurate: plants evolving chemicals to protect against insects, ants evolving ways to use these chemicals and/or produce their own, frogs evolving the ability to eat the ants and store their poison. Now think of the effects on the different species: for example, ""Without the presence of the alkaloid ants . . . that nice little evolutionary niche of becoming diurnal and colorful would very likely never have opened up for the frogs." Now think of the effects on organisms interacting with them (including within this specific simplified food chain). Now think of . . .

Hold on, I'm getting dizzy. Off to read about the evolutionary history of frogs and ants. It's scandalous what I don't know . . .

posted by Dan S. on 9:31 AM |

Monday, August 08, 2005
August and everything after

You don't want to waste your life baby
As August began, President Bush answered a reporter's question by saying both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in school. If you didn't know that already, you've been far, far away from the political or scientific corners of the blogworld. A part of the reaction has been compiled by PZ Myers of Pharyngula here.

Because I don't get no sleep in a quiet room and...
Among those responding online was UWM paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who argues that "there has been far too much foaming at the mouth, and far too little constructive thought . . . Scientists cannot defeat this . . . with extremism." PZ replies:
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.
Frankly, I don't think PZ takes this issue seriously enough. Now is not the time for soothing words! But anyway, Hawks says something I find very interesting:
The task of science education should be to explain scientific failures as well as successes, by explaining how science leads to changes in ideas. Right now, science education does a really bad job of this.

So people turn to common sense. Common sense expects fairness. It is usually more important to people than correctness. And rightly so: most people will never be judged by their knowledge of the scientific method, but everyone is judged by whether they are fair in their dealings with other people. Advocates of creationism -- including intelligent design -- have had their greatest successes by arguing that presenting a critique of evolutionary theory is fair in a way that science classes presently are not.
And this, of course, made me think of the Wason selection task.

Imagine I lay four two-sided cards down on the tabe:

E                      R                      2                      7

I tell you that if there is a vowel on one side of the card, then there is an odd number on the other. Of course, I'm a dirty Darwin-believing atheist lacking any objective moral standard, so I could be lying. So, using the least number of moves, which cards would you have to turn over to see if I'm telling the truth?

Ok, so you almost certainly turned over the E. Then you either stopped or turned over the 7. That would put you in with about 90% of people. The E is good but not sufficient, and the 7 doesn't tell you anything helpful. You would have had to turn over the E and the 2, the card that could disprove the rule by having a vowel on the other side. (If you did, congratulations. Only about 6% of college students picked this - and you probably have something in common with them.)

Pass me a bottle, Mr. Jones
Huh? Well, before we go on, let's try something slighly different. Pretend I lay down four more two-sided cards:

16                      21                      Beer                      Coke

People under 21 can't drink beer. Imagine you're a harried bartender and the cards are people at the bar. Spending the least time possible, who would you have to check to make sure that everything was all legal?

Ok, you picked 16 and Beer, and with hardly a moment's thought, too. The first task was a clear-cut but fairly abstract problem of formal logic. The second was the same (or similar - there's a debate) task as the first, but using familar social rules and experiences. Why the difference?

Why? I don't know
There are various interpretations (of course). It's been argued that this is evidence: for a domain-specific module in the brain that evolved to detect cheaters, that the two tasks aren't the same, that people are drawing (or not) on background knowledge, that they're relying on everyday language use and misunderstanding the question, or that they're using "a Bayesian decision making process" (this whole discussion is based on Mixing Memory's quite comprehensible post on the subject). Y'all 90-percentagers aren't just wrong in that first example - something else is going on.

And every time she sneezes I believe it's love
Mixing Memory discusses the idea that instead of using formal abstract logic and rationality the way they're supposed to, people often use heuristics, quick-and-dirty commonsensical rules of thumb used to "make decisions, come to judgments and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information". They're eminently practical, and mostly reliable, but under some circumstances can lead to certain biases. One example is the availability heuristic, when people figure out the probability of an event going by how easy it is to imagine (makes sense, right?). In such cases, "vividly described, emotionally-charged possibilities will be perceived as being more likely than those that are harder to picture or are difficult to understand". One illustration immediately presents itself, given the nature of the discussion. (Around this time last year, Louis Menard had a very interesting article in the New Yorker involving heuristics and voter behavior.) I could go on, but one large category of examples seem to be the result of commonsense, practical social rules and expectations coming into conflict with formal logic. (Others just seem to show that people think really funny.)

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Hawks' fairness is a cultural value, for certain kinds of talk; it's also a kind of heuristic. Do you have two competing views that you maybe don't know much about? Teach them both! Let people make up their minds. The truth is probably in-between. Split the difference. In many cases, this would be a good decision. In certain specific ones, it's nonsense (the classic example being whether 2+2 equals 4 or 6). In our case, why evolution and not ID should be taught in science class, many people don't have all that much information. Giving them more is a standard and important response ("while in everyday English a "theory" means just a guess . . . "). At the same time, it's something that is presented in fairly abstract logical terms, not concrete everyday-social-world ways. This can't help.

When I think of heaven
Of course, this is only one aspect. Varieties of religious belief plays a major role, from subtly tilting people in favor of ID (this sounds familar, like my beliefs) to drastically tilting people away from evolution (isn't it anti-God?). And don't forget politics. But there's a more interesting question. What gets people thinking using all that crazy logic anyways? So let's move from soused 16-year-olds to the ideas of a former Swiss zoologist and schoolteacher.

She says "Shhh I know it's only in my head"
That would be developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who had a major influence on education theory. Piaget argued that little people went through different stages of cognitive development, resulting from brain growth, the child's process of discovery, and the attempt to match what's in our heads with what's outside (either through adding to what we know or, if that won't work, eventually modifying/replacing the ways we interpret things). In a sense, the Piagetian child is like a Kuhnian scientist. Or something. One of the things Piaget and folks in this tradition did was to give children simple tasks and ask them questions. For example, pouring water from a narrow glass to a wide one and asking them what happened to the amount of water. Showing them a picture of blue flowers and yellow flowers and asking whether there were more blue flowers or more flowers. Having them pick out a picture that showed a differently placed doll's perspective on a scene.

"Oh", she says, "you're changing." But we're always changing
The results seemed to indicate that children were bizarre creatures who thought there was more water in the narrow glass than the wide one, more blue flowers than total flowers, etc. Children who when shown pairs of sticks could easily figure out that if stick A was longer than stick B, and stick B was longer than stick C, then A must be longer than C, were stumped when asked a hypothetical version of the question (that sounds familar, somehow). Now, being science, Piaget's ideas were ruthlessly tested, probed with greater intensity than a convention hall full of alien abductees. Some of his findings have held up, and many haven't. In some cases, it seem that other factors (to some degree, a kind of cognitive overload on young children's developing facilities) partially explain these oddities; in others, it seems he was on to something. In my child development textbook (Berk, 2003), the main source for this description, while Piaget's account "is no longer fully accepted, researchers are a long way from consensus on how to modify or replace it" (and the book goes on to present a variety of approaches, none of which, however, rely on divine intervention or other non-scientific factors).

It's been years since we were born
Abstract thinking skills? Piaget saw them as part of the formal operational stage, beginning around 11 years of age and extending into adulthood. Here research has been fairly kind to our Swiss friend. While younger children aren't completely illogical (honest!), they run into pretty drastic difficulties compared to adolescents and adults. Specifically, they have serious problems with propositional thought (abstract logic divorced from real-world experience) and hypthetico-deductive reasoning, a whopper of a word that ends translating into something very close to 'scientific thinking.' Even many college students and adult just hit a wall with (the often highly academic) formal operational tasks - but they do much better in terms of situations they're more familar with. The more academic training one has, the better one does in terms of discipline-related problems. In some cultures and settings, it seems that people never manage formal operational tasks - or more accurately, they refuse to indulge your bizarre and useless flights of hypothetical fancy, but often have the capacity (especially, I hear, if you ask them something like how a complete fool might answer). The abilities and usages Piaget was getting at clearly have something to do with education.

I am not worried - I am not overly concerned
But what does all this have to do with science education and the ID debacle? One occasional claim from pro-science people is that we should teach the controversy!, as a way to help students understand how science works. It will, they say, liven up the class, adding some drama while supplying illustrative, relevant examples. Plus, they add, students will come to realize how ID isn't science after all, and this whole controversy just a tempest in a Victorian teapot.

But then I start to think about the consequences
And in some cases, that might be the case. However, there is reason to think that it's not at all that simple. We've seen, for example, that people may tend to view easy-to-understand, "vividly described, emotionally charged possibilities" as more likely than "harder to picture . . . difficult to understand" ones. Under many circumstances, I suspect any such contest between ID and evolution would just be a complete beat-down (the image I get is ID mocking a stunned, swaying Chuck Darwin before executing a Mortal Kombat-style fatality upon him, such as ripping out his head and spine and displaying it the cheering crowds), although I haven't seen research specifically examining this. Additionally, many of the adolescents in 9th and 10th grade biology classes will still be struggling with the kind of thinking. Presenting it in such a emotionally loaded form will not necessarily help them master it; indeed, it may make it harder. Nor should one assume that the resolution will be as obvious to all fourteen-to-sixteen year-olds as it would to college-educated adults having undergone some degrees of rigorous academic training.

Does he tell you when you're wrong?
One topic in science education is the existence of misconceptions, or naive theories: scientifically inaccurate ideas students may have formed about various science topics. These are extremely hard to change. More perniciously, students harboring such misconceptions can go through school putting the right answers on tests, with the truth only coming to light after more accurate assessments are performed. The student may simply pick the answer they know the teacher wants, or possibly a concept or fact is temporarily memorized only to fade away due to lack of intellectual rootedness. Since much of science education builds on previous knowledge, it can end up perched on a very shaky foundation indeed (Martin, Sexton, & Gerlovitch, 2001; Victor & Kellough, 2004). Seemingly successful controversy-teaching may conceal deep-seated misunderstandings.

But what would you change if you could?
Now, perhaps more realistic and relevant settings - such as a ID/evolution debate - would help teachers do a better job of education and assessment. However, as we've seen above, this might not be developmentally appropriate for 9th or 10th graders, given both cognitive development and the heavy emotional significance of the topic (older adolescents might be a different story; this very well could be a good college exercise).

but I'm sure there's something in a shade of gray
The legal definition of heuristics, after all, is another kind of rule of thumb used when "when case-by-case analysis would be impractical." Examples include the legal drinking age (or driving age, enlistment, or age of consent). Certainly adolescents differ in their level of maturity (sometimes from minute to minute). Nevertheless, it's not legally practical to decide on an individual basis when people are able to make mature decisions about drinking (etc.), so we settle on a more or less reasonable, hopefully good-enough age. Should we attempt to do so for this issue? Perhaps.

Because I'm lonely for the big towns
Anyway, one odd feature of such pro-science teach-'em-both suggestions is an apparent belief that high school science classrooms and students somehow exist ex nihilo, hermetically sealed away from outside influences. This is nonsense. Communities matter. (And families. And even former pro football player endorsements.) I have on my kitchen table a study asking why evolution seems intrinsically harder to understand than creationism (Evans, 2001). It argues, as far as I understand, that exposure to evidence can help students "suspend [apparently intuitive beliefs] . . . and shift towards an evolutionary explantion . . ." but in creationist contexts where such beliefs are "not only reified but also deified," this will likely not be sufficient. I hope to write more about this soon; until then, here's an article about teaching evolution at Rock Bridge High School, MO - part of a series in the Columbia Missourian.

Berk, L. (2003). Human development (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Evans, E. M. (2001). Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 217-266

Martin , R., Sexton, C., & Gerlovich, J. (2001). Teaching science for all children (3rd ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Victor, E., & Kellough, R. D. (2004). Science K-8: An integrated approach (10th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

And remember, if you show a young child a row of several stones, spread them out, and ask them if the number of stones changed, they may have trouble for high numbers of stones (ie, 5 or 6); however, if you tell them that a magic bunny moved the stones, they will (apparently) do better.

No, I have no idea why.

If I did, I suspect I would understand a great deal about how religion works. And no, I honestly don't mean that in a mocking "your God is like Santa Claus/the Easter Bunny/a magic fairy/a Neolithic sky god" way.* One of religion's jobs is (often) moral development, and while a lot of this involves communal/interpersonal interaction, something like this may help explain how individuals can move beyond where they are . . . (regardless of any other factors that might lay outside the realm of even social-science hypothesizing).

* Unless your God is a Neolithic sky god, in which case that's certainly fine. Really! Uh-oh. Otzi's gonna get all glaciated on my behind . . .

Section headings from Counting Crows' (1993) debut album, August and Everything After. Of course.

posted by Dan S. on 12:40 PM |

Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Isn't it ironic?

Meanwhile, back on the ranch . . .
HARRISBURG - Only hours after Gov. Rendell and several lawmakers participated in the ribbon-cutting that opened the global biotechnology conference in Philadelphia yesterday, other legislators in the state Capitol were resurrecting the debate over evolution.

As some of the world's leading scientists considered the latest advances in disease treatment, stem-cell research and bioterrorism response, a panel of educators, scientists and civil libertarians clashed over a recently introduced bill that would allow the teaching of intelligent design in Pennsylvania.
The Inquirer describes ID as "a concept advanced in the 1980s," which may be technically correct but neglects to mention the extent that it's just a warmed-over version of Paley's 1802 blockbuster Natural Theology, which insisted on "the necessity, in each particular case, of an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear." As he said, in his famous (borrowed) metaphor
. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use. . . . The marks of design are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD."
Modern ID differs in only a few details - talk about methodological naturalism (Johnson), mathematical games (Dembski), and examples drawn from modern biology (Behe) rather than "the hinges in the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae," which to Paley were "as highly wrought, as if the Creator had nothing else to finish. We see no signs of dimunition of care by multiplicity of objects, or of distraction of thought by variety. We have no reason to fear, therefore, our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected."

That's touching. I'm serious. Unfortunately, a relative of this fear - much of the motivation behind the ID movement - comes through loud and clear in the comments of the State Representative sponsoring the bill, Thomas C. Creighton (R., Lancaster). After all, he says, ""The current code has a bias toward atheists who promote evolution theory." And I suppose this is true - just as it has a bias towards atheists who promote heliocentrism, or lightning rods . . .

It's not about God. (Despite what Rep. Creighton and others have been led to believe). It's about science.

posted by Dan S. on 8:34 AM |

Saturday, June 11, 2005
The Know-Nothing Theory, or, No There There . . .

Courtesy of two posts by Red State Rabble.

This week a pro-creationist subcommittee of the Kansas Board of Ed. voted to water down the presentation of evolution in the state science standards. Among their changes is the following (Benchmark 3, Indicator 7 for grades 8-12 (p. 80):
"The student explains proposed scientific explanations of the origin of life as well as scientific criticism of those explanations."
"Some of the criticisms include:
"Empirical evidence for a "primordial soup" or a chemically hospitable pre-biotic atmosphere is unknown.
"Natural explanations for the genetic code, the sequences of genetic information necessary to specify life, the biochemical machinery needed to translate genetic information into functional biosystems, and the formation of proto-cells is unknown.
"The apparent sudden rather than gradual emergence of organisms that the Earth first become habitable."

Red State Rabble argues that the inclusion of this origins "controversy" is a cynical ploy, but forget for a moment about issues of appropriateness, accuracy, or relevance. Just note that two of the three listed criticisms involve unknowns.

We still good? Ok, let's travel, via the magic of the internet, back in time. No, we're not traveling back to the Mesozoic on a sport-hunting trip that will end in the accidental squashing of a bug that changes history (maybe next post, ok?) - we're popping in on the May 7 cross-examination of Angus Menuge, presented by the IDers as an expert witness during the Kansas Science Hearings, promoted as Snopes II: Return of the Monkey Trial.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Sir, I have a few questions that I'd like to ask you for the record, please. What is your personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
ANGUS MENUGE: I don't know. And that's my final answer.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Do you have an opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
ANGUS MENUGE: I'm not giving an opinion.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: I didn't hear you.
ANGUS MENUGE: I am not giving an opinion.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: You don't have any personal opinion as to what the age of the earth is?
ANGUS MENUGE: I have no opinion.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Do you find that to be rather an oddity since you consider yourself an expert on all of these areas?
ANGUS MENUGE: Absolutely not, because my understanding of historical sciences has led me to -- studying them from the perspective of philosophy of science has led me to believe that inference to the best explanation is much less certain than other areas of science. And so the conclusions are much more tentative and there are other competing explanations that can be provided.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Do you accept the general principle of common descent that all life is biologically related back to the beginning of life?
ANGUS MENUGE: Not as defined by neo-Darwinism, no.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: Do you accept that human beings are related by common descent to pre-hominid ancestors?
ANGUS MENUGE: I doubt it.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: What is the alternative explanation?
ANGUS MENUGE: Well, there are a number of alternative explanations. Right now, as this book shows, there are views looking at self-organization, which don't necessarily agree with that viewpoint. They may or they may not. But there is also the idea of design.
PEDRO IRIGONEGARY: And your opinion as to when that design occurred?
ANGUS MENUGE: I don't know.

And there you have it, folks. Who says ID is just one big mutual admiration circle with no capacity for self-criticism?
Of course, for science, "I don't know" is the first step of "Let's try to find out!" For Intelligent Design and other forms of creationism, it's an excuse. After all,irreducible complexity is really just a fancy way of saying "I don't know how this could have evolved, so it must have been Go - I mean, The Designer." "I don't know" is also a clever political technique to keep a range of creationist groups - from young-earth literalists to evolution accomodationists - under the big ID tent. Scientifically, there's just no there there.

. . . Danae, of course, makes it seem so obvious . . . .

posted by Dan S. on 8:34 PM |

Thursday, June 09, 2005
Punctuated Equilibrium

I've been meaning to post more frequently, but between the last days of school (the 8th graders are, mostly, going off to high school! How could that be? They're so smalll!), upcoming quasi-graduation ceremonies, gradschool coursework, the middle school science praxis test in (gulp) two more days, and, of course, the wedding . . .

Well, you get the idea.

But within the next few days you will be treated to: editorial board respect for ID, the Tulsa Zoo, and more!


posted by Dan S. on 9:29 PM |

Monday, May 30, 2005
Evolutionary Biologist KOs Creationist!

Welcome to One Long Argument! (Don't you feel tired already?)

This Sunday the Philadelphia Inquirer printed part of a debate between Stacey Ake (Drexel philosophy prof, PhD in biology, Mennonite), and Paul G. Humber (Baptist minister, math teacher, and young earth creationist (YEC)). In my opinion, Ake just relentlessly pounded Humber (forgive me, I just saw Cinderella Man last night, and my inner eight year old wants to bounce around pretending to be a boxer). It didn't help that Humber revealed he was non-dogmatic enough to consider a slightly older than 10,000 year-old world. He also suggested that the coelacanth was evidence of a young earth and "may have been lost somehow in the flood of Noah. somehow with the sediment and the churning up of the water."
But enough of Humber. Ake was truly in fine form. Just marvel over the following exchange:

Inquirer(to Ake): Is science closed to the supernatural?

Ake:Absolutely. By definition, that is just not possible, or at that point you start running parapsychology labs, trying to bend spoons and such . . . My question is, when we finally come down to the battle of creation sciences, will it be the Muslim creation [story] that wins? The Christian creation that wins? The Navaho? The aboriginal? Whose creation wins in creation science? And will we teach them all if we teach them in school? Will we teach turtles all the way down? Will we teach the earth mother and the sky father? That we're made out of blood, and not mud? Will we teach that we are the children that came from the great serpent?

Humber: From the one who conquered death.

Ake:Doesn't help. That's not a scientific thing.

And Ake lands a hard right to his jaw!

Later on Humber complains that if you're a creation scientist, "You would not be able to have a Ph.D. or tenure if you were a creation scientist. The elite evolutionary establishment won't allow it." Ake responds:
"Who are these people? . . . There is no grand program, there is no coven of scientists sitting together saying, "How can we get the teenagers of America to disbelieve?" Nothing like that."

Beautiful. And very important. Throughout the entire debate, Ake hammered away at the one point that matters - evolution is science, and creationism (whatever kind) isn't: "Biology ends when theology begins." Pharyngula has an excellent post today about explaining the complicated real world in order to combat the simplistic metaphors and appeals to ignorance of the ID crowd. Unfortunately, when it comes to the world of soundbites and slogans and public opinion, this sort of approach often just gets us sucked into the nonsense. No matter how well PZ writes, or what truly useful metaphors he uses (proteins as popbeads! That's great!) he's still trying to explain molecular biology.

Of course, there are people who have genuine concerns about this or that aspect of evolutionary theory, and they deserve the best arguments we can give them (after all, we're certainly wrong about something). We can't forget, however, that we're engaged in a PR battle. In these circumstances, the scientists' boycott of the Kansas hearings made a great deal of sense. That's not to say that bringing in science is never a good idea - not at all! - but that the most important point is a very simple one: not science.

Humber does a good job of explaining this, ironically: "We are playing a game of understanding the universe without God. To say this is the only game that you can do in science [and] if you do bring in God, we're going to flunk you." He doesn't quite get it, though. You can't win in checkers by having your pieces act like chess queens. In science, you are playing a game of understanding the universe without reference to God, whatever scientists themselves might think, and without imagining that this implies atheism. After all, as Ake points out, "Science can say nothing about God qua science. That's why science cannot say that there isn't a God, either." In engineering you are playing a game of building bridges without God. Medicine is a game of trying to make people better without God - and most people can deal with going to a doctor and praying. It's the good ol' concept - one that most people understand implicitly in less loaded fields - of non-overlapping magisteria.

Stressing this point is especially important with the neocreationist attack on "methodological naturalism" (read: science) and their aim of replacing it with theistic science (see The Wedge). Even Humber gets into the act - he insists that "Darwinism" is a religion, talks about creation scientists (religion as science) , and implicitly claims that science should be more religious. It's all very confusing, but Ake punches through the obscurantist fog with a beautiful jab:
Humber:You don't need anything about evolution to understand science. There are a lot of good scientists who don't believe in evolution who do good science. So the statement of faith that science doesn't make sense without evolution is both wrong and false.

Ake:Fine. But no.

Pow? In a respectable scientific debate? But of course, this isn't, and (in these kind of venues) we can't forget it.

Note: Red State Rabble comments on another aspect of the debate, one that proves Ake's bold claim that "it's the idolatry of Christians and the idolatry of religious people that requires science, which they worship, to verify their beliefs. Which actually says they believe more in science than they believe in their God... ."

posted by Dan S. on 6:00 PM |

"As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated . . ."
Charles Darwin, "On The Origin of Species"

The debate: FAQs and facts
Science and creationism (NAS)

National Center for Science Education
Defending the teaching of evolution in public schools: with evolution/creationism news updates and many resources.
Understanding Evolution
Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science
Evolution - Education and Teaching

Grandeur in this view of life . . .
Tree of Life web project
Evolutionn Entrance (UCMP)
Evolution (PBS)
BBC Education: Evolution
Macroevolution (UTexas)

TalkOrigin's Index of Creationist Claims.
Find them all here!

The law
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1981)
More to come

Pending legislation
Ongoing attempts to mandate the teaching of neocreationism in science classes
New York State Bill 8036 (died in committee)
Pennsylvania House Bill 1007

In the schools
Dover, PA
Dover biology: Ongoing reporting from the York Daily Record
Dover C.A.R.E.S. Intelligent Design FAQ

Science/evolution-ish blogs
Transitions: The Evolution of Life
The Panda's Thumb
The Loom
Evolution Blog
Evolving Thoughts
Philosophy of Biology
Thoughts From Kansas
Red State Rabble
The Questionable Authority
Unscrewing the Inscrutable
The Biology Refugia
Deinonychus antirrhopus
Law, Evolution Science, and Junk Science

The Evolution Project: Documenting evolutionary biology being used!

Intelligent Design

The infamous Wedge Document. Read it!
Uncommon Descent
More to come!

The library (shelving in progress)
On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity, by Jennifer Ackerman
Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock
Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, by Robert T. Pennock (Ed.)
Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth R. Miller
Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Carroll Forrest and Paul R. Gross
At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea, by Carl Zimmer

Master Planned: Why intelligent Design Isn't, by H. Allen Orr, The New Yorker
Wedging Creationism into the Academy, by Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch, Academe
The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Jerry Coyne, The New Republic


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