May 15, 2005 - May 21, 2005 Archives

Remember Dr Rubinstein? The historian who bloviated foolishly on evolutionary biology? He has replied on the Social Affairs Unit site (scroll down to find it). Orac is already on it, so I don't need to say much, other than…geez. What a wanker.

Rubinstein is still clueless, still protests that he is not a creationist, but still makes nothing but stupid arguments ripped straight from the creationist literature. His new claim is to offer $100 to anyone showing the evolution of a new species within the next ten years. Of course, one must recall his expression of understanding of what evolution is, "one species producing an offspring which was clearly of another, different species", and his hypothetical examples of cats evolving "into cats which look like kangaroos" or a cat giving birth "to kittens which looked like raccoons".

As long as he's setting up ridiculous challenges based on his misunderstanding, he should have gone whole hog—if my cat* happens to give birth to a mixed litter of raccoons and kangaroos, I'm going to collect Kent Hovind's $250,000 reward, rather than wasting time with that piker Rubinstein's piddly $100 prize.

*Our cat, Midnight, is a neutered male, which makes the demonstration only slightly more difficult.

A couple of days ago (infinity in blog-time), Chris Mooney had an interesting post about a 20 year-old article on the creation/evolution debate. As Chris writes…

I have just been reading an interesting article: Thomas F. Gieryn; George M. Bevins; Stephen C. Zehr, “Professionalization of American Scientists: Public Science in the Creation/Evolution Trials,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jun. 1985), 392-409. What the article reveals is that during the 1981-1982 McLean v. Arkansas case, anti-evolutionists were using a very similar strategy to the one promulgated today: Attacking evolution for its own alleged religious (i.e., atheistic) biases.

Mooney produces some choice quotes from the article that I won’t bother to reproduce here (you should go to his blog to read them). The article was written in 1985, but it could have been written yesterday; the motives and tactics of today’s anti-evolution movement have changed little. At least in 1985, they were honest enough to still call themselves creationists.

John Calvert’s impending legal strategy (which seems to be the standard strategy for the ID movement) was aired during the recent Kansas kangaroo court. As reported by Stan Cox, it tries to paint evolution as necessarily atheistic, and therefore demands that ID be brought in for balance. Not only is this strategy not new, it’s already dead. One thing that Mooney neglects to mention is that this strategy backfired badly the first time around. Let’s take a look…

Andrew Gumbel, a correspondent for the London-based Independent, attended the recent intelligent design show trial in Topeka. His write-up at LA City Beat is recommended reading. Although he develops several good themes in his essay, there is one point in particular I would like to highlight.

Another manifestation of the misdirection of the ID movement is the ludicrous notion that high schools are the appropriate venue for intricate debate about the finer points of evolutionary science. Any public school science teacher will tell you it’s already a minor miracle if a 16-year-old can accurately summarize The Origin of Species, or pinpoint the Galapagos Islands on an atlas. Raising questions about the cellular structure of the flagellum is unlikely to exercise most students until grad school.

The only reason for raising such questions before state education authorities is not to deepen the scientific understanding of teenagers but rather to sow deliberate confusion. It is about denigrating mainstream science as biased against religion – which it is not; it merely regards questions of the supernatural to be outside the realm of scientific inquiry – and by extension bringing God and open avowals of faith into the public school system. (Emphasis mine.)

Many authors have correctly explained that the testimony of ID proponents in Topeka only criticized evolution. Indeed, in an effort to allay concerns that the rejected proposals were written to mandate the teaching of creationism, John Calvert articulated this point numerous times directly. Until Gumbel’s article, though, media coverage has failed to identify the desire by ID creationists to confuse the public. In other words, Gumbel is one of the first journalists to point out that, to an intelligent design creationist, the whole point of criticizing evolutionary theory is to criticize evolutionary theory.

It is important for advocates of science to recognize this strategy because there is a clear link between the beliefs creationists hold, the threats to those beliefs that they perceive from verified science, the fear they have from those threats, and the reactions to those threats that they make. Several points and implications about this understanding of creationist strategy merit mention and they will be developed below the fold.

Bar Maintenance

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As a virtual bar, the Panda’s Thumb relies on passing packets to enable the contributors to say their stuff and the commenters to put in their two cents. Well, for various reasons the management hasn’t been completely happy with the current packet-passer, and has arranged for a new packet-passing service. Unfortunately, this means that in the switchover, there may be a longish period where the name and the particular address used aren’t matched up. We have to change the “domain name service” (thanks, “wbrameld4”) entries for PT tonight, and these may take up to 48 hours to propagate. So don’t be surprised if you can’t get to PT this weekend. We hope that it won’t take that long for the DNS entries to propagate, but here we’ll give you fair warning.

Missouri Bill

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NCSE is reporting that the Missouri legislature has ended and its anti-evolution bill has died in committee.

I am working on a joint statement from Citizens for Science groups about “intelligent design” creationism influencing education. I already have several groups on board but am wondering if there are any I’ve missed. If you are a member of a Citizens for Science organization, either local, state, national, or international please email me the contact information and background of your organization.

Don’t forget to spread the word.

[Enable javascript to see this email address.]

(Comments will be disabled to make people email me.)

I have not had time yet to reflect in writing on the Kansas hearings, but here is one of the best stories I’ve seen on what actually went on in the hearings. About the author, it says

Stan Cox lives in Salina, Kan. He has a Ph.D. in plant breeding and cytogenetics and has been a plant breeder for 22 years.

I encourage anyone interested in the Kansas hearings to read this article. If you think it is appropriate, you might send him an email at [Enable javascript to see this email address.] or offer a comment at the alternet site.

I recently got a copy of the new 2nd edition of Marvin Lubenow's book Bones of Contention, a creationist book about the evidence for human evolution. I'll do a fuller review of it later, but there's one thing I want to comment on now. In 2002, the discovery of a new hominid skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, was announced. This skull had a very small brain size of 600 cc, in the Homo habilis range. Two other skulls which had been announced in 2000 had brain sizes of 650 cc and 780 cc. The skulls had a mixture of features from H. erectus and H. habilis and although the smallest one seemed slightly more primitive, the discoverers saw no reason not to put them all in the same species.

I found these skulls particularly interesting because they nicely straddle the gap that creationists like to claim separates humans from non-human primates. Generally the less-incompetent creationists (i.e. those who don't still think that Java Man and Peking Man are ape or monkey skulls) have a dividing line of about 700 cc; usually anything above that is human, and anything below it isn't. Although there are a couple of fragmentary habilis skulls estimated to be in the 650-700 cc range, there weren't any moderately complete hominid skulls between about 620 and 720 cc, so that became the "gap" separating humans from non-humans. But now we have three skulls from the same place, the same time, and of the same species, sitting smack on top of that gap - above, below, and in it. How, I wondered, would Lubenow handle it?

The Tangled Bank

What else could you expect from a Medical Mad House? It's a quirky Tangled Bank #28.

This thread is for John A. Davison to hold forth, and those permitted to post on PT who wish to interact with him may do so here. Already banned persons should go elsewhere.


We have removed the last of John A. Davison’s comment privileges for hyperbolic, offensive rhetoric.

Davison Wrote:

This post is destined for oblivion in the Welsberry gas chamber as just another example of his Nazi tactics. in comment 23402

In a recent post, I noted in passing that modern evolutionary theory is no more atheistic than other sciences that seek natural explanations for the natural world. Yet for some reason, Phillip Johnson and the rest of the ID camp think that it is evolution in particular that is inconsistent with Christianity. As Johnson stated in yesterday’s Washington Post article,

‘I realized…that if the pure Darwinist account was accurate and life is all about an undirected material process, then Christian metaphysics and religious belief are fantasy. Here was a chance to make a great contribution.’

Now, imagine how silly it would seem if Phillip Johnson had said this:

‘I realized…that if the pure scientific meteorologist account was accurate and weather is all about an undirected material process, then Christian metaphysics and religious belief are fantasy. Here was a chance to make a great contribution.’

According to a literal reading of the Bible, the evidence that God controls the weather is, if anything, much stronger than the Biblical evidence that God specially created organisms. PT poster Wesley Elsberry ran a search on an online Bible and found a slurry of quotes explicitly describing God’s influence on the weather. The Bible is shot through with such statements, from Old Testament to New. They are re-posted below for posterity.

Jellyfish eyes

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cubozoan eyes

This very strange object was peering out at me from the cover of last week's Nature…and "peer" is exactly the right word. Those are some of the eyes of a cubozoan, a box jelly, of the species Tripedalia cystophora. These eyes have some very peculiar features, and show that once again nature trumps the imaginations of science fiction artists.

Continue reading "Jellyfish eyes" (on Pharyngula)

Tangled Bank at a Madhouse

The Tangled Bank

On Wednesday, The Tangled Bank will be held at Chronicles of a Medical Madhouse. You don't have much time left to send in links to, so get posting!

It looks like the Washington Post has just seen fit to publish a long, fairly uncritical profile piece on Phillip Johnson. The ID people are already crowing and the ID skeptics are already booing. It is true that the article contains inaccuracies (“[Johnson] agrees the world is billions of years old” – no, he doesn’t); some strangely-quoted, or clueless, comments from some of Phil Johnson’s critics; and little resembling scientifically-informed reporting. The reporter, Michael Powell, has done capable reporting on ID in the past, but perhaps the Discovery Institute’s systematic harassment of reporters and news organizations has finally had an impact.

On the other hand, the article is good in giving us a lot of detail about Phillip Johnson’s crisis of faith and conversion experience in the 1980’s, and showing rather clearly that Johnson is first and foremost a religious apologist on a crusade against evolution, and accurate science is way down his list of priorities. Unlike most IDists, he often doesn’t even try and hide his motives and goals.

It's difficult not to laugh at the Discovery Institute, with their transparent attempts to pretend that they don't have a religious agenda, and their nonstop media spinning. Recently there's been the hilarity of the Kansas Board of Education hearings. Before that there was the claim by DI fellow Jay Richards, a philosopher and theologian, that he thought there was a problem with the theory of relativity, based on his reading of magazine articles. In Paul Myers' words, it's like "a circus where they've fired all the acrobats and animal trainers and it's clowns, clowns, clowns all the time".

It would all be very funny if it wasn't so serious. Even though ID may be dead in the water scientifically, it is a real threat to science education, and ID-friendly initiatives are popping up all over the United States.

All of which gives me an excuse to present the following cartoon, the caption of which seems appropriate. This is a classic Australian cartoon from 1933:

Clueless in Wales

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Every once in a while you encounter something that is so blindly oblivious, so … well … so pig-ignorant (there’s no more delicate way to put it), that you can only wonder what the purveyor of that ignorance is using to think with. An extraordinary example is provided by a benighted piece on the Social Affairs Unit, a British site primarily devoted to conservative political, economic, and cultural affairs. Like their American counterparts, the SAU folks seem to feel that they must weigh in on scientific issues about which they are supremely uninformed. From David Hadley via Pharyngula, we are pointed to a ludicrously bad piece by an historian titled The Theory of Evolution: Just a Theory?. (You can see it coming, can’t you?)

It’s always nice when someone who has some clue about the relevant science decides to write an article on the ID issue. I would like to highlight this article by Sanjai Tripathi, a microbiology grad student at Oregon State University. His opinion piece appeared in the OSU Daily Barometer, and no, even though I grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, I didn’t have anything to do with it.

One minor quibble: Tripathi uses the “reducing irreducible complexity” rhetoric. But the core issue is not really whether or not a system is irreducible, it is whether or not a system is unbuildable. This is a very different thing. A system that is currently irreducible for its current function might well be buildable anyway, most obviously via change-of-function. Tripathi talks about change-of-function anyway, so he basically knows what is up. But as a general rule, it is important for ID skeptics to keep in mind that “irreducible complexity” has never received a consistent definition, and that various ID proponents and ID opponents use the term to mean some very different things. See the entry on “definitional complexity” at Evowiki.

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