Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

God Plays Bridge

 
The creationists tell us that anything in biology with a probability of 10-39 or less is impossible [see God Designed My Great-Grandparents].

That's a very tiny number. Let's see just what kind of probabilities we're dealing with.

Imagine four people sitting down to play a hand of bridge. They shuffle the deck and deal out 13 cards to each player. The probability that the particular hand would be dealt is very low because the total number of possible hands is 51!/13! = 53,644,737,765,488,792,839,237,440,000. Let's round this off to a probability of 0.2 × 10-28.

Assuming that there have been at least 100,000,000 bridge players and that they've played at least 2000 hands of bridge, that represents a total of 5 × 1010 separate hands of bridge. The probability that all of these particular hands would have been dealt in a particular time and place is 10-39. That's equivalent to the total number of bacteria and it's the kind of probability that makes creationists think of God.

I wonder if God plays bridge? If he does, I wonder if he ever loses since he can control the deal?1


1. Sounds like a good plot for a Mr. Deity video.

God Designed My Great-Grandparents

 
On the thread Impossible Molecular Machines we are being treated to a lesson in probabilities from several creationists. Here's an example of a comment from Livingstone Morford.
By Darwinism I mean the notion that everything we observe in the biological world are purely the result of stochastic processes, and I am critical of that notion.

On a different topic, I might add that intelligent design proponents need only demonstrate that the odds of a particular biochemical system evolving are 10^-40 or less in order for intelligent design to be a more adequate explanation for the origin of such a biochemical system. This is because there have been no more than 10^39 bacterial cells in the history of life on earth.
Speaking of stochastic processes, the average number of sperm contributed by a man in a mating process is 100,000,000 (108). That means that every single human is the product of a single sperm cell uniting with a single egg cell and the probability that one particular sperm was successful is 10-8.

This probability of existence applies to each of my great-grandparents.

Johann Betker was born in 1859 in Volhynia in the western part of Ukraine. The probability that he was produced from a particular sperm cell is 10-8. His future wife, Amalie Schmuland, was born in 1868, also in Volynia. This was also an improbable event from the point of view of sperm selection. The probability that BOTH of my grandparents were born is (at least): 10-8 × 10-8 = 10-16.

The same probabilities apply to Thomas Keys Foster born 1852 in country Tyrone, Ireland and his wife Eliza Ann Job born 1852 in country Tyrone. Their two births were very lucky with a total probability of only 10-16. Now, if you combine all four of these great-grandparents you end up with a probability of 10-32. Add in the other four great-grandparents and you end up with the total probability that all eight of these individuals would be born = 10-64. (The real probabilities are much, much lower when you take the eggs into account.)

Since this total probability is a lot less than the total number of bacteria that have ever existed, it follows that God must have intervened somewhere. Two of my great-grandparents must have been designed by God. I wonder which two it was? My bet is that it wasn't any of the four mentioned above because they were all born outside of Canada. It was probably the two grand-parents who were born in Canada 'cause God likes Canadians.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Michael Egnor Answers the Questions

 
I treid to answer Michael Egnor's questions as best I could [A Quiz for Atheists from a Creationist]. Now Egnor has answered his own questions at: What I Really Believe.1

Some Sandwalk readers will be delighted to discover that Egnor refers to Aristotle in support of his beliefs, proving that Aristotle is good for something!

Most Sandwalk readers will be interested in this ...
That's what I believe. Note that these beliefs are entirely compatible with modern science; in fact, classical philosophy and classical theism is the source for modern science, which only originated in civilizations that embraced this classical view of the world. Some enlightenment philosophers moved away from some aspects of classical philosophy (e.g. final causes), but classical philosopohy and classical theism remain the foundation of Western Civilization and of modern science.
Many of you are modern scientists. How many think that classical theism is important in your work? How about classical philosophy?

Really? No one thinks that? Where do the IDiots come up with these ideas?

More and more scientists, philosophers, and theists are recognizing that science and theism are incompatible. That sort of makes it hard to claim that classical theism remains the foundation of modern science, doesn't it?


1. Comments aren't allowed on Evolution News & Views so you can leave comments for Michael here.

Jesus and Mo Read Sandwalk

 
Jesus and Mo



HuffPost Heatlh?

 
I don't read the Huffington Post but Orac over at Respectful Insolence does. He notes that it is about to start a new section called HuffPost Health. Here's how it's going to work.
HuffPost Health will be a clear and balanced resource to provide a comprehensive view of the state of health and health news in a given day. It will provide a forum for intelligent discourse and divergent but respectful points of view. HuffPost Health will empower you with state of the art information you can use to make informed and intelligent decisions that affect your life in meaningful ways.

In this spirit, HuffPost Health's articles and videos will include the best of evidence-based allopathic Western medicine (including drugs and surgery), lifestyle and functional medicine (including nutrition, fitness, stress management, supplements, and love and support), mind/body medicine (including mental and emotional health), women's and men's health issues, and integrative medicine (including complementary and alternative medicine).
I bet you can hardly wait! Neither can Orac 'cause "there'll be a lot of new blogging material." More importantly, Orac notes that HuffPost Health might soon become a handy source of all quackery: HuffPost Health: A soon-to-be one-stop shop for quackery. We're going to need something like this once the Oprah Show and Larry King Live go off the air.


Taste Receptors on Your Lung Cells

 
The cells of your lungs express the same bitter taste receptor that is presence in the cells of your tongue (Deshpande et al., 2010). What's the reason for having these receptors in your lungs.

PZ Myers explains the concept of evolution by accident: Lungs with taste, or lungs with a fortuitous receptor?.

This is a very important concept and I'm delighted that PZ is promoting it. Adaptationists will not be happy. For more on this idea see: Evolution by Accident.

For more information about taste receptors see: Theme: A Sense of Smell/


Deshpande, D.A., Wang, W.C.H., McIlmoyle, E.L., Robinett, K.S., Schillinger, R.M., An, S,S,, Sham, J.S.K., Liggett, S.B. (2010) Bitter taste receptors on airway smooth muscle bronchodilate by localized calcium signaling and reverse obstruction. Nature Medicine. Published online October 24, 2010. [PubMed] [doi:10.1038/nm.2237]

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Impossible" Molecular Machines

Someone named vjtorley just posted a list of things that would falsify his faith in Intelligent Design Creationism [The 10^(-120) challenge, or: The fairies at the bottom of the garden].

Normally this wouldn't be very interesting because the IDiots almost always set up impossible criteria reflecting their fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. This posting is no exception but I was intrigued by one of the items on the list.
2. An empirical or mathematical demonstration that the probability of the emergence of any of the irreducibly complex structures listed on this page, as a result of non-foresighted processes (“random mutations plus natural selection”) is greater than 10^(-120).
The link under "this page" is to an article by Casey Luskin from last June [Molecular Machines in the Cell]. He lists a whole bunch of molecular machines and claims that these structures pose a real problem for science.

Here's the list. Judge for yourselves whether they make you believe in God.
Molecular machines are highly complex and in many cases we are just beginning to understand their inner workings. As a result, while we know that many complex molecular machines exist, to date only a few have been studied sufficiently by biologists so that they have directly tested for irreducible complexity through genetic knockout experiments or mutational sensitivity tests. What follows is a non-exhaustive list briefly describing 40 molecular machines identified in the scientific literature. The first section will cover molecular machines that scientists have argued show irreducible complexity. The second section will discuss molecular machines that may be irreducibly complex, but have not been studied in enough detail yet by biochemists to make a conclusive argument.


I Molecular Machines that Scientists Have Argued Show Irreducible Complexity

1. Bacterial Flagellum
2. Eukaryotic Cilium
3. Aminoacyl-tRNA Synthetases (aaRS)
4. Blood clotting cascade
5. Ribosome
6. Antibodies and the Adaptive Immune System

II. Additional Molecular Machines

7. Spliceosome
8. F0F1 ATP Synthase
9. Bacteriorhdopsin
10. Myosin
11. Kinesin Motor
12. Tim/Tom Systems
13. Calcium Pump
14. Cytochrome C Oxidase
15. Proteosome
16. Cohesin
17. Condensin
18. ClpX
19. Immunological Synapse
20. Glideosome
21. Kex2
22. Hsp70
23. Hsp60
24. Protein Kinase C
25. SecYEG PreProtein Translocation Channel
26. Hemoglobin
27. T4 DNA Packaging Motor
28. Smc5/Smc6
29. Cytplasmic Dynein
30. Mitotic Spindle Machine
31. DNA Polymerase
32. RNA Polymerase
33. Kinetochore
34. MRX Complex
35. Apoptosome / Caspase
36. Type III Secretory System
37. Type II Secretion Apparatus
38. Helicase/Topoisomerase Machine
39. RNA degradasome
40. Photosynthetic system


BioLogos vs Discovery Institute—CANCELLED

 
With breathless anticipation I awaited the showdown between BioLogos and the Discovery Institute at the upcoming conference in Texas this weekend. Here's the teaser from the Disco website [Showdown in Austin].
Next week the Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science becomes the God and evolution showdown in Austin, as the question of whether faith in God can co-exist with Darwinian evolution will be discussed and debated with people of faith on all different points of the spectrum. CSC Director Stephen Meyer will be presenting, as will CSC fellows Bill Dembski, Doug Axe, Richard Sternberg, Paul Nelson, Jack Collins, Walter Bradley, Bruce Gordon, and Ray Bohlin.
Imagine, all those people of faith from the Discovery Institute arguing that God and evolution are incompatible. And all those theistic evolutionists from BioLogos arguing that science and religion are perfectly compatible. The mind boggles.

Unfortunately, the great debate has been cancelled at the last minute. I guess Francis Collins was too busy to attend. Maybe they should have invited me to take on the Intelligent Design Creationists and the other creationists who call themselves Theistic Evolutionists?1


1. They would need reinforcements in order to make it a fair fight.

Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments

 
An atheist reader send me this argument for the existence of God: Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments. It's from Alexander R. Pruss of Baylor University in Texas, USA.

Here's the guts of the argument ...
The basic Leibnizian argument has the following steps:
(1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
(2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
(3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
(4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
(5) This necessary being is God.
My first reaction whenever I see arguments like this is to look for evidence that supports the claim.1 I'm not very interested in arguments that hinge on the definition of words and on things that may or may not be real. What is the actual evidence that this God really exists?

What is a "contingent fact" and why should I believe that every one of them has an explanation? The article by Alexander R. Pruss tries to convince me that this belief is related to something called the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) and that it is self-evident. If it's not self-evident to me, then the author tries to show that my worldview is inconsistent—in fact, I can't even believe in evolution unless I accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason and hence, that every contingent fact has an explanation! Who knew?

To me, this just seems like silly sophistry.

Similarly, I don't see any reason to believe that there is a contingent fact (whatever that is) that contains all other contingent facts. What's the point?

Even if I'm willing to consider steps 1,2, and 3 why should I conclude that something called a "necessary being" is part of the explanation?

The god of the cosmological argument is an imaginary god who exists only in the minds of philosophers. There is no connection between that imaginary "necessary being" and a god who actually does anything. If someone wants to believe in the cosmological "necessary being" then that's fine with me as long as they don't try to attribute anything else to that "necessary being" other than satisfying some unprovable premises about contingent facts.

I don't see any reason why I should believe in this "necessary being." More importantly, I don't see how I could possibly distinguish between people who believe in the cosmological "necessary being" and those who don't, if that's the only difference between them. But let's not kid ourselves. There aren't any living theists who just stop when they get to point #5.

The cosmological arguments are just rhetorical devices for satisfying theists who have acquired a belief in God for entirely different reasons. Nobody, including theists, arrives at a belief in a Christian god—or any other personal god—via the cosmological argument. To a non believer, the entire argument looks silly no matter how much you dress it up in philosophical finery. This is not proof of the existence of god so much as post hoc rationalization for believers.

Here's an example of the kind of reasoning you see in this "sophisticated" essay. Remember that Pruss is trying to convince us that you must accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason and that principle leads automatically to the conclusion that "Every contingent fact has an explanation."
It is morally acceptable to redirect a speeding trolley from a track on which there are five people onto a track with only one person. On the other hand, it is not right to shoot one innocent person to save five. What is the morally relevant difference between the two cases? If we denied the PSR, then we could simply say: “Who cares? Both of these moral facts are just brute facts, with no explanation.” Why, indeed, suppose that there should be some explanation of the difference in moral evaluation if we accept the denial of the PSR, and hence accept that there can be facts with no explanation at all?

Almost all moral theorists accept the supervenience of the moral on the non-moral. But without the PSR, would we really have reason to accept that? We could simply suppose brute contingent facts. In this world, torture is wrong. In that world, exactly alike in every other respect, torture is a duty. Why? No reason, just contingent brute fact.

The denial of the PSR, thus, would bring much philosophical argumentation to a standstill.

An interesting thing about this argument is that it yields a PSR not just for contingent truths but also for necessary ones.
Quite frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about and nothing said here prompts me to try harder to understand the point. He lost me in the second sentence because I think it IS right to shoot one person to save five, if that's the only choice.

I've also seen many institutions and societies that condone torture. There was at least one American President who liked the idea and in the not-too-distant past torture was good sport in the Roman Catholic Church. What has this got to do with the Principle of Sufficient Reason?

Notice that up until now I haven't even mentioned the most obvious problem with the cosmological argument; namely, that it doesn't explain anything. If there's really a problem identifying the explanation of everything then what explains god? I know that theists everywhere have elaborate excuses to explain why god falls outside of the original premises of the cosmological argument but isn't it interesting that they never explicitly include them in the argument?

Take the five steps above. There should be another statement along the lines of "(4b) This necessary being does not require an explanation because it isn't a contingent fact. This doesn't violate the Principle of Sufficient Reason because I say so."

Man, those Courtier's of the Emperor sure are clever!


1. Actually that's not quite true. My real first reaction is more like, "Holy shit! Are there really people who believe this nonsense!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Quiz for Atheists from a Creationist

 
Michael Egnor seems to concede that the theists were unable to come up with a good reason for believing in supernatural beings when I challenged them a few weeks ago: A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters.

Now he wants to return the favor by challenging atheists: What Do New Atheists Actually Believe?. It's kind of a funny question because atheists don't actually believe in anything—at least nothing that's common to all atheists. We've just failed to be convinced that supernatural beings exist.

Anyway, here are the questions ...
I want to learn more about what New Atheists really believe. So I'm asking Moran a few questions, although other atheists (Myers, Coyne, Novella, Shallit, etc) are invited to reply on their blogs, and I will answer.

Here are the questions:
1) Why is there anything?

I don't know and I don't really care. I'm quite happy to think that something has always existed but I'm not troubled by the fact that our space-time may just be an accident.

2) What caused the Universe?

I don't know. In fact, I'm not even sure what you mean by "cause." I'm told by experts in the field of cosmology that there's no need to invoke a supernatural being to explain the origin of the universe but if you want to believe in a deist god then that's all right by me.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

I don't know. That's not my field.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

That's two questions! I don't know the answer to the first one because I've never studied Aristotle. From the sound of the question, I haven't missed anything. As for the second question, I can't answer because I don't know what you mean by "final cause."

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Subjective experience seems to be what you perceive in your mind. I presume that's an epiphenomenon but it's a very pleasant one.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

What? What?

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

I don't think there's any such thing as "Moral Law."

8) Why is there evil?

All animals exhibit a range of behaviors. Sometimes those behaviors are clearly beneficial to themselves, or the group, and sometimes they aren't. There's no rule that says every animal always has to act perfectly all the time. Some humans, for example, would restrict a woman's right to choose and would discriminate against gays and lesbians. I wish those people weren't evil but their behavior isn't a big surprise to me.


Homology, Structural Homology, and Being a Little Bit Pregnant

Misuse of the word "homology" is one of my pet peeves.1 I used to regularly complain about it on talkorigins and I still challenge our graduate students when they talk about "70% homology" or something that's "highly homologous." If you don't understand scientific terminology then it's very likely that you don't understand the concept either.

John Wilkins has pointed me to a couple of good articles2 on the proper use of the word "homology': Distant homology and being a little pregnant and 2010 Homology High-Low Count.

The first article explains why the term "structural homology" should be banned from the scientific literature. The correct term is "structural similarity."

The meaning of homology is on my mind lately because I'm grading essays that critique Jonathan Wells' book Icons of Evolution. Student have to pick one of the chapters and analyze the arguments used by Wells to attack evolution. One of the chapters is "Homology in Vertebrate Limbs" and it's one of the most difficult chapters because Wells highlights the frequent misuse of "homology" in the scientific literature.


1. I have many. It's what happens when you get old.

2. I wonder if he's doing this on purpose—posting a list of provocative articles in the hopes that someone else will do all the work?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

American Law Is Very Confusing

 
Just when I thought I was beginning to understand, along comes a Republican candidate for the US Senate who tells me that it's okay for local school boards to permit teaching of Intelligent Design Creationism. The US Constitution allows this. I assume she must know what she's talking about since I haven't seen any prominent Republicans pointing out that she is mistaken.




Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The National Science Foundation Version of "Understanding Evolution"

 
Last month the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced a $1,990,459 grant to a team led by Paul Horwitz to teach evolution to fourth graders [Students Explore Evolution Through Evolution Readiness Project]. Here's the opening paragraph of that announcement from NSF, posted on their website.
Understanding Evolution

One hundred fifty-one years after Charles Darwin introduced his theory of evolution, the "E word" remains controversial in science education circles, sparking debate over how to teach it, at what age, and even, in extreme cases, whether it should be taught at all. Yet, essentially there is agreement among scientists that evolution by natural selection is the fundamental model that explains the extraordinary complexity and interdependence of the living world. Moreover, evolution by natural selection is a quintessential scientific theory, explaining an extraordinary collection of data, including much that Darwin himself was unaware of, with a small collection of powerful ideas.

Can such an all-encompassing theory be taught successfully in elementary school?

In a project called Evolution Readiness, funded by the National Science Foundation, principal investigator Paul Horwitz and a team of researchers from the Concord Consortium and Boston College, are trying to find out. They are introducing the basic concepts of evolution to fourth graders.

"Our goal is to teach young children how Darwin's model of natural selection explains the observation that organisms are adapted to their environment," said Horwitz. The project is also breaking new ground in science teaching. "Science is rarely described as an attempt to explain observations in terms of models," Horwitz said.
If the National Science Foundation doesn't even know the difference between "evolution" and "natural selection" then how can we ever hope to educate the general public?

I don't mind if Horwitz et al. want to concentrate on just teaching natural selection to fourth graders but I do mind that the people at NSF don't seem to understand that this is just one of the mechanisms of evolution. Natural selection alone does NOT explain the diversity and complexity we see around us.


[Hat Tip: Intelligent Design Creationists]

The Stoning Of Soraya M

 
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil — but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

Steven Weinberg

The Stoning Of Soraya M is a movie based on the true story of an Iranian woman who was falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death by the men in her village. The penalty was carried out according to Islamic Sharia law.

According to SkyNews the government of Iran is infuriated that such a film would be shown in theaters in the Western world. I can't imagine why Iran would be upset, but if they really are infuriated then there's a very simple way to ensure that such films will never need to be made again.

There are reports that some European governments are trying to ban the movie. That's despicable. I hope those governments will soon be identified so we'll know which countries tourists should avoid.

Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that I am a non-violent person, I would be happy to see those Iranian men buried in sand up to their waist while a few hundred Iranian women looked on. It would be convenient if there was a big pile of rocks nearby. I'd like there to be a female doctor nearby to make sure that the men don't die—at least not for several days.




[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]

National Chemistry Week

 
This is National Chemistry Week in the United States of America. Janet Stemwedel reminded us [Holy mole-y, it’s National Chemistry Week!]. She's a chemist AND a philosopher!1

I like chemistry because it helps us understand really important things like biology. Here's the biochemistry version of the Periodic Table of the Elements. It shows you which ones you can ignore!



1. Eat your heart out, John Wilkins.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dispatches from the Evolution Wars

 
"Dispatches from the Evolution Wars" by Glenn Branch, Eugenie C. Scott, and Joshua Rosenau of NCSE has been published in Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics (2010; 11: 317-338). You can read it here.

There's lots of good stuff in this article and Branch et al. have avoided most of the things that annoy atheists and those who thing science and religion are in conflict. Here's some good bits for you to think about.
It is therefore likely that the most effective way for scientists to help to improve the understanding of evolution among in-service teachers is at the level of preservice teacher instruction. To ensure that preservice teachers are prepared to teach evolution effectively, biology professors need to set their own houses in order. Even at the college level, evolution is often not taught explicitly; not required, even of biology majors; and not integrated throughout the course of study. With such a model, what are preservice biology teachers likely to conclude about the centrality of evolution to the discipline they aspire to teach? Additionally, it is vital that biology and education faculty work together to overcome what a recent essay rightly deplored as “[t]he profound lack of interaction, respect, and collaboration between many scientists and science educators in the academy” (103). Biology professors can help their education colleagues to ensure that a proper and up-to-date understanding of evolution and the nature of science is appropriately conveyed in the science education curriculum, while education professors can help their biology colleagues to improve their own pedagogy (1, 2, 105).

In communicating with the public about evolution, creationism, and the nature of science, it is important for scientists not to reinforce the common misconceptions in these areas (119). To give just a few examples, talking about “the theory of evolution” reinforces the idea that evolution is just a theory—a guess or a hunch (25, 49). Calling evolutionary biology “Darwinism” is not only ambiguous and inaccurate but also conducive to a creationist campaign suggesting that evolution is a disreputable ideology (131). Likewise, talking about belief in (rather than acceptance of) evolution is likely to be taken as a profession of faith, reinforcing the idea that evolution is a quasireligious dogma (134). The temptation to proclaim that a new and exciting discovery in the evolutionary sciences is a paradigm shift, overturns the accepted wisdom, or supplies the missing link also needs to be resisted: It suggests that evolution was a theory in crisis beforehand, which is precisely the wrong message to send. The recent overpromotion of Darwinius masillae—“a revolutionary scientific find that will change everything,” blared its publicist—is a melancholy case in point (48).


[Hat Tip: NCSE]

Telling the "Truth" about Science and Religion

 
Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist recently experienced a "conversion." He used to be an accommodationist but lately he's become more and more sympathetic to the position of the Gnu Atheists. He describes how he sees the dispute in How Pushy Should Atheists Be?.
Here’s the difference between the two sides: You know that courtroom phrase, “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”?

Both Mooney and PZ want to tell the truth about science and evolution.

Only PZ is willing to tell the whole truth — that the logical conclusion of accepting science fully is that you must dismiss any notion of gods, miracles, and the supernatural.

Mooney thinks it’s bad PR for us to admit that — and he may be right — but it’s wrong to let Christians keep thinking science and religion are perfectly compatible when they really aren’t.

I’m clearly on PZ’s side of the spectrum, but I don’t think anyone could realistically call me a “confrontationalist.” I’m not looking to pick fights with theists, I frequently get invited by churches to help Christians understand our perspective, and I’m not calling religious people names just to underscore my point. PZ revels in that.

So the downside of the accommodationist/confrontationalist dichotomy is that it leaves a lot of people with no label. What do you call those of us who might lean to one side but aren’t in one camp entirely?
This is a pretty good analysis of the Gnu Atheist side of the problem. Gnu Atheists think that superstition is the problem and they want to tell the whole truth; namely, that superstitious beliefs are not compatible with a scientific way of knowing.

But here's the problem. Accommodationsts don't necessarily believe that science and religion are in conflict. They aren't avoiding the whole truth, instead, they are telling the whole truth as they see it. Compatibility is their version of the truth, even if they are atheists.

I can respect that even though I believe they are wrong. Compatibility seems to be the position of Genie Scott and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

But what about those atheists who actually believe that science and religion are in conflict but who still want to be accommodationists? Do those atheists have to avoid telling the whole truth? How do they justify that?

Joshua Rosenau has the answer: A Prak-tical guide to confrontationalism and accommodationism.
The point being, it's impossible to constantly be telling "the whole truth," and no audience really wants you to do that. You pick and choose which truths (as you see them) you want to expound. Part of the way you do that is by thinking about how much of the truth you can express without driving your audience insane. Hopefully you also select your slice of the truth based on what will convince your audience that your central point is, in fact, true. Omitting parts of the truth that will drive your audience away (or insane) is not dishonest, and may well be the best service you can do for the truth.
There's a word that's used to describe leaving out part of the truth in order to please your audience. It's called lying. Lying is very similar to framing. Josh probably doesn't think that omitting an important part of the truth is the same as lying by omission.

But there's a more serious issue here. Josh works for NCSE, although he's very careful to point out that he doesn't always speak for that organization on his blog. In this posting he's defending accommodationism of the sort defined by Hemant Mehta. This is not the position of those who believe in compatibility because those people are not hiding the truth.

In this case I hope Josh isn't speaking for NCSE because his statement suggests something pretty ominous. He raises the possibility that there are some people who think science and religion are in conflict but who might be willing to say something quite different in public in order to appease moderate theists. That's not just lying by omission.

I wonder if there are people who think science and religion are actually incompatible but who are willing to lie about their position in order to keep creationism out of the classroom. Is Josh one of those people?


Critical Thinking about Religion?

Frans de Waal is a biologist specializing in primate behavior—mostly non-human primates. He wrote an article for The New York Times on Morals Without God.

Like so many others, de Waal can't imagine what kind of morals and ethics a society would create without guidance from supernatural beings.
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
I do not accept that my society is steeped in Christian morality. I believe that Christianity has borrowed some very sound ethical principles shared by all societies and tried to make them its own. That does not mean that our wish to discourage murder and theft is a Christian value.

Furthermore, those values that are uniquely religious—such as banning contraception, prohibiting gay marriage, and rejecting evolution—are frequently the very ones that are rejected by modern Western societies.

It is NOT impossible to know what a society would look like without religion. It would look very much like the societies of Western Europe. Those societies have retained the moral and ethical values that pre-date and supercede religion and they have rejected the values of Christianity that they have outgrown. In countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark citizens are rapidly approaching the point where religions are completely irrelevant. The Pope can continue to hold Sunday mass at St. Peter's and he can create a bevy new saints every year, but hardly anyone will care. Most of them don't even care today. In fact, most Canadians don't care even though more than 40% of us are nominally Roman Catholic.

I'm surprised that de Waal doesn't mention this since he is from the Netherlands and he makes this an important part of his opinion piece in The New York Times article.

It's true that no historical human cultures have been free of superstition. Almost all of them believed in magic. Our ancestors thought there were gods who controlled the weather and they feared evil gods who would do them harm. They believed in magic potions, fairies, and dragons. They believed in lucky numbers and developed elaborate rituals to avoid bad fortune (don't let a black cat cross your path).

The fact that all past cultures were highly superstitious is interesting, but it certainly doesn't trouble me the same way it troubles Frans de Waal. He said, "That such [non-superstitious] cultures do not exist should give us pause." Why? Is it hard to explain why older cultures believed silly things that aren't true?
Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.
This is really hard to understand. On the one hand, de Waals admits that we don't need God to make us moral. On the other hand, he suggests that our society is steeped in Christian morality. He seems to be saying that religion is important even if God is unnecessary.

One of the essential hallmarks of critical thinking is skepticism, especially skepticism about your own personal beliefs. One should always be prepared to question one's own assumptions.

One way of doing this is to look for evidence that will back up or refute your assertion. In this case, Frans de Waal should be asking himself whether there are any examples of societies that are adopting naturalistic worldviews and abandoning religion. If there are such societies, then is it true that they are in the process of evolving prophets and devotees and forming another kind or religion?

I've been in Europe many times over the past decade and I've not seen any evidence of this new religion that's supposed to look just like any old religion. There's no evidence of this new form of religion in North America either. I currently live in a very secular society in the suburbs of Toronto. Half of the people in my immediate neighborhood are non-believers and most of remainder do not agree with the moral and ethical tenets of any religion—especially Christian ones.

None of the non-believers in my neighborhood seem to have a pressing need to find another kind of religion to replace the one they've discarded. We are happy that Canada legalized gay marriage, prohibits capital punishment, allows abortion, promotes gender equality, and defends the right of every Canadian to have affordable access to health care. We don't need prophets and priests to tell us that this is good for society.

Frans de Waal is wrong to claim that our ethics and morals are derived from religion. He is wrong to claim that past belief in silly superstition is evidence that those superstitions can't be discarded. And he is wrong to believe that when societies discard religion they will be faced with such a void that they will have to re-invent religion.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

 
Here's an article from the Atlantic that everyone should read: Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science. It highlights the efforts of John Ioannidis to discover what's true and what's not true about modern medical research publications and clinical trials. I think this is going to become one of the hottest topics in science within a few years. The fallout will be horrendous when the public realizes that doctors are not as scientific as we thought.

Some interesting quotes from the article should prompt you to follow the link to the Atlantic website.
It didn’t turn out that way. In poring over medical journals, he was struck by how many findings of all types were refuted by later findings. Of course, medical-science “never minds” are hardly secret. And they sometimes make headlines, as when in recent years large studies or growing consensuses of researchers concluded that mammograms, colonoscopies, and PSA tests are far less useful cancer-detection tools than we had been told; or when widely prescribed antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil were revealed to be no more effective than a placebo for most cases of depression; or when we learned that staying out of the sun entirely can actually increase cancer risks; or when we were told that the advice to drink lots of water during intense exercise was potentially fatal; or when, last April, we were informed that taking fish oil, exercising, and doing puzzles doesn’t really help fend off Alzheimer’s disease, as long claimed. Peer-reviewed studies have come to opposite conclusions on whether using cell phones can cause brain cancer, whether sleeping more than eight hours a night is healthful or dangerous, whether taking aspirin every day is more likely to save your life or cut it short, and whether routine angioplasty works better than pills to unclog heart arteries.
.
Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable. That article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


[Hat Tip, again to John Wilkins]

Mark Anthony Signorelli Doesn't Like Darwinians

 
According to his blog posting Mark Anthony Signorelli is, "is a poet, playwright, and essayist." He has a very strong opinion about evolution and the "Darwinists" who promote it [The Jurisdiction of Science]. His main point is that anyone should be allowed to criticize modern evolution and I agree with him on that. However, just as there's good science and bad science, there's also valid criticism and not-so-valid criticism. The not-so-valid criticism often comes from people who don't understand evolution.

Here's how Signorelli ends his rant. Judge for yourself ...
The fact that our intellectual climate is such that so many merely scientific thinkers so consistently and so brazenly offer up their lame insights on the most momentous of topics does indeed constitute an essential aspect of our present barbarism. The attempt to understand the entirety of human existence in biological terms has less of philosophical seriousness about it, and more of professional pride. We would find ourselves in a very nearly analogous situation if a conclave of plumbers began writing books, asserting that water was the essential element in all nature, that our thoughts could best be understood as so many conduits to our actions, and that society itself is nothing other than a complex structure of pipes, aqueducts, and irrigatory canals, sending and receiving every life-giving benefit. Such a mode of philosophizing might be enjoyable for a while, but it could never be persuasive, and it could never be right. In both cases, we would recognize that the hard labor of authentic thought was being replaced by the facile application of a vocational jargon. In both cases, we would conclude that a form of knowledge, immensely valuable in its own sphere, had been distorted and falsified, by being rashly extended far beyond that sphere.

And this is why the Darwinians so constantly complain about hostile foreigners intruding into their sovereign territory of biology: in order to distract us from the reality of their own imperial ambitions. There is one enormous fact about the contemporary intellectual scene, and it is not the fact that non-scientists are relentlessly asserting their opinions on scientific questions; it is the fact that many scientists are now in the incurable habit of relentlessly asserting their opinions – their very dopey opinions – on a range of philosophical and cultural issues. And this is a situation that is infinitely more perilous and revolting than if the opposite were the case, because it means that those persons who, by trade and by training, are least competent to judge mankind’s most momentous questions are precisely the ones who are more and more commonly doing just that. We should not be distracted from this terrible reality by the Darwinians incessant howling about the rest of us critiquing their opinions; rather, we should recognize their noise for the rhetorical feint that it is, but one more tawdry polemical maneuver utilized by the proponents of an ideology that is false, ignorant, and dishonest to its core.
Let's be clear about my complaint. It's not that scientists are making foolish statements about evolutionary psychology—that's one area where Signorelli and I agree. My compliant is that he writes an essay on the more general topic of why poets should be allowed to criticize science—an essay that criticizes scientists (like me) who get upset when people misrepresent science in order to advance their personal agendas. The irony is that in this very essay Signorelli reveals a serious lack of understanding of the science behind evolutionary biology beginning with use of the creationist term "Darwinians" to describe all modern evolutionary biologists.

There are good poets and bad poets. It would be wrong to criticize all poetry just because you've read some bad poets. Right?

I agree with this ...
Yet if evolutionary theory does have broad consequences for the study of ethics or the study of the arts – as we have been told with greater and greater frequency of late – then it is a theory which may be fairly considered, and fairly criticized, by scholars in the fields of ethical philosophy or literary criticism. This should be a perfectly uncontroversial matter. To maintain that evolutionary theory needs to be taken seriously by humanist scholars, while simultaneously forbidding those same scholars, under penalty of the severest invective, to weigh the rational substance of evolutionary theory, is a piece of impudence so raw and ridiculous that it could only be performed in this most outlandish of ages. Whatever absurdities were perpetrated in the past by Freudian and Marxist theorists, they never retorted to objections towards their ideological reading of texts by saying, “you are no psychologist,” or “you are no economist.” If the Darwinians wish their theory to be taken seriously outside the laboratories of the biology departments, then they simply must accept the fact that it has become a fair subject of refutation to the entirety of the educated community.
Let's all try and distinguish between the proper science of evolution and evolutionary theory and the abuses perpetrated in it's name. Let's not make the naive assumption that "refuting" the worst abuses is equivalent to questioning what goes on in biology departments. That's silly.

We all have worldviews that shape our opinions. Here's one ...



[John Wilkins made me post this.]

Friday, October 15, 2010

Brother André and the Million Person Funeral

 
Brother André will become Saint André this Sunday. The press in Canada is all agog over this event. Here's an old video from 1982 relating a bit of history.



Almost every article and TV show mentions the million people who were present at Brother André's funeral. Clearly there were not one million people at the funeral as the CBC newsreels from that time clearly shows only a few thousand at most. Other media reports say that one million people filed past Brother André's coffin and this is a more reasonable claim.

Brother André died just after midnight on January 6, 1937. This is the middle of winter in Canada. His body was prepared and laid in a coffin at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. You can see pictures of him lying in state by following the link to the CBC archives. The funeral was held on January 12, 1937.

Let's assume that the body was ready for viewing at noon on January 6th and remained on view until noon on the day before the funeral. According to press reports, St. Joseph's Oratory was open 24 hours a day so that people could pay their respects. That means that 1,000,000 people (one third of the population of Quebec and far more than the entire population of Monteal) filed past the coffin in 5 days (120 hours). That means a constant stream of people every single minute over five days moving at a speed of about 2 Km/hr (assuming 0.5 m between people). That's a slow walking pace so it's perfectly feasible that one million people could have climbed up to St. Joseph's Oratory in the middle of a Montreal winter to view Brother André's body.

Feasible, but not very likely. Perhaps it was a miracle?



Saints, Scientists, and Miracles

 
Rosie Dimanno is a well known journalist who writes for The Toronto Star. Sometimes she's an investigative journalist and sometimes she's just expressing her opinion. Often it's hard to tell the difference.

Ms. Dimanno is in Rome to witness an important (to her) event this Sunday (Oct. 17, 2010). Pope Benedict XVI will create six new saints on that day, adding to the list of over 10,000 Roman Catholic Saints.1. One of these new saints will be Brother André of Montreal. This explains one of the reasons why Rosie is in Rome—she's Canadian. She also appears to be in sympathy with gullible, devout, Roman Catholics. That's three other reasons.

Ms. Dimanno has written several columns on Brother André and his elevation to sainthood. Her goal is to show that the process is rigorous and scientific. According to the church, it's not just anyone who becomes a saint—you have to provide solid evidence that the candidate performed miracles while living and especially after dying. As you can imagine, this kind of rigorous proof is quite a challenge. This explains why there are only 10,000 saints.2

Here's a list of Rosie Dimanno's recent columns on this event.
Dimanno is entitled to her delusions. That's not a problem for me. What I object to is her claim that the existence of miracles has been scientifically documented. This claim was put forth most forcibly in her column of Wednesday, October 13, 2010: "Brother André's case for sainthood led by man of science."

She's referring to Mario Lachapelle who has a Ph.D. in "medical and biological research." At the age of 41, Lachapelle became a Roman Catholic priest and he is now assistant general of the Holy Cross Congregation in Rome. Brother André—soon to be Saint André—was a member of the Holy Cross Congregation in Montreal. The scientist-priest, Mario Lachapelle, grew up in Montreal and wrote a master's thesis on Brother André and his spirituality.

For the past few years Mario Lachapelle has been the vice-postulator in the Brother André case. He is responsible for showing that a miracle occurred and that it can only be attributed to Brother André (after his death). The case they choose was that of a nine year old boy who was injured in an automobile accident near Montreal.

Here's how Lachapelle describes the case, "Here was someone who was considered dead and one week later he was playing with his Nintendo." According to Rosie Dimanno, the miracle has to meet four conditions: (1) the cure has to be permanent, (2) it has to occur shortly after praying to the saintly candidate, (3) no other gods, angels or saints could have made the miracle happen, and (4) "... the acid test is convincing the tribunal that the healing is scientifically unexplainable given existing medical knowledge, which means depositions from attending physicians and experts in the field completely uninvolved with the case."

After a thorough investigation it was determined that the boy was in an irreversible coma and he recovered fully after his family prayed to Brother André. There is no other possible explanation. It had to be a miracle. Welcome to sainthood, Brother André.

The implications of this proof are profound. It's nothing less than proof of the existence of God. It's also proof that God is Roman Catholic. Five other proofs just like it will be revealed this Sunday. I can't imagine why five billion people won't immediately convert to Roman Catholicism. I know I'm going to talk to my friend the priest on Monday morning.

Science will have to be re-defined.


1. Several of them are my direct ancestors: e.g. Saint Begga of Heristal (613-693), Saint Itta (592-692). These are ancestors of Charlemagne so chances are you are also descended from several saints if you have European ancestors. Celibacy is not one of the requirements for sainthood.

2. There are a slew of potential saints in the pipeline, including several Canadians, but the rate seems to have slowed down in the past thousand years. There are more than 10,000 dead saints who can perform miracles. There are dozens of seraphim and angels, including more than a dozen archangels. There's Satan and his buddies and, of course, The Big Three. That's a lot of supernatural beings for a monotheistic religion.

Science Blogs vs Scientific Literature

 
Royce Murray is a highly respected scientist. He doesn't like science blogs, a point he makes in an editorial published in Analytical Chemsitry [Science Blogs and Caveat Emptor].

David Kroll discusses Murray's ignorance of scienc blogs in an article on Terra Sigellata [“The current phenomenon of ‘bloggers’ should be of serious concern to scientists”]. I urge you to read Kroll's article to see why Royce Murray is so wrong about blogs.

I'd like to make another point. Murray begins his editorial with ...
If you are a science scholar, you hope that all scientific articles that you read are grounded in fact. There is a lot of background information to guide you, including statistical data on what professional journals are read widely, with papers therein that produce citations by other subsequent papers and in general, influence the direction of forthcoming new science. As scholars publishing in professional journals, we are schooled in the importance of factual reliability and impact of articles we read in science journals. In terms of impact, we know of various collective valuations of journals through metrics like the so-called “Impact Factor”. By extension, editors and reviewers reinforce the meaningfulness of Impact Factors by explicit attention to the reliability of submitted articles; if the Scientific Method has not been adequately followed, then there should be a downwardly adjusted evaluation of impact. The picture of scientifically grounded innovations feeding progress in science is well established. I firmly believe that this system has served science well and that the scientific literature has provided generally reliable information and vast benefits to society over the centuries to the present and will continue doing so into the future.
I don't disagree with the final conclusion; namely that publication in scientific journals has served science well over the past 150 years. However, I do disagree with the general tone of this paragraph because it fails to recognize the poor quality of many papers that are published in the scientific literature. The focus on "impact factor" is especially disappointing since it caters to "me-too" science and not true innovation and risk-taking.

Royce Murray's criticism of science blogs would be a lot more credible if he were more honest about the limitations of the scientific literature. The lack of credibility in the scientific literature is often responsible for bad journalism and leads to an incorrect view of science among the general public. How many times have you seen an article in the popular press that's based on a bad scientific paper? How many times do we have to read about new cures for cancer before we admit that the scientific literature isn't all it's cracked up to be? And let's not even talk about fields like evolutionary psychology.

Fact is, the peer-reviewed scientific literature hasn't been very successful at weeding out bad science. It's about time we recognized this and tried to find a way to fix it. One of the advantages of blogs is that they frequently highlight the bad papers that make it into the scientific literature—they also point to the good papers.

Before blogs, there was no good way for the scientific community to critique the scientific literature. Some scientists think that papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature should be immune from such criticism from the outside. They think that the only criticism should come from within the scientific literature. In other words, if you don't like a paper you have to publish another paper refuting the science.

One of the strange things about this attitude is that those very same scientists are very happy about issuing press releases and very happy to have their work praised in the popular press.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Philosophers, Science, and Creationism

Investigating the boundary between science and religion

Richard Johns is a Sessional Instructor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. He came to my attention because he just posted a note on Uncommon Descent where he points us to a paper he recently published. Here's the link to his posting: The Limits of Self Organization.

You know as well as I do that anyone posting on that blog is a creationist, specifically an Intelligent Design Creationist. Thus, it won't surprise you to read that his work supports that version of creationism even if the paper itself doesn't mention Intelligent Design Creationism. (Where have we heard that before?)
I’m writing to tell people about a paper of mine that was published in Synthese last month, titled: "Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result". While the paper doesn’t address intelligent design as such, it indirectly establishes strict limits to what such evolutionary mechanisms as natural selection can accomplish. In particular, it shows that physical laws, operating on an initially random arrangement of matter, cannot produce complex objects with any reasonable chance in any reasonable time.
Synthese is "An International Journal for Epistemology, Methodology and Philosophy of Science." It is not a science journal. Please keep that in mind. Here's a link to Richard Johns' article published online last month [Self-organisation in dynamical systems: a limiting result]. Most of you won't be able to see that article so he kindly provided a link to Pre-published version.

The abstract makes you sit up and take notice.
Abstract
There is presently considerable interest in the phenomenon of “self-organisation” in dynamical systems. The rough idea of self-organisation is that a structure appears “by itself” in a dynamical system, with reasonably high probability, in a reasonably short time, with no help from a special initial state, or interaction with an external system. What is often missed, however, is that the standard evolutionary account of the origin of multi-cellular life fits this definition, so that higher living organisms are also products of self-organisation. Very few kinds of object can self-organise, and the question of what such objects are like is a suitable mathematical problem. Extending the familiar notion of algorithmic complexity into the context of dynamical systems, we obtain a notion of “dynamical complexity”. A simple theorem then shows that only objects of very low dynamical complexity can self organise, so that living organisms must be of low dynamical complexity. On the other hand, symmetry considerations suggest that living organisms are highly complex, relative to the dynamical laws, due to their large size and high degree of irregularity. In particular, it is shown that since dynamical laws operate locally, and do not vary across space and time, they cannot produce any specific large and irregular structure with high probability in a short time. These arguments suggest that standard evolutionary theories of the origin of higher organisms are incomplete.
All the code words are there. There's no way the editors of Synthese could be unaware of the implications of this work. It purports to be evidence of the existence of God. We can safely conclude that the discipline of philosophy has admitted the possibility that science could prove the existence of God.

(Don't bother reading the paper. It's one of those complicated lines of argument involving lots of mathematical equations. There probably aren't more than a few dozen people in the entire world who can understand the paper and offer objective criticism. I don't know if any of them reviewed the paper—I suspect not, but what do I know?)

Richard Johns concludes that current evolutionary theory is incomplete.
I have argued that there is an important limitation on the kinds of object that can appear spontaneously in a dynamical system. Such systems, with laws that operate locally and invariantly across space and time, are able to control only the local structure of the state. The state as a whole is therefore uncontrolled, except insofar as it is constrained by the local structure. This led us to the Limitative Theorem, which says that an irregular object, i.e. one that is largely undetermined by its local structure, cannot easily be produced in a dynamical system. Indeed, it was shown that its production is no easier than the appearance of an object of very similar size in a purely random system.

This result, while relevant to biology, does not of course contradict the theory of evolution in its most general form, i.e. that life evolved through a process of descent with modification. This is just as well, since the historical process of phylogeny is very well supported by the evidence. Nevertheless, the Limitative Theorem does suggest that the currently recognised processes driving evolutionary change are incomplete.
Doesn't this create some problems concerning the border between science and philosophy? You betcha, and Richard Johns is fully aware of the implications. Here's what he wrote on his blog [Why should self-organisation be limited?].
My theorem is also pure doom and gloom. Let's be honest: It offers no positive suggestion at all.

Can such negative claims be part of science? It is often said that a scientist must propose hypotheses that are empirically testable. That's not really true, however. While that's a big part of science, a lot of good scientific work is indeed negative. Much useful work is done by experimentalists who show that, while hypothesis H might predict empirical result E, E doesn't actually occur. Also, while most theorists are busily showing that H predicts E, other theorists very helpfully point out that H doesn't really predict E at all, even though we thought it did. A really negative scientist might even show that no hypothesis of a certain type will ever predict E.

I'm afraid I'm one of those really negative scientists. I've shown that no hypothesis in a very broad class predicts the existence of complex living organisms. More precisely, life cannot self organise in any dynamical system whose laws are local and invariant under spatial translation.
This is a very important point. Is it scientific to show that something cannot happen? I think it is.

Let's take a simple case like group selection. George Williams made a name for himself back in the 1960s by presumably showing that group selection could not occur by any known mechanism of evolution. Nobody, as far as I know, suggested that he wasn't being scientific. Lamarckian evolution is anther example. Although it's theoretically possible to pass on acquired characteristics, we discount that possibility because we can show that the connection between phenotypic changes and altering the genome rules out Lamarckian inheritance as a general mechanism of evolution.

If showing that something is theoretically impossible is valid science in some cases then why do we declare that attempts to do the same thing by Intelligent Design Creationists are automatically ruled non-scientific?

Richard Johns faces a special problem because he seems to have bought into methodological naturalism as a limitation on science. Again, from his blog ...
At this point a worrying possibility emerges. This no-go theorem is so broad that it rules out just about any naturalistic theory of the origin of life! It certainly seems to rule out all the naturalistic theories presently proposed. Yet, the whole business of science is to provide natural explanations for phenomena, so this result is unscientific after all. (Even if it is technically correct, take note.)

Well, this is an awkward business! What are we to do?
Indeed. What is he to do? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Johns has made a reasonable case for his argument. Let's assume that there may be ways of showing that life is impossible under the known laws of chemistry and physics. Is that science? Does it fit into the restriction of methodological naturalism?

I think the answer to the first question is "yes." It may be bad science, it may even be really bad science, but it's still science to investigate whether completely naturalistic explanations can account for life as we know it.

Let's not pretend to be naive. If there's no naturalistic explanation then there has to be some other kind of explanation.
So I think we have to broaden our horizons, and be open to new kinds of explanation. Perhaps it won't be that bad? And we have no other choice, if we want our explanations to be true.
We know what that means. By ruling out naturalistic causes, we are forced to consider supernatural causes. Is that what makes Richard Johns' work unscientific but not that of George Williams and many other theoreticians of biology? 'Cause if that's what methodological naturalism is all about then it's an ass.

I think everything is fair game for science. Our goal is not to develop rigid rules that make us feel good by ruling our opponents out of bounds just because we don't like their conclusions. Our goal should be to show that they are wrong.

I fully expect that people like Wesley Elsbery and Jeffrey Shallit and will show us why Richard Johns is wrong, just as they did for similar arguments by Bill Dembski. As they do that, Elsbery and Shallit will be practicing science as a way of discovering truth. It would make no sense to declare that Richard Johns has stepped outside the realm of science but Elsbery and Shallit remain inside its boundaries.

The Intelligent Design Creationist attacks on evolution are wrong because they are bad science, not because they are not science.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Must Have a Rational Design

 
Casey Luskin is at it again. The Intelligent Design Creationists are trying to argue their way out of the obvious implications of the path taken by the recurrent laryngeal nerve, especially in giraffes.

Now they're saying that, far from being an example of sloppy design, the path of the nerve has to have some selective advantage according to science. Thing is, you need to have a proper understanding of evolution in order to discuss this intelligently.

Enjoy, while keeping in mind why we call them IDiots [Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig: Under Neo-Darwinism, the Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve Must Have a Rational Design.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Which Country Has the Best Brains?

 

BBC News has an article on which countries produce the most Nobel Prize winners: Which country has the best brains?.

So, which country has the best brains? I love the answer given by John Wilkins, "Surely not the one that cannot work out per capita rates of Nobel Prizes."


A Canadian Atheist Accommodationist

 
Canadian Atheist is a blog run by several Canadian atheists (hence the name ). One of them is Brent Kelley, an undergraduate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Here's what Brent said in today's posting: The Atheist Disposition,
Almost everybody I talk to seems to disagree with the “militant” positions that firebrand atheists such as Dawkins and PZ take. They feel they are too extreme and that their outlook too rigid.

I might disagree to some extent, but that’s not the point. The point is that the great atheist leaders that many atheists regard so highly are often viewed by outsiders as extreme, unreasonable, and ridiculous. Even those who agree with our cause often feel this way. Which means that if we’re trying to get the public on-board with our ideas and opinions, we’re failing.

We need to work on our image. I’m not sure where to start, but perhaps approaching the problem from the ground up is a nice way to start tackling the issue. What I would suggest is for atheists everywhere to be a little more friendly to not only one another, but also to others outside their atheist circle of friends. Before you attack a theist’s beliefs, ask yourself if the argument is worth it. You probably wont change their mind anyway. Instead, perhaps you could start up a discussion about science and try to explain the scientific viewpoint on this or that. Slowly and gently introducing them to the worldview of scientific naturalism might make them more receptive to atheism and critical thinking. And be open to their ideas too, you might even learn something. Do whatever, just don’t get into a shouting match and reinforce the stereotype that atheists are argumentative, unfriendly, and annoying.
[emphasis in original]
Why not visit their blog and post a comment? I did.


Teach Your Children Scientific Literacy

 




[Hat Tip: Greg Laden]

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Casey Luskin Lesson Plan on Teaching the Controversy

 
I often criticize the Intelligent Design Creationists for not coming up with anything other than criticism of evolution. That criticism is perfectly justified as we can see in Casey Luskin's latest posting on Evolution News & Views: Back to School Lesson Plans That Actually Help Students Understand Evolution. He's even gone as far as proposing a lesson plan on evolution for grades 4-7. One of the important parts of that lesson plan is the challenges to evolution.

It's Monday, and it's Thanksgiving Day in Canada, so I'm taking a bit of a break. Let's have some fun with Luskin's lesson plan. I'll quote each of his points with a brief response.
Step 3: Learn About the Case against Evolution (1.5 hours). Now students will learn about some of the science that challenges evolution. Watch the DVD Icons of Evolution.
- Ask students to explain the difference between microevolution and macroevolution.
This is far too complicated for public school students. The simple answer is that microevolution describes changes occurring within populations and macroevolution describes the history of life. Macroevolution includes things such as speciation that are not part of microevolution and it also includes things like asteroid impacts, ice ages, and drifting continents in order to explain the history of life. There's an important part of evolutionary theory called "Hierarchical Theory" where proponents argue for higher-level mechanisms of evolution such as species selection. They aren't part of microevolutionary explanations. Thus, microevolution is necessary but not sufficient to explain macroevolution [Macroevolution].
-The video mentions the Galápagos finches. Do the finches represent an example of microevolution or macroevolution?
It's on the border between microevolution and macroevolution. The value of the work on the Galapogos finches is that the results suggest how new species are formed. They formed from a combination of physical isolation events (different islands) plus microevoutionary events involving natural selection, and random genetic drift. Such speciation events occurred repeatedly in the history of life and these studies show how they can be explained by purely natural causes.
-The video mentions mutations in fruit flies which gave fruit flies an extra pair of wings. Were these fruit flies able to fly better and survive with the extra wings?
No.
-Are mutations helpful or harmful? Ask for examples of harmful mutations? How about helpful ones?
A harmful mutation is one that decreases fitness. There are hundreds of examples of genetic diseases in humans. A beneficial mutation is one that increases fitness. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is a classic example but so is HIV resistance in humans. Dozens of field studies have shown that beneficial mutations can arise fairly quickly in populations that are challenged by environmental change. Molecular data documents thousand of beneficial changes to genes and enzymes over time.
-What was the Cambrian explosion?
The Cambrian Explosion was a period in the history of life where we see the appearance of new types of animals. The dates are approximately 500 million years ago and the time frame for the visible appearance of these groups ranges from 10-50 million years. It's important to note that the fossils of the Cambrian don't look like any species that are alive today and they don't contain any examples of land life. It's also important to note that the Cambrian explosion doesn't apply to plants, fungus, protozoa, and bacteria.

What caused the appearance of primitive animal groups 500 million yeas ago, over a period of tens of millions of years? Scientists don't really know but there are lots of ideas on the table. One thing that's very clear from molecular evolution is that the origin of the various lineages (phyla) goes back several hundred million years.
-Does the fossil evidence show that species have evolved by small gradual changes, or large sudden changes? Do fossils support Darwin’s theory? Why or why not?
The are many examples of slow gradual changes over millions of year but there are also examples of patterns called Punctuated Equilibria. In these examples you see very small changes—such as the speciation events in the Galapagos finches—happening at the time of speciation. In other words, the fossil record mimics the sort of thing you see in the Galapagos islands where the small changes occurring at speciation are quickly fixed in the population within ten or twenty thousand years. There's hardly any fossil record of the intermediates showing the transition between these closely related species.

There's nothing in the fossil record suggesting that large sudden changes can occur rapidly. That's a lie propagated by creationists who don't understand evolution and who have a religious agenda that interferes with their ability to do science.
-The video also mentions the origin of life. Does the evidence support the claim that the building blocks of life were present on the early earth? Why or why not?
The origin of life is an interesting scientific problem that hasn't been solved. Although it has nothing to do with evolution, it's clearly related. Some scientists think that life arose in a primordial soup containing abundant supplies of all the necessary building blocks we see today. There is plenty of scientific evidence that some of these building blocks—such as simple sugars and amino acids—can arise spontaneously. In fact, many of them have been detected in outer space. Other scientists prefer scenarios where life began much more simply with very small, highly abundant, chemicals that are still around today in the oceans. It will be interesting to watch for new discoveries as you grow up because science is poised to make significant advances in these areas.

You should keep an open mind on this question and watch for new discoveries from religious leaders that will help you understand the origin of life. It's possible—alghough not very likely—that religious organizations such as The Discovery Institute will come up with a scientific explanation of how, and when, God created life on Earth.
-Compared to humans, was the first life simple or complex? How about compared to a calculator, computer, or cell phone? Are living organisms more or less complicated than human technology? What do students think?
All available scientific evidence points to a common ancestor that was much more simple than humans, or most other species that are living today. Those primitive ancestors are much less complex than a modern computer because, in addition to having only a few hundred genes (at most), the internal cell biology and biochemistry was undoubtedly sloppy and inefficient. No modern machine is anything like that.

We are at the stage in technology development where it is possible to build better life forms than those that evolved naturally and you should look forward to learning about these new artificial forms of life in the next few years. You might even want to think about a future career in science so you can learn this technology.