Friday, August 30, 2013

And I Thought Don Prothero's Review of Darwin's Doubt Was Withering...

Nick Matzke has also written a review of Darwin's Doubt that has been posted on Panda's Thumb.  This is the nicest thing he has to say about it:
As I read through Meyer’s book, though, in case after case I see misunderstandings, superficial treatment of key issues which are devastating to his thesis once understood, and complete or near-complete omission of information that any non-expert reader would need to have to make an accurate assessment of Meyer’s arguments.
Matzke also points out that Meyer continually uses redrawn, dumbed-down illustrations, while ignorning detailed ones that would poke holes in his case and completely fails to understand the key events in the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods. According to Matzke, Meyer also completely fails to understand phylogenetic analysis and the importance that it has to understanding patterns in the fossil record. It is this section for which he reserves his greatest scorn:
His main argument is basically that phylogenetic results sometimes conflict, therefore the whole thing is meaningless. This exhibits a jaw-dropping level of incompetence. It’s amateurish in the worst possible way, the opening-your-yapper-without-knowing-the-first-thing-about-what-you-are-discussing sort of amateurism.
Indeed, this seems to characterize much of the work that comes out of the DI these days.  One wonders why they don't just pick up a book on palaeontology and read it from cover to cover before writing these things.  This sort of reluctance to adapt their arguments to current data or respond to their critics is the kind of thing that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of your average scientist.  Reading reviews of Meyer's earlier work Signature in the Cell, it is clear that he has learned nothing in the intervening years. As I wrote over two years ago:
It is as if the concept of natural selection is completely foreign or is so repugnant as to be unacceptable and therefore, the DI writers continue to misunderstand it. The problem that I have with this perspective is that this misunderstanding of natural selection has not gone uncorrected. Kenneth Miller, Richard Dawkins, P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, Steve Matheson and Darrel Falk, just to name a few have written treatises strongly rebutting this position held by Meyer, Dembski and Michael Behe. These have been ignored. Therefore, to continue to promote this misunderstanding of natural selection and its role in evolution constitutes, as they say, a terminological inexactitude. This would not be the first time the Discovery Institute was accused of that.
Why should your average scientist take this organization seriously when they continue to misunderstand basic evolutionary theory and repeat falsehoods time and time again?

What really pains me about this is that books that emanate from the Discovery Institute are being read by my kids in school. That has got to stop.

Off-Topic (Sort of) But Way Cool

Scientific American has an infographic that is really neat.  It is 150 million years of fish evolution put in a phylogenetic tree structure.  Here is the graphic but you should go to the story to get the whole thing in all of its detail.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Washington Times Weighs In on Ball State

Getting in a little bit late in the game, The Washington Times waxes on the trials of Eric Hedin and Ball State University and, by and large, makes a hash of it.  They write:
At Ball State University in Indiana, for example, anti-religion activists are irritated that physics and astronomy professor Eric Hedin presented intelligent design in his classroom as a plausible theory of origins. The basic gist was that mankind and the universe did not spring forth out of a series of wholly random events and that some higher power guided the process.
For one thing, intelligent design is not a theory of origins. Intelligent design is not really a theory at all, in the scientific sense of the word. Intelligent design rests almost entirely on the premise that prevailing scientific theories are at a loss to explain certain processes that take place in the natural world.  Second, there is nothing in the scientific enterprise that argues that the universe sprang forth out of a series of wholly random events.  That is a non-scientific statement.  Onward.  They continue:
Progress depends on challenging the conventional wisdom. Most of the ancient world looked at the sky and assumed it was obvious that the universe revolved around the Earth. In the 16th century, Copernicus said, no, the common belief was wrong and the planets, including Earth, revolve around the sun. A century later, Newton explained how gravity made it all work, which was accepted until Einstein came along with his breakthrough theory of relativity. Science never rests.
It is somewhat ironic that she chooses these examples of people who challenged the prevailing views because each one of these people had hard evidence that supported their positions.  This was also true of Charles Darwin, who's theory was revolutionary for its time and, with other researchers extending it, had been found to be one of the most robust theories in existence.  Now let's see what the theoretical constructs of intelligent design are. As Paul Nelson said eight years ago:
Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory now, and that’s a real problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” –- but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.1
We are eight years down the road and intelligent design still consists of attacks on evolution rather than a attempting to design a full-fledged theorectical base. Jeffrey Shallit pointed this out a year back:
Here is a perfect example of this sterility: Bio-Complexity, the flagship journal of the intelligent design movement. As 2012 draws to a close, the 2012 volume contains exactly two research articles, one "critical review" and one "critical focus", for a grand total of four items. The editorial board has 30 members; they must be kept very busy handling all those papers.  (Another intelligent design journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, hasn't had a new issue since 2005.)
The 2013 volume has had, in eight months, only three articles and all three are based on arguments against evolution, not support for intelligent design.  The problem persists.  And as long as proponents of ID cannot provide their own tests of how this theory can be supported, it does not belong in the science classroom. Indeed, their only recourse in recent years has been to try to redefine science so that ID can be incorporated.  The problem here, is, as Michael Behe noted, when one does so, astrology is considered to be science.

Jo Ann Gora of Ball State did not close off discussion of competing scientific theories, she closed off acceptance of a non-scientific alternative to established science.

1Nelson, P. (2004) The Measure of Design," Touchstone, pp. 64-65

Monday, August 19, 2013

Donald Prothero Writes A Withering Review of Darwin's Doubt

On the Amazon page for the new Stephen Meyer book Darwin's Doubt, there is a review of the book by Donald Prothero, who is responsible for one of the best books on the fossil record in recent memory, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters.  Of creationists (sensu lato), he writes:
They either cannot understand the scientific meaning of many fields from genetics to paleontology to geochronology, or their bias filters out all but tiny bits of a research subject that seems to comfort them, and they ignore all the rest.
Another common tactic of creationists is credential mongering. They love to flaunt their Ph.D.'s on their book covers, giving the uninitiated the impression that they are all-purpose experts in every topic. As anyone who has earned a Ph.D. knows, the opposite is true: the doctoral degree forces you to focus on one narrow research problem for a long time, so you tend to lose your breadth of training in other sciences. Nevertheless, they flaunt their doctorates in hydrology or biochemistry, then talk about paleontology or geochronology, subjects they have zero qualification to discuss. Their Ph.D. is only relevant in the field where they have specialized training. It's comparable to asking a Ph.D. to fix your car or write a symphony--they may be smart, but they don't have the appropriate specialized training to do a competent job based on their Ph.D. alone.
This credential mongering was, of course, true with the modern progenitors of all subsequent creationist works, The Genesis Flood and Scientific Creationism, both written by Henry Morris, a hydraulic engineer with no training in any of the major earth or biological sciences.That they were accepted uncritically by masses of Christians is, to this day, astounding.  Onward.

Prothero, who is a palaeontologist, has found Meyer's book unimpressive:
Almost every page of this book is riddled by errors of fact or interpretation that could only result from someone writing in a subject way over his head, abetted by the creationist tendency to pluck facts out of context and get their meaning completely backwards. But as one of the few people in the entire creationist movement who has actually taken a few geology classes (but apparently no paleontology classes), he is their "expert" in this area, and is happy to mislead the creationist audience that knows no science at all with his slick but completely false understanding of the subject.
This is the same sort of experience I had with the abysmal Bones of Contention, written by Marvin Lubenow some years back, where every page had some sort of error on it.  I felt beaten down by the time I was finished and, despite having the best intentions of reviewing it, I never did because I couldn't stomach picking it up again.

Meyer's central focus of the book is the Cambrian "explosion," in which life seems to have proliferated and diversified during what Meyer argues is too short a time for evolution to have occurred.  After correcting Meyer's understanding of how long the Cambrian was, he addresses a persistent problem:
The mistakes and deliberate misunderstandings and misinterpretations go on and on, page after page. Meyer takes the normal scientific debates about the early conflicts about the molecular vs. morphological trees of life as evidence scientists know nothing, completely ignoring the recent consensus between these data sets. Like all creationists, he completely misinterprets the Eldredge and Gould punctuated equilibrium model and claims that they are arguing that evolution doesn't occur--when both Gould and Eldredge have clearly explained many times (which he never cites) why their ideas are compatible with Neo-Darwinism and not any kind of support for any form of creationism.
It is immensely disappointing to see this kind of problem over and over in ID writings. This example is similar to the lack of understanding of natural selection and adaptive valleys and peaks that William Dembski exhibits in his writings.  He seems to make the same errors consistently to the point where people don't even comment on what he has written because he won't address any of the criticisms. This is common of most ID writers.  I am currently piecing through Science and Human Origins by Luskin, Axe and Gauger and am encountering the same errors that I took Casey Luskin to task for three years ago.

You should the whole review in all of its caustic glory.  I will probably get around to reading it but have too many other things to read right now. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

HuffPo: Creationist Darek Isaacs Calls Dragons Real, Says They Lived In Biblical Times

Sometimes I just want to crawl under the desk and hide.  Welcome to the public face of Christianity: the young earth creationists.  HuffPo is running a story on an interview with Derek Isaacs, listed as a creationist author and filmmaker, in which he argues that dragons lived with humans and are extensively mentioned in the Bible.  Meredith Bennett-Smith writes:
In an interview with Christian talk show Creation Today posted to YouTube on Wednesday, Isaacs says that dragons are real because the Bible says so.

As a so-called Young Earth Creationist, Isaacs is guided by the scientifically discredited belief that the Earth was created by God several thousand years ago. (Scientists believe the Earth came into being about four billion years ago.) In addition, he believes in biblical inerrancy--the belief that the sacred book contains no errors.

"The Bible speaks about dragons,” Isaacs told the show's hosts. "Our authority -- everything we do, we have to measure by the word of God. That is what I believe. So we have to go to the Bible, and the Bible speaks about dragons."
"Scientifically discredited." That is one way of putting it.  Nevermind that there is no archaeological or fossil evidence of "dragons" whatsoever.  Here is the video:

He comments that 2000 years ago, people would have understood the lethality of dragons. Despite never having seen one? Where were they?  If real, honest-to-goodness dragons were actually around, they would have been mentioned in every single book of the bible.

It has been argued by some creationists that dragons were, in fact, dinosaurs.  Some dinosaurs were thirty tons and eighty feet long. Others were fast, killing machines.  If all of the dinosaur remains in the rock record were the result of the flood and represent the carcasses of animals living during bible times, the Holy land would have been overrun with them!

The other problem is that the flood story predates the dragon references in the Old Testament AND the book of Revelation, so there would not have been any dinosaurs running around at this point, anyway.  But there are larger interpretive problems here.

The word "dragon" in Hebrew is Tan-neem, which means large creature.  In many verses in the Old Testament, it clearly means the Nile Crocodile.  For example:
"Speak, and say, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers, which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself. But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the fish of thy rivers to stick unto thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick unto thy scales." (Ezekiel 29:3-4 KJV)
In the New Testament, the word "dragon" refers to Satan:
"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him." (Revelation 12:7-9 KJV)
 It is pretty clear that this set of verses does not describe a reptile with arms and legs. It describes a monster in theological terms.

This is yet another example of flat-earth Christianity, where there is no interpretation done on the part of the reader. Revelation is only one-way and we are not to question how to read the scriptures.

Consequently, what seems obvious using even a cursory read of the Bible is completely lost on people like this.  Further, it is no surprise from whence this kind of nonsense emanates

As Christians, we cannot afford to behave irresponsibly like this.  It is incumbent on all of us to think intelligently about our faith and understand its cultural context and history.  The statements of Derek Isaacs just make Christians look ignorant.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Good News In Texas

Apparently, the new textbooks in Texas are getting a good review by a group of Ph.D. candidates who have evaluated them.  The Texas Freedom Network writes:
“It appears that publishers have done a good job resisting political pressure to weaken instruction on evolution with junk science in their new textbooks,” said Kathy Miller, president of the TFN Education Fund. “That should be reassuring for parents who want their kids to get a science education that prepares them for college and a 21st century economy. But we’re already seeing signs that the pressure on publishers will increase in the coming months.”
This is a far cry from the days of Don McLeroy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Study: Neandertals Made Bone Points

Nature has a story detailing research indicating the use of bone tools by Neandertals. Ewen Callaway writes:
Excavations of Neanderthal sites more than 40,000 years old have uncovered a kind of tool that leather workers still use to make hides more lustrous and water resistant. The bone tools, known as lissoirs, had previously been associated only with modern humans. The latest finds indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans might have invented the tools independently.
This is one of those things that has always been suspected but never shown. It is nice to finally have the evidence. It isn't immediately clear, however that they developed them independently. The incoming moderns may have learned the craft from the Neandertals they interbred with.  Here is the photo from Nature

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Carlisle Sentinel Responds to Stephen Bloom

The Carlisle Sentinel has devoted an editorial to the Stephen Bloom push to have a bill passed allowing "academic freedom" for debating the merits of scientific theories in high school.  They write:
Bloom told abc27 News that he’s surprised his proposal has generated a firestorm of criticism that calls the bill “anti-science.” His defense is that he wants “to encourage the kind of thinking that leads to good science.” We’re surprised Bloom is surprised. How could a memo like this not generate controversy? Critics are painting Bloom’s proposal as a backdoor method for getting religious teachings back into school, and that’s because that’s exactly what this looks like.

Even if we take Bloom at his word that this is an innocent call for more debate in school, this is still an absurd proposal.

Let’s extend his logic away from science and into math class. Say an educator is teaching long division to a classroom filled with students, some of whom believe long division is a bad approach. Bloom’s bill apparently would enable those students to derail their math class and insist their teacher open the room to a debate about long division. Bloom might argue that long division is fact and science is theory. Others might argue that long division is theory and science is fact. Still others might argue both are fact or both are theory.
Color me skeptical but I don't believe that his proposal is innocent. If it were, he would not have focused on "evolution and global warming." Furthermore, I think that "global warming" is just included to throw people off when what he really wants gone is evolution.  If he wanted to be all inclusive, he would have mentioned other disciplines, such as medicine or physics. That he did not betrays a hidden agenda.

His use of the term "academic freedom" is also suspect. This is another bill in a string of them that have, at their base, a model derived from the Discovery Institute that uses the phrase "academic freedom."   Further, as I have noted previously, he has no idea what "good science" is.  Once again: when politicians get involved in education policy, no good comes of it. 

Representative Bloom Pushes Forward

Two days ago, I posted a story on Pennsylvania state senator Stephen Bloom's ill-advised to push a bill that would "...allow students in public elementary and secondary schools to question or critique "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories.""  Today the Carlisle Sentinel has a bit more on the story.  Dave Marcheskie writes:
Bloom, R-199, has begun seeking co-sponsors of legislation that would require Pennsylvania's public schools to allow debate on scientific theories.

Bloom says his proposal, dubbed "academic freedom," would open up the classroom atmosphere so that a student or teacher could express doubts or concerns they might have about existing theories.

Students and teachers could debate current teachings on biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning, among other issues.

Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said teachers are not qualified to go beyond the state-approved curriculum.

"Certainly, a biology teacher is in no place to discuss religious theory," Hoover said.

As it stands, Bloom's proposal would require a school to assist a teacher when addressing such "controversies" in science classrooms.
Here is the problem: before reasoned debate can occur, there has to be an understanding of what is being debated. Very few kids in high school will have the necessary background to debate the merits of evolution or cloning cogently. These are things you learn about in little more than cursory fashion in high school and then pursue in college if interested.  It is clear from his understanding of science that Rep. Bloom did not pursue them.  He has no idea what a scientific theory actually is, and he has a very great distrust of the academy. 

This is all straight out of the Discovery Institute's playbook: promote "academic freedom" legislation with the ultimate goal of pursuing a post-modern view of science in which it can be redefined to include disciplines that, using modern definitions, aren't science.  When asked whether or not astrology should be considered a science, Michael Behe, senior fellow at the DI, admitted that, well yes, it would.  If you can redefine the scientific enterprise to include things like astrology, for which there are no testable scientific hypotheses, then you can redefine it to include anything, including, obviously, Intelligent Design.  The only reason science works as well as it does is that, through its framework, it fosters testable questions which, in turn, generate theory.  Rep. Bloom does not understand this.

Popular Science: What Pangaea Would Look Like With Today's Political Boundaries [Infographic]

Popular Science has a peculiar graphic up that imagines what the world would like geopolitically if the continents were still arranged in the shape of Pangaea. It is mostly an exercise in silliness but is fun to look at.  Click on the picture for a larger version.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Just When You Thought The Ball State News Would Die Down...

While the ties to Ball State University are, admittedly, somewhat stretched, the media is playing this one up for all it is worth.  Seth Slabaugh writes:
Toy dinosaurs at the juice and coffee table greeted members of Grace Baptist Church during a seminar on a recent Saturday morning.

The reason for the toys?

“Dinosaurs and the Bible” was a key presentation at the creationist event.

Guest lecturer Jay Wile, a nuclear chemist who taught at Ball State University during the 1990s, presented the group evidence of dinosaurs living alongside humans in recent history.

“I am sure you disagree with most of what was in my presentations ... and I have no problem with that,” Wile told The Star Press after his talk. “Disagreement is one of the many things that makes life interesting. I just ask that you treat me fairly in your disagreement.”
So, despite the fact that all of the available evidence puts the dinosaurs and humans at 65 million years apart, and despite the fact that the dinosaur remains that we do have are fossilized and couldn't possibly be six thousand years old, some wall engravings and verses from the Bible that mention "the behemoth" are enough to argue that dinosaurs and humans coexisted?  Really?  They continue:
He next displayed photographs of Native American rock engravings of “incredibly accurate” depictions of dinosaurs at Natural Bridges Monument in Utah and at Havasupai Canyon in Arizona. He also showed photographs of a 13th century Cambodian temple’s rock sculpture of a stegosaurus with plates on its back, as well as two sauropods drawn on the tomb of Richard Bell, a Bishop of Carlisle, who died in 1495.

“No paleontologists were around back then,” Wile said.
True, but the fossilized bones were and, like the remains of Gigantopithecus, would serve to allow the locals to envision what the beast must have looked like. As it turns out, Stegosaurus remains are found mostly in Asia, specifically southern China.  Lo and behold! An alternate explanation that also happens to fit the evidence.  This kind of thing is just depressing to read. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To Pennsylvania is reporting that a Republican (natch) state representative is promoting an "academic freedom" bill.  Angela Couloumbis writes:
A Republican state representative calls it a matter of academic freedom.

Science-education advocates claim it's nothing but a backdoor attempt to allow public schools to discuss Bible-based creationism.

Rep. Stephen Bloom (R., Cumberland) circulated a memo to his colleagues Thursday seeking cosponsors for planned legislation to allow students in public elementary and secondary schools to question or critique "the scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories."

In an interview, Bloom said the purpose of his bill was not to supplant what is now taught in classrooms - including, he said, evolution and global warming - but to foster an atmosphere that allows for a free exchange of ideas if a student were to question or disagree with the teaching.

"In the real world, outside of academia, scientific theory is up for all kinds of argument," Bloom said. "I don't think it's right to exclude any particular kind of argument prima facie. If a student wants to discuss a criticism, he or she should be able to."
And out it comes.  Funny how "existing scientific theories" becomes "evolution and global warming."  Bloom doesn't care about anything but evolution.  He probably couldn't even describe it but that doesn't matter.  What if the student disagrees with the teaching because they think the earth was created six thousand years ago?  How much time should be spent on that?

The only reason people like Bloom think that scientific theory is up for all kinds of argument is because they have no idea what a scientific theory is.  The only reason science happens at all is because people like Bloom don't have a say in it. 

They don't call it the "stupid party" for nothing.