Sunday, June 28, 2015

Terrible News

Chris Squire, the bass player for Yes, has passed away.  Rolling Stone has the story:
Chris Squire, the co-founder and longtime bassist of prog rock icons Yes and the only member of the group to feature on every studio album, has passed away just over a month after revealing that he was suffering from a rare form of leukemia. Squire was 67. Current Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes first tweeted the news, "Utterly devastated beyond words to have to report the sad news of the passing of my dear friend, bandmate and inspiration Chris Squire."
Yes has been one of my favorite bands for decades, since my brother Paul taped a copy of Close to the Edge for me when I was ten.  I saw them play in Atlanta, in March of this year, just after the recent studio album, Heaven and Earth came out.  This is very sad.  

More here from Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Nancy Pearcey: Why Evolutionary Theory Cannot Survive Itself

Nancy Pearcey has a new book out titled Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes. There is an extract from it on Evolution, News and Views here.  Here is her opening paragraph:
A major way to test a philosophy or worldview is to ask: Is it logically consistent? Internal contradictions are fatal to any worldview because contradictory statements are necessarily false. "This circle is square" is contradictory, so it has to be false. An especially damaging form of contradiction is self-referential absurdity -- which means a theory sets up a definition of truth that it itself fails to meet. Therefore it refutes itself....
One can see where this is going and it falls within a larger attempt by this arm of the Discovery Center to establish evolutionary theory not as a scientific theory but as a world-view. Let’s see how she gets there. She writes:
An example of self-referential absurdity is a theory called evolutionary epistemology, a naturalistic approach that applies evolution to the process of knowing. The theory proposes that the human mind is a product of natural selection. The implication is that the ideas in our minds were selected for their survival value, not for their truth-value.

But what if we apply that theory to itself? Then it, too, was selected for survival, not truth -- which discredits its own claim to truth. Evolutionary epistemology commits suicide.
What follows is a tug-of-war between those that support evolutionary epistemology and those that do not.  The central idea, though—and it is not a new one—is that if natural selection formed the modern consciousness and modern thought, then the theory, itself, is subject to those evolutionary processes and, therefore, cannot be trusted.  She quotes literary critic (!) Leon Wieseltier (without providing a link to the article, a maddening practice of this site), who writes:
But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
Here is the problem with this argument.  Pearcey (and Wieseltier by extension) has applied it to natural selection/evolution but, in fact, it could be applied to any of our theoretical constructs.  If our reason has evolved and, thus, is suspect, then it is suspect in all endeavors.  In short, we can know nothing for sure about our universe, because we cannot trust our judgment.  We can know nothing about gravitation, atomic theory, cell theory, cosmology, or any other scientific discipline simply because of our flawed reason.  So what do we do?

We practice science.

We construct scientific tests to see if our understanding of the world is “logically consistent.” We test if things fall to the earth in support of gravitational theory, we test how molecules behave in support of cell theory, and so on. Funny, this sounds a lot like modern science, doesn't it? We know that we cannot always trust our eyes or our ears or our other senses, so we come up with an independent test of what we observe to see if our explanation for it is consistent with a model of some kind.

Evolutionary theory is no different.  We construct models to explain what we see, with the understanding that, in our flawed humanness, we might not understand how it works.  This is how we have built an understanding of how evolution has shaped the current and past biodiversity.  It is no different than any other scientific construct.  The only reason that Nancy Pearcey treats it differently is that she doesn't like evolution.  

If you turn this argument around then it sounds like this: if our intellect was not the product of evolution, then why do we have such a flawed understanding of our universe?  Why do we need to practice science at all?  Why don't we understand perfectly?  We don't because Christ said that we would not.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” While he was certainly writing about the spiritual understanding of our relationship with Christ, the passage could equally be applied to any human understanding.

In short, her argument that we cannot know whether evolutionary theory is correct because we have evolved is no argument against evolutionary theory any more than it is against any other scientific endeavor.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is Bio-Complexity Dead?

Is the Intelligent Design journal Bio-Complexity dead?  A visit to the web site indicates that no new articles have been published in 2015, after only four in 2014.  Panda's Thumb had a review of the 2014 “issue” last December.  They were not kind.  Jeffrey Shallit wrote:
How many papers did Bio-Complexity manage to publish this year? A grand total of four! Why, that's 1/8th of a paper per member of the editorial team. By any measure, this is simply astounding productivity. They can be proud of how much they have added to the world's knowledge!
Looking a little deeper, we see that of these four, only one is labeled as a "research article". Two are "critical reviews" and one is a "critical focus". And of these four stellar contributions, one has 2 out of the 3 authors on the editorial team, two are written by members of the editorial team, leaving only one contribution having no one on the editorial team. And that one is written by Winston Ewert, who is a "senior researcher" at Robert J. Marks II's "evolutionary informatics lab". In other words, with all the ideas that ID supporters are brimming with, they couldn't manage to publish a single article by anyone not on the editorial team or directly associated with the editors.
What happened to the claim that ID creationists stand for ideas? One research article a year is not that impressive. Where are all those ideas Klinghoffer was raving about? Why can't their own flagship journal manage to publish any of them?
As 2015 draws near, don't expect that we will get any answers to these questions. Heck, not even the illustrious Robert J. Marks II can manage to respond to a simple question about information theory. 
Ouch! As I noted to my wife last night, while it is a flawed approach, even young-earth creationism can generate hypotheses for testing (That none of them pan out is, somehow lost on the supporters of this view, however).  ID cannot even generate testable hypotheses.  Despite protests to the contrary, their methodological construct violates a basic principle of science:
“Even if I can show that your hypothesis to explain something cannot be supported, that does not automatically mean that mine can.  Mine has to be independently tested.”  
ID automatically assumes that if evolutionary theory cannot explain something then it can be explained miraculously.  Aside from Howard Van Till's observation—even if it was done miraculously, no explanation is provided for exactly how it was done—as we have seen from the work of Stephen Meyer (here and here) and Michael Behe, even the science behind this work is questionable.

Other problems abound, from Douglas Axe's fundamentally mistaken idea that if you can't evolve a modern protein into another modern protein, then evolution doesn't work, despite the fact that the two proteins represent the end points of long evolutionary sequences (a somewhat more sophisticated version of Kirk Cameron's “Crocoduck” argument) to William Dembski's mathematical assumptions that incorrectly model evolutionary behavior.

Unless I miss my guess, this is the last we will see of Bio-Complexity, as it disappears into the mists of time along with Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design which ceased publication in 2005, after a short run of four years. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Dinosaurs: Ken Ham Responds

Ken Ham has responded to the news reports that he and David Menton plan to demonstrate the humans and dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time.  And he is pretty hot under the collar.  In a recent post on his blog, Ham writes:
Another anti-AiG article full of misinformation and untruths told by a secular media source (this time in my native Australia) has made me once again think about who holds the media accountable. It seems they are often a law unto themselves. And it also appears that for much of the media, freedom of speech includes making up whatever reporters want, and they can spread untruths to the public without much or any accountability. Using lies to disparage the integrity of those ministries the reporter and editors disagree with is an acceptable practice in some newsrooms.
Why is Ham so upset?  Here is the relevant quote from a recent media story (one that I quoted in one of my recent posts):
These bones were brought to us by a rancher and his wife from the area of Lemmon, South Dakota. All of the fossils were excavated on their ranch, in the Hell Creek formation. What’s really interesting about these bones is the fact that in a cross-section of the tibia, the bone has what looks like bone marrow present. Needless to say, our very own Dr. David Menton is excited about taking pictures and looking at samples under his microscope. Dr. Menton’s great sense of humor came through in his comment about how these bones are thought to be “63 million years old, give or take a week or two in one direction or the other.” If Dr. David Menton finds what he is looking for, you can count on a big write-up for Answers in Genesis in the near future!”
That paragraph comes from a post which also has quite a few nice pictures of the Edmontosaurus specimen with the aforementioned Dr. Menton, who is a bone histologist and, therefore, probably has the training to examine the internal structure of the bones (despite having completely fargled up the examination of the human fossil remains). 

Here is how the secular media reported it:
Together with creation scientist Dr. David Menton, Mr Ham says he will soon publish findings that he suggests will be world-changing — and dispel current evidence that dinosaurs roamed the earth over 65 million years ago.

It is understood Mr Ham will claim that a bunch of donated Edmontosaurus bones are only a few thousand years old, based on the fact that they still contain remnants of bone marrow.

Soft tissue surviving in dinosaur bones isn’t an entirely new idea — a
Tyrannosaurus Rex [sic] bone with soft tissue still present was discovered a decade ago.

Even then, young Earth creationists quickly claimed the discovery as evidence that dinosaur fossils were not millions of years old after all, while established scientists familiar with the study of these bones say that it showed, instead, a misunderstanding about how decay works.
Ham's main complaint seems to be that, despite the text of the article, his name is not mentioned in the Creation Museum post.  He is correct about that and the writers of the Australian News article should have noticed that and pointed it out and those of us that quoted it should have picked up on that as well.

Having said that, he does not seem to take issue with any of the content of the article.   Or if he does, he doesn't write about this in the post. Consequently, his reaction comes across as being a tad over the top.  He writes:
So again: who does hold the secular media accountable for such dishonesty? What gives them the right to make up whatever they want, and disseminate misinformation and downright untruths because of a blatant anti-Christian agenda? Except for very few reporters I have worked with, I can never fully trust the secular media when they are reporting on anything we teach. Where is journalistic integrity today?
So, what this boils down to is the media assuming that “we” in the opening paragraph of the Creation Museum refers to Ken Ham and others in the overall AiG organization. That certainly is what I thought when I wrote my post. Guilty as charged.

But why would we think this?

Well, for starters:
  • He is the founder and president of the museum.
  • On the home page is a cartoon caricature of him holding tickets to the museum
  • It is operated by Answers in Genesis, which was also founded by Ham
So, if Ham is not included in the “we” then who is? The Edmontosaurus post only shows pictures of David Menton. Trying to track down who the “we” is proving to be a bit difficult. The museum's home page is maddeningly absent of any ownership information. There is no board of directors and all of the blog posts are written by “The Creation Museum.”  This is highly unusual for a museum.  For the American Museum of Natural History, for example, the board of directors is easy to find.  A Google search for “Creation Museum” and “Board of Directors” yields nothing. The “About the Museum” simply has information about what can be found in the exhibits but there is nothing about who runs the show. After a bit more investigation, we discover that the Creation Museum is run entirely by Answers in Genesis which is attached.  Guess who the CEO of that organization is?

So, once again, who is the “we” in the post if he is not involved?  Rather than write about how dishonest the press is about attaching his name to a post on dinosaurs, all he has to do is clarify who the “we” is.

Oddly, as I mentioned, Ham writes that the secular post is full of misinformation and half-truths and yet does not seem to quibble with the content of the secular text, largely because they are correct that he does, indeed, take this position. Even here, though, he is a bit dodgy about it.  A bit back, Fatlip at Leo Weekly pointed out that, on one hand Ham doesn't know how dinosaurs and humans interacted and on the other, shows Noah's descendents riding, well, dinosaurs.  

So, again, Mr. Ham.  Why are you so upset about being linked to a post on the Creation Museum website on dinosaurs, especially when it is perfectly natural to assume your involvement with such a project?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Australian Creationist preacher Ken Ham to ‘prove’ dinosaurs roamed with Adam and Eve

Yeah, good luck with that one.  The Australian News service is reporting on Ken Ham's efforts to prove that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time.  They write:
Together with creation scientist Dr. David Menton, Mr Ham says he will soon publish findings that he suggests will be world-changing — and dispel current evidence that dinosaurs roamed the earth over 65 million years ago.

It is understood Mr Ham will claim that a bunch of donated
Edmontosaurus bones are only a few thousand years old, based on the fact that they still contain remnants of bone marrow.

Soft tissue surviving in dinosaur bones isn’t an entirely new idea — a
Tyrannosaurus Rex bone with soft tissue still present was discovered a decade ago.
Given David Menton's inability to get the basic science correct in his review of human origins, I am not convinced this endeavor will be any more fruitful.  The authors take a well-deserved swipe at Mr. Ham's methodology with this, however:
Mr Ham has asserted that scientists cannot claim to have proof of their theories if they weren’t there at the time to observe those theories in action.

Bafflingly, in a new post on the pro-creationism website Answers In Genesis, Ken Ham now asserts that Dr. David Menton can indeed look at fossilised dinosaur bones and determine things that happened before either of them was born — as long as it supports his own ideas.
 As Ham writes on the Creation Museum website: "'If Dr. Menton finds what he is looking for, you can count on a big write-up for Answers in Genesis in the near future!'  

And with one quote, Ken Ham reveals that neither he nor David Menton have the slightest idea how science works.  If you already know what you are looking for, why do the analysis in the first place?  And what if you don't find what you are looking for?  Then what.  Hide the data?

The problem that I have is that, if Ken Ham were trying to show this and displaying a spirit of love, a la "we think that we can show that T. rex lived at the same time as humans with these data," then I would be more charitable.  But he doesn't.  He displays, instead, along with David Menton, a spirit of haughtiness and expresses nothing but derision toward mainstream palaeontologists. 

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Christianity Today: In Louisiana, students read the Book of Genesis in their science classes

Christianity Today has a very matter-of-fact account of young earth creationism being taught in Louisiana.  Marvie Basilan writes:
When a student in Louisiana opens his or her textbook in biology class, he or she may not learn about evolution but the "creation point of view" instead.

For some Louisiana public school students, their science textbook is the Bible. They read the Book of Genesis in their biology class.

Zach Kopplin of was able to acquire several emails from the Bossier Parish which discussed the teaching of creationism.
The rest of the account reads like something out of Bizarro World, where parents complain that the kids are being taught evolution and the principal informs them that “it will not happen again.”  As I suspected, Livingston Parish was not unique. 

One of the defenses of the LSEA was that it did not open the door for creationism but, rather, allowed for teaching “the full range of views” on a subject, a position belied by what Basilan writes:
The Louisiana Science Education Act, which was passed by the state legislature in 2008, allows teacher to use other materials to "critique" evolution. This state law opened doors for teachers to teach creationism. Though illegal under federal law, the lessons are permitted under Louisiana law.
Opponents of the law argued that it was stealth creationism. Guess they were right.  The problem is that no amount of evidence will be enough if the legislature thinks evolution is wrong.  This is what happens when politicians get ahold of science education.  Bad things happen. 

UPDATE: more from Zack Kopplin, at Slate.  

Friday, June 05, 2015

New BioLogos Post on Hominin Taxonomic Variability in the Early to Middle Pliocene

I have a new post on hominin taxonomic variability in the early to middle Pliocene in light of the new Australopithecus deriyemeda find from Burtele that establishes that at least two very different hominin adaptations were occurring at the same time, around three to four million years ago.  There is a lengthy intro by Brad Kramer, the content editor, warning people that there are “technical terms” and that the article is a “black diamond” article, which suggests that they keep a glossary or dictionary handy.

It seems that, when I wasn't paying attention, I  turned into a cladist.  This comes from reading too many papers on Pseudosuchia and Avemetarsalia and trying to explain evolutionary theory to people.

The one thing that is missing from Brad's intro is an effort to explain how this fits into the grand Christian scheme of things, which would probably not have been appropriate in this setting, in any event, since it is a separate, but related topic.  I sometimes suffer from a slightly reductionist mindset in that I take these discoveries to be self-evident and just another part of God's creation (Brad does allude to that) without really taking the time to reflect on how this information comes across to your average Christian who likely is not familiar with it and how it might challenge their scriptural interpretations.  To this end, I probably need to make a better effort to work that in, somehow.