April 11, 2004 - April 17, 2004 Archives

[size=200%]Anthropic Principle[/size] My claim is that it is exactly in areas where life and science develop were expect to see science discover a correlation between habitability and measurability. Without habitability we would not have been here, without measurability we would not have science to lead us to this conclusion. Does this mean that there was purpose involved, or just a matter of fact statement?
[Via Boing Boing] A brain study released today shows that the human ability to appreciate aesthetics is based in the prefontal cortex, part of the brain involved in decision making. The scientists at the Balearic Islands University in Spain came to this conclusion by imaging their subjects' brains while looking at art and photography. According to the study, quoted in Scientific American, "'a phylogenetic change in the prefontal cortex could give way to the decorative and artistic profusion' in humans." [article]
William Dembski posted two new pieces vividly displaying his unbounded arrogance (here and here). Among other points in these two ridiculously self-confident pieces of sheer polemics, Dembski, apparently offended by the critique of his work so highly acclaimed by his cohorts, accuses his opponents of underestimating the intelligence of his co-travelers and supporters Johnson, Wells, and Gonzales. Here is a quotation from the first of the above posts: By any objective standards, the principal players in the ID movement are reasonably intelligent people. Phillip Johnson, for instance, graduated first in his law school class at the University of Chicago and clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren. Jonathan Wells got double 800s on his SATs and was awarded a full, merit-based undergraduate scholarship at Princeton in the 1960s. Guillermo Gonzalez, though a young assistant professor, has over sixty articles in refereed astronomy and astrophysical journals. These are just a few examples off the top of my head. In fact, Dembski's opponents have not asserted that Dembski and his friends are "not intelligent" or "not smart." (If I am wrong, Dembski is welcome to provide relevant references). If the opponents of ID do not specifically stress how smart Dembski and Co are, that is because there is no need to do so - Dembski and his colleagues take care of that themselves - they routinely unabashedly praise each other and sometimes themselves in superlative terms (a documented proof of that is forthcoming from Elsberry and myself).

A curious thing: I reported yesterday on this lovely work on the genetic regulation of pelvic limbs in fish, and got a comment that the "modularity and surprisingly robust flexibility" of the system was evidence of design. Quite the contrary, I see evidence of mechanisms that permit integrated evolution of organisms, with no designer required. There's another example briefly described in a news article in this week's Science (Pennisi, 2004) that describes work presented at a Cold Spring Harbor conference on the evolution of developmental diversity. It expands further on this matter.

Cichlid fishes are examples of a recent, rapid radiation into new forms. One of the reasons behind their success seems to be the adaptability of their jaws, which have allowed them to diversify into many ecological niches by changes in their feeding apparatus (Albertson et al., 1999, 2003). What's becoming clear is that the modular and interlinked network of regulatory genes does not hinder change, it facilitates concordant change in the patterns of expression of multiple genes to produce an integrated morphology of the jaw.

Continue reading "More development. More evolution. More genes. More fish. Cichlid jaws!" (on Pharyngula)

A “Design Inference” in Science magazine!

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In the short article "Middle Stone Age Shell Beads from South Africa" (subscription required), published in tomorrow's issue of Science magazine, Henshilwood and coworkers report the finding of 41 perforated tick shell beads (from the mollusk Nassarius kraussianus) dated as about 75,000 years old. They provide evidence that the beads are human-made artifacts - the oldest known personal ornaments and a sign of the emergence of symbolic thought in early humans.

Clearly, pace all the ID advocates' recent claims, upon finding the perforated shells Henshilwood and his colleagues considered "intelligent agency" as a possible cause (perhaps they didn't know that methodological naturalism supposedly proscribes such consideration, according to Francis Beckwith).

There's rumbling in Darby, Montana. The school board there seems to be ready to adopt an ID curriculum, and they anticipate lawsuits over it, although they have support from the Speaker of the House of the state legislature. But now, the board's in trouble because they held a behind-closed-doors meeting where they apparently decided to rescind a job offer extended to a new superintendent of schools, and offer it instead to another person because of his "a sense of strong spirituality."

The Ravalli Republic, a local newspaper, has filed suit against the board for its closed meetings. Now, Montana law on open meetings appears to be pretty strong--the state Constitution, Art. II s 9, declares that "No person shall be deprived of the right to...observe the deliberations of all public bodies...except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure," and under the statutes enforcing open meetings requirements, courts can void decisions made at closed-door meetings. See, e.g., Bryan v. Yellowstone County Elementary School Dist. No. 2, 312 Mont. 257, 274 (Mont.,2002) ("open meetings violations remain of utmost concern to this Court. Nothing in this opinion should be interpreted to suggest that violations of open meeting laws by any entity subject to those laws will not result in voiding decisions so reached. We will not hesitate to affirm a district court's determination to void such decisions or reverse a court's refusal to do so." quoting Common Cause of Montana v. Statutory Committee to Nominate Candidates for Com'r of Political Practices, 263 Mont. 324, 333-34 (1994)). Why the school board secrecy, though? Because not all the parents are real thrilled about their kids being taught lies. Not to mention the fact that "Both federal and Montana's civil rights acts forbid religious discrimination by employers." Wolfe v. State, Dept. of Labor and Industry, Bd. of Personnel Appeals ex rel. Helena Educ. Ass'n, 255 Mont. 336, 339 (1992). See also McCann v. Trustees, Dodson School Dist., 249 Mont. 362, 364 (1991).

Since John Lynch mentioned it first, why yes, I have read this article on limb loss in vertebrates.

Some of the complicating features of developmental genetics are pleiotropy and multigenic effects: that is, that the genes required to build an organism are all tangled together in an intricate web, with multiple genes required to properly assemble each character (that's the multigenic part), and each gene having multiple effects on multiple characters (that's pleiotropy). One might think of the organism as a house of cards, each card supporting all of the cards above it, so that tinkering with any one piece leads to catastrophic collapse. This isn't the case, of course. While developing systems are all elaborately interlocked, they also exhibit modularity and surprisingly robust flexibility. One recently published example can be found in Shapiro et al. (2004) which describes the developmental flexibility of the regulation of the pelvic appendages in sticklebacks, and ties it all neatly to patterns of evolution.

Continue reading "Development. Evolution. Genes. Fish. What's not to like?" (on Pharyngula)

William Dembski (in Intelligent Design, 1999) suggested the so-called "Law of Conservation of Information (LCI). On page 170 he wrote about his own alleged new law: "LCI has profound implications for science." In his later book No Free Lunch (2002) Dembski claimed that LCI is in fact not less than the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics. Since 1999, there is not a single reference to that alleged new law in scientific publications on information theory or physics. Moreover, in publications specifically devoted to the discussion of Dembski's work, this alleged law has been shown to make no sense - by mathematicians, information theorists, physicists, philosophers and biologists. However, ID advocates have praised this "law" in superlative terms. For example, Dembski's colleague, another Fellow of the Discovery Institute Rob Koons wrote a blurb to Intelligent Design where referred to Dembski as "the Isaac Newton of information theory and one of the most important thinkers of our time." Koons claimed that LCI is a "revolutionary breakthrough." Such exaggerated praises and self-aggrandizing claims are typical of the ID writing (as is documented in an essay by Elsberry and myself to be published shortly).

Dumping on Dembski II

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Here at The Panda's Thumb we try to keep the discourse at a tolerably high level. Certain parodies of inane creationist cartoons notwithstanding, we are united by the belief that the arguments offered by creationists of all stripes are fundamentally mistaken, and the facts of modern biology are far more interesting than the caricature they present. But in the midst of all this high-mindedness we should not fancy ourselves above pouncing on instances of poor phrasing and unfortunate choices of words when we find them. Of course, such instances are evidence of nothing more than poor editing, and say nothing about the argument being made. Still, show me the curmudgeon who does not get a kick out of the following sentence, which appears on page 135 of William Dembski's The Design Revolution: Claude Shannon invented the mathematical theory of information shortly after World War II. The inspiration for his theory derived from his work during the war on cryptography. War on cryptography? Is that like the War on Drugs or the War on poverty? I guess Shannon didn't like number theorists. Or this one, from page 143: The Darwinian mechanism is a trial-and-error mechanism, with natural selection providing the trial and random variation providing the error. Ahem. Actually, it is random variation that provides the trial. Selection plays the role of “error”. If you're looking for more high-minded criticism of Dembski, go visit EvolutionBlog. I have just added a lengthy post about the limitations of intelligence and the difference between embodied and disembodied designers. Enjoy!

Francis Beckwith has posted a more well thought-out response to my posts criticizing his claim that the NCSE website violates the Establishment Clause. Some quick notes:

An interesting article in this week's edition of Nature suggests that at least in some fish, alterations in a single gene bring about evolutionary change in the form of limb (fin) loss.

Genetic and developmental basis of evolutionary pelvic reduction in threespine sticklebacks
MICHAEL D. SHAPIRO, MELISSA E. MARKS, CATHERINE L. PEICHEL, BENJAMIN K. BLACKMAN, KIRSTEN S. NERENG, BJARNI JÓNSSON, DOLPH SCHLUTER & DAVID M. KINGSLEY
Nature 428, 717–723

Eurekalert press release
Original Article
Discussion by Shubin & Dahn

Answers in Nemesis

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They say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. But for our good friends at Answers in Genesis (AiG), fiction and truth are freely interchangeable. The latest bit of hilarity comes courtesy of AiG's legal counsel, who, aside from not being able to take a joke, apparently has a poor grasp of both the legal and ethical meaning of intellectual (sic) property law.

To begin with the beginning, AiG is America's leading young-earth creationist outfit, and like all high-caliber scientific organizations, it has its own resident cartoonist. Dan Lietha writes two cartoon series which appear on AiG's website: CreationWise and After Eden. The drawings are kind of nice in an Ziggy sort of way, but they're not quite as funny as Mary Worth. Basically, they're not much more than inane creationist claims made to look cartoonish. . . um, that is, being made into visual form. But they certainly contain lots of unintentional humor, so there's only one thing left to do: Poke fun at them.

Making parodies of visual materials over the web is hardly a new thing, and as anyone familiar with the frequent Photoshop contests on Fark.com can tell you, they're a great venue for fun and artistic talent. So when participants of the Humor forum of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (IIDB) decided to do a parody of AiG's cartoons, they were just having harmless, legally permissible fun. Right?

Brian Leiter has a post up about the reactions of some Federalist Society members concerning the recent Van Dyke flare-up.

A distinguished legal scholar and well-known Federalist Society figure reacted to my recent comments on Stuart Buck and Lawrence VanDyke, in which I quipped that they seem "intent on making sure the Federalist Society gets a reputation as a hotbed of dense apologists for Intelligent Design." This reader objects:

"[H]olding the Federalist Society responsible for idiotic design people in its midst is like holding the Democratic Party responsible for Larouchies. [...]

Youch! It's quite an interesting issue, but I think it's worth noting that many conservatives care little for the ID movement, despite the fact that ID was originally conceived for the express purpose of advocating a strain of conservative ideology. Can't blame 'em.


An excellent opinion piece by Dr. Brian McEnnis on the "critical analysis" lesson plan for the new Ohio model science curriculum has been published in the Marion Star newspaper.

Here's the ending:

Mr. Hedges refers to the support of Sen. Edward Kennedy, echoing a claim made by Sen. Santorum in the Washington Times of March 14, 2002. Kennedy responded in a letter to the editor, published in the same newspaper on March 21, 2002:

"The March 14 Commentary piece, 'Illiberal education in Ohio schools,' written by my colleague Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, erroneously suggested that I support the teaching of 'Intelligent Design' as an alternative to biological evolution. That simply is not true. Rather, I believe that public school science classes should focus on teaching students how to understand and critically analyze genuine scientific theories. Unlike biological evolution, 'Intelligent Design' is not a genuine scientific theory and, therefore, has no place in the curriculum of our nation's public school science classes."

So much for the claim of Kennedy's support! This type of misrepresentation and shading of the truth is typical of the way that Intelligent Design proponents present their case. The lesson plan that they wrote is similarly riddled with deceit and error.

If it is honest science you want, this lesson plan is not it. It is scientific fraud, and has no place in the classroom.

I have a situation report from just before the Ohio Board of Education approved the lesson plan for inclusion into the model curriculum that gives the background.

Technical analysis of the lesson plan was performed by geologist Thomas A. Baillieul on both references used and website links used in the lesson plan.

Further news about the situation in Ohio can be had on the Ohio Citizens for Science website.

The death of Darwin

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Charles Darwin died on April 19th, 1882, at the age of 73. The 122nd anniversary of his death would be a week from today, and I'd intended to make this post then, but I'm prompted by an odd question about Darwin's dying words to jump the gun a little bit.

The subject is relevant to several things being discussed here, because much to the surprise of many creationists (and many atheists, as well) Darwin was not a bitter, hateful old atheist. He was an agnostic who held his Christian friends and family in respect, who refused before his death to engage in any public debate about the truth or falsehood of religion.

Continue reading "The death of Darwin" (on Pharyngula)

I hope everyone who wanted one had a good Easter. Hungry the Cow sure did, and he wants to tell you all, "eat mor bunnie."

Now, can any of our readers explain why Hungry the Cow is eating this rabbit? Double bonus if you can identify the journal and paper that this unmodified photo is associated with.

[size=200%]The Design Inference[/size] Gonzalez et al appeal Dembski's Design Inference to show how the correlation of habitability and measurability shows evidence of 'purpose' in the universe. Various people such as Wein, or various authors on Talkreasons.org, have already shown what is wrong with the design inference. I will limit my comments to the claims by Gonzalez et al to show that their appeal to the design inference is inappropriate.

That a priori muddle

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We've had a few discussions here, and there have been several more elsewhere, on a strange idea: that scientists automatically exclude the supernatural from science because of some close-minded metaphysical bigotry, that for instance there is an a priori determination that any explanation that mentions the words "ghosts" must be wrong and excluded from science. I disagree. We practice methodological naturalism, and all that matters is whether we have an operational toolkit to evaluate a claim. I don't dismiss "ghosts" (or Intelligent Design) because I have some prejudice against supernatural beings, but because those beings are so poorly described and delimited by their proponents that I have no way to evaluate them—and if these proponents want to be taken seriously, they must make the effort to establish clear definitions, criteria, and procedures for their study, something Intelligent Design creationists have steadfastly refused to do.

Now Brian Leiter has ripped into this topic at length. One of the interesting points there is that this represents a common strategy of trying to muddy the waters and pretend that science is religion, and that religion is science, and therefore religiously-motivated babble, like Intelligent Design creationism, is on an equal footing with evolutionary biology.

I assumed that he [VanDyke] --like all the others who peddle Intelligent Design--might be making a non-trivial point, namely, that methodological naturalism was genuinely a priori, i.e., a dogma immune from and indifferent to the empirical evidence, and thus on a par, epistemically, with supernaturalism. If that were true, then we would have an argument for saying that evolutionary biology, with its genuinely a priori commitment to methodological naturalism, was indistinguishable from supernaturalism. Alas, it is not true that methodological naturalism is a priori in the only sense that is relevant.

I've also written up an anecdote from 1999, Scientific bias and the Void-Of-Course Moon. Scientists are willing to consider even the most ridiculous hypotheses, if they are stated with sufficient clarity that they can actually assess them. Even if the idea is as absurd as astrology.

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