An empty review of an empty book

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Blogger Kathy Shaidle has a review here of a new creationism book, By Design Or By Chance: The Growing Controversy On The Origins Of Life In The Universe by Denyse O'Leary.

But the review is so full of mischaracterizations and misleading statements that it's hard to know where to begin.

She starts by criticizing--or rather, quoting the author criticizing--the famous play Inherit The Wind for being historically inaccurate. "One Calvin College professor has been in the habit of giving out a prize--a coconut--to the student who spots the most historical errors in the movie. . .. Over 70 errors have been identified so far." Clever, but Lawrence and Lee never claimed that their play was historically accurate--indeed, they quite openly acknowledged that it was not. Perhaps that's why they changed the names of the characters (Brady, Drummond and Hornbeck instead of Bryan, Darrow, and Mencken)? It's true, as Shaidle writes, that Bryan was not a young-earther as Brady is in the play. . .. Among other "inaccuracies": H.L. Mencken did not speak in free-verse, the way Hornbeck does in the play; the real cross-examination of Bryan was actually held outdoors; the real Scopes did not have a relationship with the local preacher's daughter; and the real trial wasn't in black and white.

Shaidle continues: "Like millions of Christians, they came to regret their enthusiasm as Darwin's theories were used to promote the sterilization, or even murder, of society's ‘unfit.'" It is unclear whom Shaidle means by "they" in this sentence; but in any case, this smear is awfully tired by now, isn't it? First of all, nothing in the proposition that species arise by natural selection among randomly mutating replicators has anything to say about government eugenics projects. Eugenics was much more a product of racial bigotry and other irrational superstitions than of anything properly describable as science. And "[w]hat is wrong with eugenics is not the science, but the coercion. Eugenics is like any other programme that puts the social benefit before the individual's rights. It is a humanitarian, not a scientific crime." Matt Ridley, Genome 297 (2000). To rattle the bones of eugenics whenever the name of Darwin comes up is a cheap and baseless slander--at least as wrong as if one were to mention the Crusades whenever the Pope comes up.

Following up on this ad hominem, Shaidle quotes from some religious scientists, including Arno Penzias, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize for work on the Big Bang: "The best data we have (about the Big Bang)," Penzias is quoted as saying, "are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole." This is treated not just as evidence weighing in favor of a religious explanation of the Big Bang, but against evolution by natural selection. She also quotes Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, as an example of a famous religious scientist. Then she quotes James Watson saying "every time you understand something, religion becomes less likely," and quotes O'Leary's statement that Francis Crick bears a "deep hostility to religion." With these examples, Shaidle concludes, "So much for scientific, unbiased rationality." Pardon? Penzias and Collins, when they openly embrace the perspective of a particular religious group, are honest scientists fighting against the conspiracy of atheists who haunt the laboratories to purge suspected Christians--but non-religious scientists are biased and irrational?

It just gets worse.

"What makes the conflict between the creationists and the Darwinists so intense," O'Leary writes, "was the fact that, starting in Darwin's day, Darwinism functioned as something of a religion, competing for attention with the traditional religions." And as a religion, "Darwinism is intolerant," she continues. "The Darwinist assumes that what he believes is true," even though Darwin lived in the 19th century and naturally had no knowledge of genetics and biochemistry.
If Darwin's doctrines "compet[ed]. . .with the traditional religions," why was there no church structure, no creed, no hierarchy of believers, no cosmology, no savior? Why did Darwin "gingerly avoid[ ] writing much of anything about what his theory meant for humanity"? Carl Zimmer, Evolution: The Triumph of An Idea 50 (2001). This is not the usual behavior of a man proposing an alternative to the prevailing religious views. Of course, if Shaidle means that evolution is a meme competing against religious memes, fine enough--but what's wrong with that?

As for whether "Darwinism is intolerant," as I'm fond of saying, the charge of closed-mindedness is the last resort of those who cannot prove their case. Science is certainly intolerant of empty arguments, lacking in evidence or rational extrapolation. This blog and other resources provide sufficient explanations of why the evidence so thoroughly bears out the evolutionary explanation. It is certainly not the case that "the Darwinist [i.e., the scientist] assumes that what he believes is true." If that is the case, why did Darwin spend so many pages upon pages--and why do Dawkins and other modern biologists spend so many pages, and why do Panda's Thumb authors spend so much time--explaining the evidence and how it proves our case? The fact is, "[b]iologists are observing year by year and sometimes even day by day or hour by hour" examples of evolution. Jonathan Weiner, The Beak of The Finch 8-9 (New York: Vintage 1995). If biologists just "assume" that evolution is true, why in the world would scientists spend year after year in uncomfortable climates like the Galapagos Islands, or raising generations of stickleback fish to test whether their spots change based on their background? See id. at 184-189.

Finally, the charge that evolution is flawed because Darwin didn't know about particulate inheritance is ludicrous. The fact is, the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics proved a great boon to Darwin's theories. Prescient critics had pointed out that, under the then-prevalent notion of blended inheritance, the tendency would not be toward variation or branching among species, but to a running together, and a running down, of genetic differences. If inheritance worked through a blending mechanism, variations, no matter what adaptive benefit they conferred would not transfer from parent to child. This critique "was one of Darwin's great frustrations." Zimmer, supra at 74. But when modern ideas of genetics and biochemistry arose with the rediscovery of Mendel's idea of genes, it was possible "to explain how new mutations in genes spread through a whole species." Matt Ridley, The Red Queen 33 (New York: Penguin, 1993).

Now, at some point, a scientific proposition has been supported by so much evidence, and is so respected, that the science community will regard with disdain those who do not adhere to that proposition. If a person believed that the sun revolves around the Earth, astronomers would regard him as a little bit "tetched," as they say. It would be appropriate not to allow such a person to have a column in a scholarly journal for astronomers. Evolution is as fundamental as heliocentrism, if not moreso. But for Shaidle, it's unfair--indeed, it's censorship--for Scientific American to fire [*-see update] a science writer who said in an interview that he doesn't believe in evolution. But as Arthur Caplan explained in a Scientist editorial (registration required)

Mims. . .is a competent amateur scientist. . .[and] Scientific American. . .staff [did some] obviously inappropriate [things]. . .. However, refusing to retain someone who rejects evolutionary theory as science to write for a science magazine is not religious discrimination. It is taking a necessary stand on what is and is not science.. . . The beliefs of Mims and other creationists notwithstanding, the fact of evolution is no longer open for debate. Mims believes that theories of evolution are neither testable nor verifiable. This is simply false, as is evident to anyone who has bothered to examine the refinement and evolution of Darwinism in response to empirical evidence over the past 130 years. Science contends that the biblical account of creation is not literally true, and the evidence exists to prove it. In light of the constant pressure in American society to obscure this message, which is discomfiting to some, those who write regular features for the most influential popular scientific magazine in the country must be willing to send it loudly and clearly. . .. This means saying no to creationists. . .. This also means rejecting those who believe in ESP, who tout the glories of astrology, and those who believe they are in communication with the dead, as staff members of magazines about science.
Creationists derive great advantage from portraying themselves as victims of an atheist cabal bent on manipulating kids and censoring upstanding defenders of righteousness. The reality is, those who have no argument have had their day in court; judgment was rendered against them, and are now they are complaining that they "can't get their message out."

Update: Dr. Elsberry explains in the comments below that Mims was not fired, since he was never an employee of Scientific American.

23 Comments

I also hear over the grapevine that Clarence Darrow wasn’t actually Spencer Tracy.

Penzias?

Penzias and Wilson didn’t know what they had found – it would have been impossible for Penzias to have relied on the Bible as a research source for something he just stumbled upon.

Alas, I’ve forgotten the name of the astronomer who devoted his life to finding the background radiation, the guy whose radio telescope was not yet working, the guy who told Wilson and Penzias what they had discovered, thereby letting them get the Nobel. Anybody else remember his name?

In any case, the press release from the Nobel Foundation points out that Wilson and Penzias did not know what they had found until others squared their findings with the work of Gamow and others: http://www.nobel.se/physics/laureat[…]8/press.html

It wasn’t Penzias’ study of the Bible that got him the Nobel – it was the Christian charity of other scientists (and I use the phrase “Christian charity” as John Adams would have defined it, meaning with no particular religious influence suggested).

Nice comments, Mr. Sandefur, although I confess to being a little disturbed the Scientific American firing. It’s not clear from your comments what your opinion of that action is, but it seems misguided. By that reasoning, any high school science teacher who is unwilling to affirm evolution in an interview could be terminated. I suppose any high school teacher, period. Where do you draw the line? I suppose more than a few atheists have been fired under the reverse scenario, so there’s a “tit for tat” justice to it maybe, but it seems like the wrong kind of action to defend.

Second, I think it’s a mischaracterization to say the staff member was fired because “he doesn’t believe in evolution.” He was fired for making honest public statements about his own beliefs, not for holding them, which anyone can do as long as they don’t tell anyone. The message is that if you work for Scientific American and make public statements the management doesn’t like (that offends their ideological sensibilities) you can be fired. It’s not like he was giving away trade secrets or endorsing a rival magazine. Perhaps they were afraid that readers would cancel subscriptions if word spread and they guy wasn’t terminated.

It’s a mischaracterization to say the staff member was fired… Period.

Mims was never a staff member at SciAm, ergo, he was not fired from a staff position at SciAm. He did publish several columns of The Amateur Scientist at SciAm, but that does not make him an employee of SciAm. SciAm chose not to hire Mims as staff. We can argue till the cows come home whether they were justified in this decision or not, but I just want everybody to be clear that what was at issue was a hiring decision, not the termination of someone already on the payroll.

Thank you, Dr. Elsberry. I hadn’t known that. It is a significant distinction which the review left out. Of course, creationist literature routinely ignores significant distinctions.…

Ed Darrell Wrote:

Alas, I’ve forgotten the name of the astronomer who devoted his life to finding the background radiation, the guy whose radio telescope was not yet working, the guy who told Wilson and Penzias what they had discovered, thereby letting them get the Nobel. Anybody else remember his name?

I think you mean Bob Dicke and co-workers from Princeton University. Their supporting paper was - Dicke, R.H., P.J.E. Peebles, P.G. Roll and D.T. Wilkinson (1965) Cosmic Black-Body Radiation. Ap.J.142:414-19.

Dave S said:

I think you mean Bob Dicke and co-workers from Princeton University. Their supporting paper was - Dicke, R.H., P.J.E. Peebles, P.G. Roll and D.T. Wilkinson (1965) Cosmic Black-Body Radiation. Ap.J.142:414-19.

Thank you. I think that’s right. One story I read said Dicke had driven over to see their machine, while his was a couple of weeks behind in looking for the evidence. They related their puzzlement at the noise they heard, and he asked if the noise was at a certain frequency. They said it was. The piece I read said Dicke understood exactly what the stakes were, and understood that when he told them what they had found, they would get the Nobel and not he.

It’s the sort of story I prefer to pin down, and if anyone has a confirmation or good denial of that tale, I’d love to have it. If Dicke was so magnanimous, we ought to remember him much better than we do for his great scientific charity, if nothing else.

People tend to forget that (the original play) Inherit the Wind wasn’t even about anti-evolution, but about McCarthyism.

The Scopes trial served as a fitting metaphor for the triumph of reason over small-minded religious fundamentalism.

Regarding the CMB radiation: it was predicted in 1948 by George Gamow. A group at Princeton (Dicke, Peebles, Roll and Wilkinson) were devising an experiment to find the CMB at the time Penzias and Wilson started asking around for possible causes of the “noise” in their instrument. The Princeton group realized the implications, and published a paper on the cosmological interpretation of Penzias & Wilson’s findings in the same issue in which P&W published their paper.

Ed Darrell Wrote:

Thank you. I think that’s right. One story I read said Dicke had driven over to see their machine, while his was a couple of weeks behind in looking for the evidence. They related their puzzlement at the noise they heard, and he asked if the noise was at a certain frequency. They said it was. The piece I read said Dicke understood exactly what the stakes were, and understood that when he told them what they had found, they would get the Nobel and not he.

This may well be true for the most part. However the last bit about the Nobel seems a bit too cutesy and I’d want to see some confirmation on that. The way I heard the story is as follows -

Dicke and his team were working on an old idea of Gamow’s (as Matt says) and had worked out the theory. However they needed the experimental confirmation of the number, 3 K. Penzias and Wilson already had their device set up and were in a knot trying to figure out why they were reading this excess temperature reading of about 3 K. Someone who was an acquaintence of Penzias was also familiar with the what the Princeton team were trying to build ans suggested Penzias call Dicke and see if he could help. Penzias contacted Dicke and when Dicke came over, he knew Penzias and Wlson had already confirmed the theory. Probably one of those mixed emotion things. He knew the theroy was vindicated, and at the same time knew it wasn’t him who did it.

That’s when Dicke told Penzias where he thought this excess temp was coming from and proceeded to publish only the theoretical part. For their part, Penzias and Wilson were not altogether thunderstruck by the idea. In fact, they barely mention it as one possible explanation among several in their paper:

Penzias and Wilson Wrote:

A possible explanation for the observed excess noise temperature is the one given by Dicke, Peebles, Roll, and Wilkinson (1965) in the companion letter in this issue.

From - A. A. Penzias and R. W. Wilson. 1965. A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s. As. J. 142:419-421.

That’s all. They then go on to suggest other possibilities such as atmospheric absorption, ohmic loss, horn imperfections and other radio sources.

It’s the sort of story I prefer to pin down, and if anyone has a confirmation or good denial of that tale, I’d love to have it. If Dicke was so magnanimous, we ought to remember him much better than we do for his great scientific charity, if nothing else.

I understand he was a magnanimous guy (both groups praised the other for their cooperation), but the Nobel remark doesn’t really ring true to me. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, the Nobel was not awarded for another 13 years and could easily have gone to them all.

determining whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa requires a point of reference. if the point of reference is the sun itself, then you’re assuming your conclusion.

to me, the difference between geo-centrism and helio-centrism is that the other planets revolve around the sun, not the earth.

and if i remember high school physics (over 20 years ago) it’s more accurate to say that the earth and sun revolve around each other. Each has mass and is attracted to the other; the orbits are therefore best described as two ellipses.

[have law degree; will travel. no nits too small to pick. thanks for the interesting post.]

cheers.

Francis

determining whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa requires a point of reference. if the point of reference is the sun itself, then you’re assuming your conclusion.

Cripes. Only in the mind of a lawyer who thinks he’s more clever than he really is. I’d rather that the phrase “rotates around” continues to have some meaning in the English language, thank you very much.

The laws of physics are not valid in all reference frames, they’re valid in all irrotational reference frames. So while there exist reference frames in which the sun revolves around the earth, in the more appropriate and useful frames the earth revolves around the sun.

The sun and earth don’t rotate around each other because the ellipse of the sun’s movement is inside and much smaller than the earth’s orbit.

The difference between geocentrism and heliocentrism is that the laws of physics work in heliocentrism. The known facts could be reformulated into a Geocentric astronomy, but then like creationist biology, it would involve constant ‘special pleading’, arbitrary complexity, lack parsimony, and have no predictive value. It would only be capable of postdiction, i.e. back-explanations, thus is pointless.

Just to preempt the next turn of the crank in the perennial geocentrism debate: I’ve heard it claimed, once by a physics Nobel laureate, that general relativity actually makes geocentrism equally valid again, because general relativity (as opposed to special relativity) legitimizes all coordinate systems, not just irrotational and unaccelerated reference frames. So geocentrism and heliocentrism are once again on equal ground, post-1915.

In my opinion this is an oversimplification. For one thing, while Einstein sometimes said that it was GR that relativized acceleration, a more modern perspective is that the coordinate-independent approach is simply a mathematical tool that became particularly necessary in order to develop GR, but could be applied to SR or any other theory as well.

The question to ask is whether there is some observable, physical difference between geocentrism and heliocentrism (or, more precisely, solar-system-barycenter-centrism), and indeed there is. An astronomer on a distant planet, looking at our solar system through a powerful telescope, would see the Earth wiggle more its motion through space than the Sun does. Looking from our end, we see stellar parallax corresponding to the yearly motion of the Earth. This statement can be framed in a manner independent of the coordinate systems used to measure positions of objects; it depends solely on the geometry of lightlike paths in spacetime.

If any geocentrist said to me, geocentrism is valid as long as I take into consideration the various necessary GR tensors, I would not argue it, because they would already have a nuanced understanding of -centrisms. But that’s not what these guys say or mean.

The crucial moment of both the play and the trial was Darrow’s examination of Bryan. If you compare the actual trial transcript to the dialogue in the play, it is quite close.

Except, Francis, the center of gravity of the Earth-Sun system is still within the volume of the Sun so that it’s really more correct to describe it as the Sun wobbling while the Earth revolves. The vast difference in masses makes the Sun the predominant influence here.

I haven’t noticed if anyone has googled Denyse O’Leary as yet: http://www.denyseoleary.com/

Her education is a BA in journalism/creative writing. Part of her self-promotion describes her writing:

Faith Writing O’Leary writes science news of interest to faith communities for Christianity Today (circ. 178,000, US-based) and Faith Today (Canadian equivalent). She is the faith and science correspondent and columnist for ChristianWeek, a Canadian interdenominational biweekly. Her faith and science writings are collected as [Enable javascript to see this email address.]: Why Science Needs Faith in the 21st Century (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2001, 176 pages). (Click on “Order Books”, above.)

Science Writing She also writes science news shorts for Crucible, the magazine of the Science Teachers’ Association of Ontario. These items give teachers late-breaking information from the lab to liven up course material and show students that, in the words of one teacher, “science is a verb.”

There are two interesting (and depressing) aspects here: the creationism movement has largely a feature of the far-right in the USA. This Canadian pustule is liberal to leftwing politically. Secondly, I do not know if there is any Canadian organized response to these wing-nuts.

Now, now, Dr. Hurd, there is just as much pseudoscientific looniness on the left generally as on the right: herbal remedies, Feng Shui, the minimum wage, et cetera…

The anti-biotech activists and terrorists on the left present a great danger too.

…there is just as much pseudoscientific looniness on the left generally as on the right

There’s some comfort in being, for once, in the middle. I plan to cite this as proof-positive that I’m not a knee-jerk either-side-ist.

Gary Hurd Wrote:

There are two interesting (and depressing) aspects here: the creationism movement has largely a feature of the far-right in the USA. This Canadian pustule is liberal to leftwing politically. Secondly, I do not know if there is any Canadian organized response to these wing-nuts.

The Creationism movement is very much weaker in Canada than in the United States, concentrated mainly in the more conservative west. There are a number of reasons for this:

1) Canada is in general more liberal than the U.S.

2) There is no real Bible Belt and little grass roots wide-spread religious organization against government policies. Canadians in general do not distrust the notion of a strong centralized government and goverment in general as much as Americans do. There are exceptions of course, but I’m talking generalities here.

3) Creationism is thought to be one of those ‘stupid American ideas’, much like the Iraq invasion. And if there’s anything Canadian’s don’t want as a group, it’s the importation of what we see as stupid American ideas.

I don’t think there is much of a network opposing such groups, since such groups have a pretty low visibility.

Ruidh said:

“Except, Francis, the center of gravity of the Earth-Sun system is still within the volume of the Sun so that it’s really more correct to describe it as the Sun wobbling while the Earth revolves. The vast difference in masses makes the Sun the predominant influence here.”

Yes, and most of the Sun’s wobble comes not from our planet, but from Jupiter and Saturn.

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This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on June 9, 2004 1:21 AM.

Pre-Cambrian coelomate! was the previous entry in this blog.

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