April 24, 2005 - April 30, 2005 Archives

For some years now, we have been hearing about Paul Nelson's forthcoming monograph On Common Descent, which one assumes will stem from his now nearly seven year old PhD in philosophy Common Descent, Generative Entrenchment, and the Epistemology in Evolutionary Inference. As the DI/CSC website notes, "[h]is forthcoming monograph, On Common Descent, critically evaulates the theory of common descent, and is being edited for the series Evolutionary Monographs." The Wedge document notes:
William Dembski and Paul Nelson, two CRSC Fellows, will very soon have books published by major secular university publishers, Cambridge University Press and The University of Chicago Press, respectively. ... Nelson's book, On Common Descent, is the seventeenth book in the prestigious University of Chicago "Evolutionary Monographs" series and the first to critique neo-Darwinism.
Ignoring that the book has been in press for nearly seven years now (surely a record!), these references had been puzzling me for some while. Though trained as an evolutionary biologist, I had never read "the prestigious University of Chicago 'Evolutionary Monographs' series" and had never seen it referred to in research papers. Indeed, I had - wrongly - assumed that the Evolutionary Monographs series had something to do with the University of Chicago Press. Checking the UCP website revealed no such series. So, off to the library I went.

Read more at Stranger Fruit.

A man for this season

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Over at his website, Bill Dembski had published the front matter [pdf] for A Man For This Season: The Phillip Johnson Celebration Volume to be published by InterVarsity Press in 2006, and edited by Dembski and Jed Macosko. The volume is a festscrift for PEJ that stems from the celebration that was held at the opening of the Intelligent Design and the Future of Science conference that was held in Biola in April 2004. This is the conference, you will remember, that PEJ received the first Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth "honoring lifetime achievements of an individual who has expanded the scope of academic freedom and truth-seeking."

Dembski is known to all, Jed Macosko perhaps not so. Macosko holds the PhD in chemistry from UC Berkeley, and in his portion of the introduction he recounts living in Johnson's basement for a period while in grad school. He is an ISCID fellow, and was a DI/CSC fellow between 2001 and 2003. He is currently an assistant professor (of biophysics) at Wake Forest University. Unlike most ID supporters, he seems to actually publish peer-reviewed scientific research, though none of it appears to offer a theory of intelligent design or any explicit discussion of design.

Over at Stranger Fruit, I offer some thoughts on the volume and its constituent papers. This is - obviously - not a review as I have not read the book and I will no doubt comment more when I do so next year.

Meyer vs. Meyer

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I’ve gotten a hold of five amicus briefs recently filed in support of the disclaimers placed on Cobb Country, GA biology textbooks. These briefs have been filed with the 11th circuit court and can be found here along with other documents.

The lowlights:

  • The states of Alabama and Texas argue that separation of church and state does not exist, that biology books are innately hostile towards religion and thus may require a disclaimer to make them neutral towards religion, that the disclaimers accommodate religious students–Do these states accommodate blind students by requiring all textbooks be in Braille?–and that the disclaimers have no creationist language.
  • Chemists and other scientists, organized by the Discovery Institute, use the standard (and discredited) intelligent design talking points to argue that “neo-Darwinism” and the “chemical origin of life” are controversial, despite the fact that neither of these things are mentioned in the disclaimer. (This brief is a reworking of an amicus brief submitted to the trial court.)
  • Roy Moore and his Foundation for Moral Law argue that the Lemon test is unconstitutional and that First Amendment does not apply in this case because the disclaimers are not a law establishing a state church.
  • The Alliance Defense Fund argues that there was only one reason that the trial court found against the disclaimer–There were actually several reasons cited by the trial court.–and that the disclaimer should be upheld because it is similar to anti-liquor, anti-homosexual, and anti-choice laws.
  • Hare Krishnas argue that the disclaimer does not just support Christians, that ruling against it is being hostile towards religion, and that the disclaimer promotes tolerance towards religious people.

This morning, NPR is reporting that the legendary Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, has been rediscovered in Arkansas (see photo of a model reconstructing the event at left, hosted in the CNN story). NPR did a detailed radio expedition story and interviewed the players. These are a large number of seasoned, professional birders, well aware of the bigfoot phenomenon and the similar woodpecker species, the pilleated woodpecker, and they think they’ve found it. Evidently this has been cooking for several months, but the word recently leaked out, and a paper has been rushed to the online edition of Science.

It would be great if this were true. I want it to be true. Several independent professional observers say it is true. But I gotta say, I just read the paper (Fitzpatrick et al. “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America, free online”), looked at the supplementary material, and watched the video, and I’ve got a bad feeling that hopes are going to be dashed again. What they’ve put up in terms of data is scans of field notes and a detailed analysis of one very short video that is being interpreted right at the limits of its resolution. They don’t have audio recordings, and the digital photo they have is a photo of model in a “reconstruction” of the video observation. Hopefully my utterly amateur opinion is wrong, and the professionals are right, but with this much psychic energy pushing for the existence of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, it pays to be extra-careful.

Who actually accepts or supports the theory of biological evolution? Traditionally, one gets different answers to this question from scientists and from creationists / “Intelligent Design” advocates.

Most scientists agree that it is scientists - those practicing science - who accept and support evolution. However, according to New Mexico’s chapter of IDnet, “evolutionists” are instead those who adhere to Philosophical Naturalism:

…evolutionists, because of their philosophical commitment to Naturalism, insist as a matter of dogma that the process of evolution is undirected and without purpose.

Now, two new pundits weigh in with answers to this age-old question. And the answers are in substantial agreement, despite their different sources - one is Christian pastor and parent Ray Mummert, from Dover, PA, and the other is Geoff Brumfiel, Nature’s Washington physical sciences correspondent.

As many of you know, I am here in Lawrence, Kansas to cover the Kansas State Board of Education’s hearings kangaroo court on whether Intelligent Design Science should be included in the state science standards.

Since many of you might not have known that there was such a thing as “Intelligent Design Science” (as contrasted with “Intelligent Design Creationism”, which label seems to throw the Intelligent Design Creationists into a tizzy fit), I’ve persuaded one of my arch nemeses, the esteemed legal flak “Dr.” Courtney Kangaroo, to explain it all to us.

Steve Steve: Good morning, “Dr.” Courtney.

Courtney K.: Hi Steve. I heard those quotation marks. I am a real doctor, you know. I have a Ph.D. in Quantum Apologetics from a little place you might have heard of called MIT.

S2: Really? I didn’t know that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave out apologetics degrees!

CK: Oh. No. I meant the Marsupial Institute of Theology. It’s in Australia.

A parent and ID creationist in Roseville, California, has filed a libel lawsuit against National Center for Science Education Director Dr. Eugenie Scott on the basis of statements made in her recent article in California Wild magazine. The parent, Larry Caldwell, claims that Dr. Scott has impugned his character and should pay for it. But in fact, the lawsuit is a frivolous waste of the court's time and a character study in the mind of the modern ID creationist activist.

PZ Myers notes that toads are exploding for reasons unknown in Hamburg, Germany. This story is apparently not made up, although I am not yet convinced that we are getting the straight story from the media – after all, the widely reported three-headed British frog of 2004 was, after vigorous discussion, decided to most likely merely be multiple amplexus, inexpertly observed, on one Evolution/Creationism forum (see also “Three-headed frog – not!” for the apparently definitive analysis).

Let’s assume that frogs really are exploding. Unexplained phenomena like this are a great chance to test William Dembski’s Explanatory Filter to see if it detects intelligent design. Let see: Is the phenomenon specified? You bet. In fact, it is specifiable in advance. Humans have been blowing up animals for some time now – for example, in 1970, the Highway Department of my beloved home state of Oregon decided to dispose of a stinky eight-ton whale carcass with 20 cases of dynamite. See the Exploding Whale Website for the video. Can known natural laws account for the explosion of live frogs? Apparently not. The known natural laws say that frogs, particularly live ones in a cool climate, shouldn’t be exploding (dead ones in the hot sun might be another matter – see the story about the natural exploding of a 60-ton sperm whale in Singapore in 2004). Can chance explain exploding frogs? Nope. Chance might explain some dead toads, but I estimate the chance of 1,000 dead toads, exploding rather than just dying, and all in Hamburg, to be less than 1 in 10^1,000 (and this is very generous probability estimate). Furthermore, we know that intelligent designers can and do blow animals up intentionally. So, we can safely conclude intelligent design is the best explanation for Hamburg’s exploding toads. QED. Somebody alert the authorities.

In a post below, Ed Brayton mentioned the controversy in Gull Lake, Michigan. One item in the Thomas More Law Center's press release particularly caught my eye (and you know how painful that can be): TMLC repeatedly cites the 'confiscation of thirty copies of the book Of Pandas and People' by school authorities.

Now, Pandas And People is the standard collection of creationist claptrap which has been dealt with many times before. And the letter that TMLC sent to the school protesting this 'confiscation' is full of many misrepresentations and unsound scientific claims—for example, it refers to 'the standard Darwinian ‘random chance' explanations' of evolutionary change, when, of course, neither Darwin nor his successors have ever claimed that evolutionary change results from randomness. But set aside the questionable science for a moment. What about this book confiscation?

Last week, Bob Collins of Alabama Citizens for Science Education discovered that the third creationist bill of the 2005 Alabama Legislature had been introduced late in the legislative session (see older NCSE news on Alabama for a history of this bill). A hearing on the bill before the House Education Committee was scheduled for last Wednesday, and although the hearing was apparently not announced on the website of the Alabama Legislature, Bob Collins and others organized rapidly to speak out against the bill.

A committee vote is scheduled for next Wednesday. Bob Collins has asked that the following message be as widely distributed as possible, so I am posting it to PT for any Alabamans that might be reading.

Hi, folks, the last few days I’ve been in Lawrence, Kansas visiting Jack Krebs, the vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science and member of the crew here at the Panda’s Thumb. Of course, there is a big event coming up in a few weeks (starting May 5), affectionately known around here as the kangaroo court hearings. At this event three anti-evolutionary members of the Kansas State Board of Education are going to supposedly judge whether Intelligent Design stuff should be included in the Kansas science standards.

But as a warm-up, I attended an afternoon conference Thursday entitled “A Public Meeting on Evolution and Kansas Bioscience,” at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Lawrence. See this news story from Friday’s news paper.

Jack gave a speech on the theological nature of ID and more generally on why people in Kansas should be concerned about the current situation. (I’m sure he’ll report on this when he has time.) Of course I volunteered to help in any way I could. Here’s a picture of me offering some suggestions for one of Jack’s slides.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune has a series of articles on their op-ex page today on the Intelligent Design creationism "debate". It's not bad; they set the tone with a set of quotes on the front page from Darwin, Einstein, Twain, and Pope Pius XII that provide no comfort to creationists at all.

They've also got an article by yours truly, Pseudoscience would waste teaching time (which I've also put on Pharyngula, if you don't want to register with the Strib), and another pro-science article by a staff writer, When two core beliefs go head to head. There's a peculiar (to this atheist's way of thinking) article on the religious viewpoint, Truth of faith doesn't depend on this debate, which basically supports the theistic evolutionist's point of view, while arguing for the importance of faith.

Then there is, of course, the token article for "balance", Students should learn the weaknesses of evolutionary theory, too. It's by Dave Eaton, who has no credentials in biology at all, but was appointed by the conservative creationist who used to run our state board of education to be on our standards committee. That article is a stunning pile of drivel, as you'll discover if you'd care to read my critique.

By the way, there is a big bold invitation on the op-ex page.

An invitation to readers on ID/evolution.
We're interested in your thoughts on intelligent design, evolution, and their proper places in school curricula. Write us an e-mail of no more than 150 words and send it to opinion@startribune.com, with the word "evolution" in the subject line. Be sure to include your name, address and telephone number so we can contact you if we decide to publish your response. Please reply by Monday, May 2.

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