September 25, 2005 - October 1, 2005 Archives

Michael Behe was in my neck of the woods last night, and gave a talk titled "Toward an Intelligent Understanding of the Intelligent Design Hypothesis". There was absolutely nothing new in it, no evidence, no hypotheses, no nothin'…so don't trouble yourself to read my account of the event unless you are obsessive about seeing what the anti-evolutionists of the Discovery Institute are up to.

The words of the world

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A study in Science has returned biological methods to linguistic evolution in a reversal of history, and concluded that one can, within limits, reconstruct the history of language. Charles Darwin was not the first person to suppose that historical evolution could be recognised by homologies and represented by tree diagrams. That honour goes to Sir William Jones in 1797, although the tree idea was later. Jones argued that one could compare cognate terms and infer a historical relationship between languages and this has become the foundation of modern philology. For example, words that are based on the idea of "knowing" (including, as it happens, "idea") generate a tree of Indo-European languages. [And like biological evolution, there are "creationists" who think that all language was created in Sanskrit.] Now, a study in Science has returned biological methods to linguistic evolution in a reversal of history, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Due to the Kitzmiller case, it is now becoming widely known that the modern “intelligent design” movement originated as nothing more than a new label for 1980’s creationism. The intermediate form was Of Pandas and People, which was originally written as an explicitly creationist book, but when published in 1989, became the first book to systematically use the term “intelligent design.”

Science Friday

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Chris Mooney will be on NPR’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow, reporting live on the Dover case. The show starts at 2 PM EST, which is less than 30 minutes. Don’t miss it.

Desperately Dissing Avida

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Writing for the Discovery Institute, Casey Luskin has dissed evolutionary research performed using the Avida research platform. (Luskin is a new “program officer” for the DI.) As I wrote last year, computer models employing evolutionary mechanisms are a thorn (or maybe a dagger?) in the side of ID creationists. The models allow testing evolutionary hypotheses that in “real” life would take decades to accomplish or are impractical to run in wet lab or field. They also allow close control of relevant variables – mutation rates, kinds of mutations, the topography of the fitness landscape, and a number of others, enabling parametric studies of the effects of those variables on evolutionary dynamics. A number of publications using Avida (see also here) have established that it is a valuable complement to wet lab and field studies in doing research on evolutionary processes.

Well, it had to happen at some point. With the vast experience accumulated in their now decade-long attempts to pass fake science for real, and probably inspired by Bill Dembski’s recent appearance on the Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”, it seems that the Discovery Institute has now decided to issue their very own “fake news”.

During my recent visit to New Mexico, one of my hosts, Dave Thomas (standing to the side of the sign in the picture - I’m the one on top of the sign), got me very interested in some curious fossils that he said “blew creationist flood geology right out of the water.” When I encouraged him to publish these finds, Dave asked me if I wanted to blog about it here. And so, I spent part of my tour of New Mexico going with Dave and some of his family and friends to the Bisti Badlands near Farmington. And there, in the rugged beauty of the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, deep in Navajo country, I helped find definitive proof that creationists are really confused about geology! Join us, then, for the story of my exciting adventure to the past, and our search for the mysterious Fossil-Fossils of De-Na-Zin!


As a measure of the desperation felt by the Discovery Institute over the case in Dover, one could hardly find a better metric than this dishonest attack piece by John West on Barbara Forrest, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case and the author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse. West makes it appear as though Judge Jones has declared that she is an unreliable witness. In fact, the opposite is true, but some background is necessary to understand what happened.

The TMLC attorneys made what is known as a Daubert motion to prevent Dr. Forrest from being able to testify at the trial. It’s called a Daubert motion because the controlling precedent for what type of expert scientific testimony is admissable in court is Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. In cases where experts are called as witnesses, one side may object to the witnesses of the other side based upon the standards in this case, essentially arguing that they are not qualified or bring no specialized knowledge to the case. The TMLC attempted such a tactic regarding Barbara Forrest and the DI cites a portion of the courtroom discussion concerning a portion of her expert report:

Things were hoppin’ last night in Cedar Falls for DI fellow Guillermo Gonzalez’s talk. I have about 6 pages of notes from the lecture and subsequent Q&A period here, so if yu’re interested in the nitty-gritty, read below. For anyone who just wants the newspaper version, I’ll try to provide a link to the story when it’s published. My thoughts are in italics below.

Edited to add: Not chance, but design, ISU professor says from the Des Moines Register (thanks, Jason Spaceman); ISU professor argues for intelligent design, from the Ames Tribune.

Additionally, wanted to add that the next Sigma Xi lecture, Thursday, Oct. 27, will present the other side of the ID argument, when John Staver, professor of science education and director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University, will speak on “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: It’s Time to Saddle Up and Draw a Hard Line.”

Brainiac testifies

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Howdy from Harrisburg! I would like to apologize for shirking my blogging responsibilities regarding the Kitzmiller case – NCSE is consulting for the plaintiffs, talking to the media, and hopefully blogging, but doing the first two has excluded the latter until now. We did get a chance to do some podcasting, which I believe Wes has put up.

Today court is starting at 9:30 rather than 9:00 so I have a bit of time. All I wanted to say for the moment was GO READ “Have you ever really looked at intelligent design?” by Mike Argento. This is the best short summary that I’ve seen of Rob Pennock’s fantastic expert testimony on Wednesday.

For more excellent coverage, see Dover Biology at the always-on-top of things York Daily Record, particularly Lauri Lebo’s story “Witness bashes intelligent design.” See also Mike Argento’s blog commentary at

Remember growing up and playing pretend games as a child? Remember the geeky kid who would invent excuses as to why no negative consequence would ever touch him? “I had the super-special armor coat on” or “I had levitator shoes and you didn’t notice.” Yeah, you remember.

Ever wonder what sort of job awaited him in the grown-up world? Well, now he’s writing prose for the Discovery Institute. Here’s a bit from the press release:

Building on the mischaracterizations of the first day’s witness, the ACLU continued to put an imposter version of intelligent design on trial in the second day of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial.

“I know what intelligent design is, and it sure isn’t what they’re talking about in Harrisburg,” said Casey Luskin, the program officer for public policy and legal affairs for Discovery Institute. Discovery Institute is the nation’s leading think-tank researching intelligent design.

We’ve wondered how the DI would take ID going down the tubes, and now we know: it’s full-blown hallucinatory denial of the bleeding obvious. Eddie Haskell would be proud.

During his testimony, Rob Pennock used this quote in court in support of the proposition that explicitly religious concerns are part of the substance of ID. The quote is from Nancy Pearcey, in her recent book “Total Truth”. I had not seen it before, and it definitely deserves more attention:

”[D]esign theory demonstrates that Christians can sit in the supernaturalist’s ‘chair’ even in their professional lives, seeing the cosmos through the lens of a comprehensive biblical worldview.” (Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth pp. 204-205)

Pennock argued that for ID proponents, intelligent design is intended to scientifically prove the supernatural, moving it into the realm of scientific fact.

Disingenuous Institute

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The Philadelphia Inquirer ran two amusing pieces relating to the Kitzmiller case today. They were amusing in wryly different ways.

Sartwell on Dover

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Today's Los Angeles Times features this op-ed by Crispin Sartwell, a political science professor at Dickinson College. His children attend the Dover area public schools.

Most of the essay is excellent. Sartwell argues that ID has no merit as a scientific theory and that it should be taught in science classes as a historical curiosity, like alchemy or astrology.

But in the last paragraph he turns around and ends up supporting the School Board mandated statement in support of ID. Very weird. I present a full analysis in this post over at EvolutionBlog.

Lots of people have been emailing me with the news about this filmed sequence showing a giant squid snagged on a deep line. Did you know that the paper is freely available online (pdf)? It's very cool. The researchers were jigging for squid with a 1km long line, snagged one by a tentacle, and then watched for the next four hours as it struggled to get free.

The squid's initial attack was captured on camera (figure 3a) and shows the two long tentacles characteristic of giant squid wrapped in a ball around the bait. The giant squid became snagged on the squid jig by the club of one of these long tentacles. More than 550 digital images were taken over the subsequent 4 h which record the squid's repeated attempts to detach from the jig. For the first 20 min, the squid disappeared from view as it actively swam away from the camera system. For the next 80 min, the squid repeatedly approached the line, spreading its arms widely (e.g. figure 3b) or enveloping the line. During this period the entire camera system was drawn upwards by the squid from 900 m to a depth of 600 m (figure 3g). Over the subsequent 3 h, the squid and system slowly returned to the planned deployment depth of 1000 m. For the last hour, the line was out of the camera frame, suggesting that the squid was attempting to break free by swimming (finning and/or jetting) away from the system. Four hours and 13 min after becoming snagged, the attached tentacle broke, as seen by sudden slackness in the line (figure 3c versus d ). The severed tentacle remained attached to the line and was retrieved with the camera system (figure 3e). The recovered section of tentacle was still functioning, with the large suckers of the tentacle club repeatedly gripping the boat deck and any offered fingers (figure 3f ).

I've put the figure they describe online. It's a thing of beauty: an 8meter (26 foot) beast attacking the bait. Remind me not to go swimming below 500m, OK?

(figure on Pharyngula)

A few anniversary musings.

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On 27 September 1905, a paper was published in the journal “Annalen der Physik”. The paper, titled, “Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhängig?” (“Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?”), was only three pages long. It was the fourth published by the same author that year. None of the four papers was immediately embraced by the scientific community. In fact, most were initially considered to be fairly controversial. At the time, the author of the papers had neither a doctoral degree nor an academic position. He had a few prior papers to his credit, but was essentially an unknown in the field of physics.

Within a relatively short period of time, those four papers would be recognized as having revolutionized the field of physics. The author, who was a relatively obscure Swiss patent clerk in 1905, would become one of the icons of our time.

Continue reading (at The Questionable Authority):

Blogging the Dover Trial

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Here’s another excellent resource for timely updates on the Dover trial. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has set up a blog with frequent updates on what is going on in the courtroom. Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute is also blogging live from the trial on the DI blog. His post on Ken Miller’s testimony yesterday was rather off the mark, as one would expect. He makes the superficially compelling argument that Ken Miller argued both that ID was not falsifiable and was falsified. But this ignores a fairly obvious logical distinction. Witt writes:

In friendly questioning from the plaintiff, Miller asserted that the theory of intelligent design was “not a testable theory in any sense” and so wasn’t science. Later, however, Miller argued that science has tested Michael Behe’s bacterial flagellum argument and falsified it, by pointing to a micro-syringe called the Type III Secretory System, and arguing that it could have served as a functional step on the gradual, Darwinian pathway to the full flagellar motor.

Did the journalists covering the trial notice the contradiction? Miller tried to provide a fig leaf for it, but the fig leaf was itself a misrepresentation. Miller said Behe’s argument was in every respect a negative argument (and, further, that ALL the leading design theorists’ arguments he was aware of are purely negative, with nothing positive anywhere). Miller conceded that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument was testable, but said Behe’s inference to design doesn’t follow from irreducible complexity because Behe was committing the either/or fallacy–If not A (Darwinism), then it must be B (design). Miller said there were, in principle, an infinite number of other possible explanations, so jumping from a refutation of Darwinism to design was illegitimate.

He’s missing a crucial distinction by conflating Behe’s argument for ID with ID itself. The notion that an intelligent designer was involved is not in any way falsifiable. There is no conceivable set of data that could falsify that proposition. But specific arguments that purport to point to such a designer can be falsified, and it’s important to distinguish here between facts and theories. Behe’s argument offers both factual claims and a theoretical or explanatory claim. It goes like this:

In a blurb for The Privileged Planet, Phillip Skell says

“In this fascinating and highly original book, Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards advance a persuasive argument, and marshal a wealth of diverse scientific evidence to justify that argument. In the process, they effectively challenge several popular assumptions, not only about the nature and history of science, but also about the nature and origin of the cosmos. The Privileged Planet will be impossible to ignore. It is likely to change the way we view both the scientific enterprise and the world around us. I recommend it highly.”

- Philip Skell, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Physics, Pennsylvania State University, Member, National Academy of Sciences.

But how original is the basic idea in Gonzalez and Richards’ book, that we are especially well-situated to observe and make sense of astronomical data? It turns out that the giant whose shoulders Gonzalez and Richards stand upon is none other than the Reverend William Paley.

(Continue reading… on

Our Intelligent Designer, Who art in the unspecified-good-place, Unknown be Thy name. Thy flagella spin, Thy mousetraps snap, On Earth, as it is in the Unspecified-good-place. Give us each day our unchecked apologetic. And forgive us our invidious comparisons, As we smite those iniquitous Darwinists With rhetoric. And lead us not into encounters with people Who ask us to state our theory, But deliver us from biologists Who know what we’re up to. For Thine is the irreducible complexity, And the wiggly parts of bacterial bottoms, And the inapplicable theorems, Now and forever.


And, of course, there’s T-shirts and other goodies.

Still hoppin’ in Iowa

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First, for anyone unfamiliar with the current goings-on here in the Hawkeye state, I refer you to these threads for some background information. At the heart of the current situation is a letter signed by ~120 Iowa State faculty, saying that intelligent design isn’t science. This hits home at ISU, because Discovery Institute fellow Guillermo Gonzalez, author of The Privileged Planet, happens to be a faculty member in the astronomy department there.

Now, Sigma Xi at the University of Northern Iowa has invited Gonzalez to speak there. This lead the UNI faculty to endorse the ISU statement as well. Over 100 signatures were collected in just 24 hours’ time there.

Additionally, the secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) wrote to the Iowa State Daily, endorsing the faculty’s position there.

Dover News carnival.

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This morning, I took a few minutes to look at a number of the various news articles about the upcoming Dover Intelligent Design lawsuit. The articles that I looked at seem to present a wide range of views, and a few of them were actually quite good. Initially, I was just planning on commenting on one or two. After reading a few, I thought it might be a little more fun to present a bunch of them blog-carnival style.

Continue reading (at The Questionable Authority)

[Minnesota’s experience in 2003 and 2004 with antievolution efforts to change the state science standards rings a warning bell for Florida, which is currently in the process of revising its science standards, with adoption of new standards scheduled to occur in 2006. The following article provides a first-hand account from two members of the Minnesota science standards writing committee of the many and various attempts to incorporate antievolution material into the Minnesota science standards.]

by Melanie A. Reap, Ph.D., and Mr. Jamie Crannell

During the summer of 2003, more than fifty classroom teachers, parents, professors of science and education, and business people convened at the Department of Education to create the new Minnesota Academic Standards in Science (see this page). The state legislature overturned the Profile of Learning standards in April of 2003 with the requirement that new standards in five areas (mathematics, language arts, science, social studies, and art) be developed and implemented by the 2004-2005 school year (see this page).

(Continue reading… on Florida Citizens for Science)

Puzzling over theory

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On Saturday, I gave a talk to the Minnesota Atheists on a bit of the evidence for evolutionary history. In one part of the talk, I gave an analogy for what biologists do, and I thought I'd expand on it a little bit here.

A theory is a powerful thing, a tool for interpreting observations and experiments, and the way to assess the utility of a theory is to examine how well it explains the available facts, whether it suggests new experiments and leads to new insights, and whether it contradicts any of the evidence. What we do with a theory like evolution is use it to interpret and assemble what we see into a coherent whole. The process is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Continue reading "Puzzling over theory" (on Pharyngula)

The false choices of intelligent design

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In The false choices of intelligent design, Wade Worthen, professor of biology at Furman University, writes

Proponents of intelligent design have suggested that its exclusion from classrooms is simply another assault on victimized Christians. This is an excellent example of the intelligent design strategy: Use false dichotomies and misinformation to obscure the real issue. Whether it should be taught in public school science curricula should not be about politics or religion. The real issue is this: Is intelligent design a legitimate scientific theory?

The answer is “no.” Scientific theories are explanatory models of how the physical universe works, validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment.

As we have discovered in Dover, public statements by Board members that are subsequently reported in the press can later become important pieces of evidence about the true motivations of those Board members’ actions

Now Kansas sate BOE chairperson Steve Abrams, mastermind of the 1999 creationists standards, the May 2005 “science hearings” and the current 2005 creationist standards, has given us a quote to remember. Speaking to a “group of Christian men called Open Public Education Now,” the Lawrence Journal World reports that

During a question-and-answer period to a mostly receptive audience of church-going social conservatives fed up with evolution, Abrams said one couldn’t believe in the Bible and evolution. You must believe one or the other.

“At some point in time, if you compare evolution and the Bible, you have to decide which one you believe,” Abrams said. “That’s the bottom line.”(my emphasis)

Well, that takes care of that, it seems.

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