Matt Brauer Archives

SMART Grant Update

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PT reader TW points to Sam Kean’s CHE update. In brief, Evolutionary Biology is a valid major.

There has also been a press release from the Dept. of Education:

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has a news article by Sam Kean that describes more creationist shenanigans in the Federal Government. Kean reports that a new “SMART Grant” makes funds available to science, engineering and foreign language students – with the exception of students majoring in evolutionary biology.

The Education Department has a system of codes for undergraduate majors–the “CIP codes”– which includes evolutionary biology (code 26.1303). The list of majors eligible for the SMART grant omits only this code among all the biological disciplines.

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Many readers of this blog will be familiar with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. CSHL is the Long Island educational and research institution that hosts some of the most important professional meetings in several biological disciplines. It has for decades been the “home campus” of phage, bacterial and yeast genetics, as well as of computational neuroscience, developmental biology and various branches of genomics, bioinformatics and systems biology.

As a frequent attendee of meetings and symposia at CSHL, I am on their regular mailing list. I recently got an announcement of a meeting to be inaugurated this December that should be of great interest to followers of Intelligent Design. The meeting, “Engineering Principles in Biological Systems” ought to be exactly the kind of forum at which “Intelligent Design” researchers present their conclusions.

Science and politics

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The conservative pundit Peggy Noonan today published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she blames confusion over global warming on – wait for it – climate scientists.

She writes:

…how sad and frustrating it is that the world’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not?

Yes, how sad. Except that the vast majority of scientists with any credibility have in fact come to the conclusion that global warming is real, and that it has a likely anthropogenic origin.

Happy Birthday Ben

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Many of the founders of the United States were motivated first and foremost by the ideals of the enlightenment. And among them, Benjamin Franklin most closely resembled the modern scientist, in his temperment, discipline and his lifelong quest for understanding of the natural world.

Among his more compelling aphorisms are:

“In the Affairs of the World Men are saved, not by Faith but by the Want of it.”

“To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.”

and (my favorite):

“Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

The National Science Foundation has co-sponsored a site celebrating Franklin’s life and writings. Check it out.

More Pomo commentary on ID

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Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber points to a new Steven Fuller article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (where there’s also a paper by Brighouse himself). Although Fuller’s remarks are intended to be only peripherally about Intelligent Design, they contain a number of odd statements that suggest the author’s strange views of both science and ID. (For example, according to Fuller, Newton’s life “teaches that the Bible can provide a sure path to great science.” He leaves unexamined other possible lessons that could be drawn, including the obvious ones that genius often transcends the limitations of its time, or that deistic motivations are irrelevant in the presence of empirical validation.)

Fuller makes a big deal about ID’s use of analogies in place of evidence, suggesting that this represents some kind of conceptual breakthrough:

Barbara Forrest on NPR

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Barbara Forrest, the official chronicler of the history of the ID movement and one of the stars of the Kitzmiller decision, will be talking with Ira Flatow today on NPR’s “Science Friday”.

The show is broadcast live at 2 pm EST. Listen in then or later via podcast.

(Today is also the annual Birds and Birding show on Science Friday. What a bonus!)

Update: Commenter Michael Hopkins provides the link.

Professor of Sociology Steven Fuller may not know much about the history or content of science (see his recent confusion – just like Linus Pauling’s! – about the difference between protein and DNA at Micheal Berube’s blog) but he is good at the kind of jargoneering that the Discovery Institute and its allies use to confuse the public about science. He is also not, as far as I know, aligned religiously or politically with the DI. This must have made him seem to the Thomas More Law Center as an excellent witness for the defense in the Kitzmiller trial. “See,” you can imagine the argument going, “even lefty post-modern professors think ID ought to be taught. This proves that the motive is not religious!”

plosRobinson0511.jpg In my last post I mentioned in passing the feature article appearing in November’s issue of PLoS biology.

In that paper, Richard Robinson describes some of the difficulties faced by researchers into the Origin of Life. The origin of replicating molecules is a question of intense interest to biologists because replication is the required (and perhaps sufficient) condition for subsequent evolution. (“Give biologists a cell and they’ll give you the world” is how Robinson puts it.)

The fundamental breakthrough in Origin of Life (OoL) research came, of course, from the famous Miller-Urey experiment, in which it was shown that energy applied to mixtures of inorganic compounds could lead to the formation of biologically significant molecules. Despite problems that later emerged in Miller and Urey’s model, the fundamental point always remained that some conditions exist that can result in the spontaneous origin of organic molecules.

plosMarques.jpg Review of: Marques et al., “Emergence of Young Human Genes after a Burst of Retroposition in Primates.” PLoS Biology 3(11):1970-1979.(Synopsis on PLoS Biology)

November’s issue of PLoS biology has several papers of evolutionary relevance.

  • Richard Robinson gives a nice review of some current thinking about abiogenesis.
  • The evolution of “genetic robustness” is explored in a paper from Paul Turner’s lab.
  • A paper by Sabeti ET al. demonstrates that the evolution of a disease resistance locus in humans, thought to have been under strong recent selection, cannot actually be distinguished as non-neutral.
  • Mating preferences in fruit flies were shown by Rundle ET al. to evolve as a side effect of selection in divergent environments.

In addition, this very elegant paper describes some surprising results relating to the evolution of new genes in humans.

From London comes the astonishing news that the unmistakable image of Charles Darwin has appeared in the bottom of a postdoc’s frying pan. Scientists around the world1 are puzzled about the possible mechanism that might have resulted in the 19th century naturalist’s portrait being deposited on the suface of a cooking utensil.

In one attempted application of the Explanatory FilterTM it was found that the probability of this occurance is less than that of fairy circles appearing to form a mole on the face on Mars2. (This is, coincidentally, precisely equal to the probability that Nicholas Caputo would have hit David Berlinski if he had fired an arrow at Albert Einstein’s door during a total solar eclipse.)

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Scientists say that the object’s being specified is beyond doubt. An anonymous fellow of an anonymous Intelligent Design PR firm, when asked on background and off the record, responded that “Objectively, we can only conclude that the image was designed by an intelligence3, perhaps by means of infinite wavelength radiation emanating from the stove of the discoverer’s flat.”

It has not yet been ascertained whether the pan’s dicoverer was cooking spaghetti at the time the image appeared.

The owner and discoverer of the miraculous pan has opened bidding for the object on ebay. All proceeds from the sale will benefit the American Civil Liberties Union, which conserves the civic values – including freedom of religion supported by the separation of church and state – of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

1One in London, one in Princeton. 2Work not shown. 3Maybe supernatural, maybe not.

[Comments have been closed for this thread. Please continue the conversation at After the Bar Closes.]

Google Fight!

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Under the heading “Stupid Web Tricks” file the following:

Google fight between Evolution and Intelligent Design.

(No Darwin dolls were harmed in the making of this demonstration.)

Other results: “sincerity” beats “Dembski” by a 20-1 margin and “Berlinski” is ko’d by “informed criticism.”

Jay Richards recently stepped in it when he speculated that, because he didn’t find general relativity particularly intuitive, therefore Einstein might have been wrong. Now Sean Carroll calls out Paul Nelson on his interpretation of a supposedly ID-friendly essay by cosmologist George Ellis. “Nelson,” writes Carroll, “turns Ellis’s essay to his advantage via the venerable technique of ‘making shit up.’”

Biologists, astronomers, geologists, and now, increasingly, physicists: who’s next in line for a Discovery Institute-style “retraining”?

Everyone with a serious interest in biology is aware of PubMed and Genbank, the major literature and sequence databases at NIH. But there are a large number of more specialized and professionally curated databases that allow the researcher unparalleled glimpses into an organism’s genetics, molecular biology, physiology and evolution. Over the next few articles, I’d like to highlight some of these databases, showing how they are used and how critical they are for an understanding of the organism. These databases often have deep and highly technical content, but they also have much that is accessible to the non-specialist. And in genomics there are always more questions being asked than there are people to supply answers. As with planetary image analysis and observational astronomy, there may be some areas of opportunity for talented amateurs (especially those with a computational background) who wish to make a contribution to the field.

Cryptic Ichthus

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Bill Dembski complains of the injustice of being referred to, with his Discovery Institute colleagues, as an “Intelligent Design Creationist.” It’s possible, he writes, to believe in Intelligent Design and to not be a creationist, therefore the term “Intelligent Design Creationist” cannot be accurate. This criticism makes the logically dubious claim that since some ID advocates are not creationists then “Intelligent Design Creationists” don’t exist. However, as long as there is a brand of creationism that is identifiable as being of the “Intelligent Design” flavor, then there is such a thing as “Intelligent Design Creationism.” (It is this flavor of creationism, as creationism, that Rob Pennock and Barbara Forrest address in their criticisms.) The “Intelligent Design” strain of creationism deserves special notice because it is particularly insidious. Unlike its predecessor “Scientific Creationism,” IDC has attempted to present a false public face devoid of any commitment to theological particulars.

The emergence of “Intelligent Design Creationism” from “Scientific Creationism” is not a haphazard conjecture. The connections are very well researched, and many of the players and their tactics are exactly the same. As the current advocates of ID, including Bill “any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient” Dembski make clear (when they are speaking to an audience of like-minded believers), Intelligent Design is the bridge between science and theology (see, for example, Dembski, W., 1999, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill.).

What if you held a debate and nobody but your supporters came?

It’s quite likely that you’d be able to boast about the poor reception your opponent got from the audience.

This seems to have been what happened at a debate held last week on the Princeton campus between Lee Silver, a Princeton molecular biologist, and Bill Dembski, a seminary professor. The debate, titled “Intelligent Design: Is It Science?” was sponsored by the “Intercollegiate Studies Institute” (a conservative think tank in Wilmington, Delaware). Notably absent was any publicity that might have resulted in the attendance of scientists, or even of unscreened Princeton students.

Fairy circles and stone circles

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brauer_fig3.jpgbrauer_fig6Last week I introduced Dawkins' term "designoid" with a striking example. These objects have been found in a variety of places, but the most controversial of them come from the site of putative neolithic habitations in the present Gulf of Cambay, India. The "artifacts" have been used to bolster the controversial theory that a highly developed civilization existed at the site nearly 10,000 years ago.

For those new to this subject, the current iteration of creationism-in-the-classroom goes by the name "Intelligent Design." It differs from earlier strains of "scientific creationism" in a number of ways. First, it is scrupulously vague, allowing the movement to attract supporters with a wide range of beliefs (see Nic's entry on Rael below) while avoiding any whiff of commitment to a testable hypothesis. Second, it avoids like the plague any reference to religion. Finally, it is extremely well-funded and organized on a national level.

Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross have examined the religious origins and political life of the movement (which has come to be known, somewhat ominously, as "The Wedge.") Their book, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (1) is scrupulously researched and very well written.

In his review of the book Michael Cavanaugh, president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), discussed why it is so important to understand the origins and motivations of the ID movement:

Grist for the EF mill

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Dembski's "Explanatory Filter" (EF) claims to be a reliable technique for detecting design. To date, the EF is the only method presented by the "science" of ID. How well does it do? Nobody knows. It has been applied precisely once, by Dembski in his book No Free Lunch. And that application was a dismal failure.

Before going into the reasons that the EF is a psuedo-algorithm, I'd like to present an example of what Dawkins calls a "designoid," that is, something that appears designed but isn't. A "false positive" for the EF, if you will.

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The battle-cry of the IDists, "teach the controversy!" strongly presupposes that there is a controversy worthy of teaching. It is true that there is a controversy in evolutionary biology, in the political sense. But this is not what legal scholars DeWolf (et al.) mean when they use the term. They would like to convince the majority of citizens (or the minority that sit on school boards) that this is an issue of fairness. According to the truism there are two sides to every coin, why not "teach the controversy" and let the students make reasoned opinions for themselves? Why not use "the controversy" to teach about the process of science?

The best reason not to teach the "origins controversy" is that it simply is nowhere to be found. Genuine scientific controversies -- the important and useful ones -- take up a huge volume of space in the scientific literature. Even the controversies sparked by wrong ideas can be tracked as they generate discussion among the members of the scientific community. If no-one is talking about it, it's not controversial.
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