More Creationist Claptrap from Pawlenty on Palin

September 2, 2008

Hemant at FA points us to a recent interview with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in which he defends and expands upon Republican VP-pick Sarah Palin’s as yet unclarified support for teaching creationism (and not even necessarily with the veil of “ID” cast over it) in public school science classes.

Suffice to say, it’s not encouraging stuff.

GOV. PAWLENTY: In the scientific community, it seems like intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely, there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated. But in terms of the curriculum in the schools, in Minnesota we’ve taken the approach that that’s a local decision, but I know Senator Palin, or Governor Palin, has said intelligent design is something she thinks should be taught along with evolution in the schools, and I think that’s appropriate from my standpoint.

This is, of course, all in line with the basic creationist gameplan: statewide “freedom” legislation and a standards-free permissiveness towards local attempts to introduce creationist talking points into science classrooms.

Note, of course, the ever present irony of the stance that kids should hear “all sides” when it comes to science: even complete psuedoscience… but when it comes to learning about basic realities of human sexuality and contraception, kids should remain as ignorant as possible.


Palin the Coy Creationist?

August 29, 2008

Via PZ Myers, it looks like Republican VP pick Sarah Palin is the sort of Republican ruler who thinks it’s ok to be in charge of the science education without actually knowing much about how science works. She apparently agreed in a debate that “creationism” should be taught alongside science… but then backed off the stance a bit when it came to specifics, falling back on the ultimately evasive ‘discussion of alternatives’ rhetoric.

“My dad did talk a lot about his theories of evolution,” she said. “He would show us fossils and say, ‘How old do you think these are?’ “

“His” theories of evolution? The always ready and reliable dating method of “ask children how old things look to them?” I’d like to hear a little more about exactly what her father taught, because while hardly indicative of anything, this little statement sets off a few red flags.

Of course, maybe this is a reason to vote for McCain: the VP slot has about as little influence on education policy as any major political position, which is a win-win for students in Alaska.

In any case, the platform of Palin’s own party is solidly, undeniably creationist.

The Republican Party of Alaska platform says, in its section on education: “We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.”

Palin said at the time (when running to, in part, hold sway over the state’s education policy) that she hadn’t really given much thought to the issue. I wonder if that’s changed?


Did Religion Evolve to… Divide Humanity?

August 1, 2008

That’s what two scientists from University of New Mexico are claiming in a recently published study. The gist is that people seem to do better against infectious diseases when they are fractured and isolated into various societies and sects. Thus, we would expect to see a far greater diversity of religious sects in tropical areas with many dangerous infectious diseases. And, apparently, we do.

“Why does Cote d’Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?” they ask.

The reason is that religion helps to divide people and reduce the spread of diseases, which are more common the hotter the country, the research suggests.

Any society that increased its coherence by adopting a religion, and dealt less with local groups with other beliefs as a result of cultural isolation, gained an advantage in being less likely to pick up diseases from its neighbors, and in the longer term to have a slightly different genetic makeup that may offer protective effects, for instance by making them less susceptible to a virus.

Unless there’s more to it, this strikes me as a remarkably weak argument. I can think of a heck of a lot of other factors that set tropical areas apart from, say, Norway, in ways that seem much more relevant to the development of religious sects. Poverty is a huge one. Lack of education. Lack of, well, health care to deal with the misery of disease. Maybe the researchers have controlled for all these other, more plausible effects, but I don’t see any discussion of this critical methodological challenge in the article.

And, of course, there’s always the alternative model of causation: it’s religious differences that cause disease, as the one-true God smites those who try to get too creative in their worship!

Off topic, but can anyone explain what the final sentence of the article means? Is it just a editing oversight? Because it doesn’t seem to make much sense:
In earlier work, the team linked the rise in the numbers of women who worked with left wing and liberal politics.
Linked them… with what? If they just mean that they tracked the rise of women on the left, that would make sense, but “linked” implies some sort of further correlation, no?

Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Another Intelligent Design Supporter Enters the “Witless Protection Program” (Casey Luskin Graduate Award)

July 28, 2008

It’s that time of year again: time for the “Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC)” to announce the winner of the prestigious Casey Luskin Graduate Award for the promotion of Intelligent Design.

Of course, by announce, I mean, announce the mere existence of such a person and not, you know, reveal the name of the winner. That’s because, as I noted last year, the apparent true purpose of the award is to gain press off of the supposedly “protective” anonymity of the recipient:

The recipient of the 2008 Casey Luskin Graduate Award will remain anonymous for the protection of the recipient. The many students, professors, and scientists who have been denied degrees or tenure and removed from positions and jobs for no other reason than acceptance of—or even sympathy to—intelligent design theory is very telling of the importance of keeping these bright young minds out of the crosshairs of those opposed to open-minded investigation and critical thought.

But, just as was the case with the previous recipient, the air of secrecy is sheer nonsense. The winner, as described by IDURC director Samuel Chen, was himself the president of an ID-promotion club (IDEA) and even worked directly with IDURC: i.e. he held a public position supporting Intelligent Design. That sort of gives the game away right off the bat: someone who is openly on record as supporting ID in the first place is not in any serious need of secrecy because of an obscure crackerjack award.

I guess we can all thank our lucky stars that Samuel Chen is not in charge of protecting the covert identities of CIA agents.

But then, CIA agents face real dangers when their identities are exposed. Intelligent Design proponents only face professional problems when they try to repeatedly pass off untestable claims and sloppy arguments as science: the same treatment that any scientist would receive if they did the same in any field. And with countless religious biologists at the top of their fields scratching their heads over allegations of discrimination, that makes the anonymity of the “Casey Luskin” award little more than a PR gimmick.

Which is, I suppose, perfectly fitting for an award named after Luskin, grand pontiff of pompously confused PR.

(Note: “Witless Protection Program” trademarked by Reciprocating Bill with HT to Quidam.)


Ben Stein: Everyone I Don’t Like is Hitler, Obama Edition

July 26, 2008

After failing to inspire a national movement of his own with the pro-ID-as-science documentary Expelled, arch-conservative pundit Ben Stein is now hating on people who have the audacity to be, you know, actually popular:

STEIN: I want — I’m glad you brought up this Denver thing. I don’t like the idea of Senator Obama giving his acceptance speech in front of 75,000 wildly cheering people. That is not the way we do things in political parties in the United States of America. We have a contained number of people in an arena. Seventy-five-thousand people at an outdoor sports palace, well, that’s something the Fuehrer would have done. And I think whoever is advising Senator Obama to do this is bringing up all kinds of very unfortunate images from the past.

BECK: Well, yeah, you know what? I’ve been — I’ve been saying that we’re headed towards a Mussolini-style presidency forever. (emphasis added)

I find it utterly amazing that Stein manages to say, with a straight face, that huge rallies are just “not the way we do things in political parties in the United States of America.” Really? Politicians both Republican and Democrat have huge mass rallies (even bigger than 75,000) as a regular order of business in their campaigns, all without a Godwin-esque peep from Beck or Stein. And national convention speeches are, while not exactly the Superbowl, watched by millions of Americans on television. How exactly do we go from millions of viewers to 75,000 people in person crossing some invisible line over into the Third Reich?

And note Stein’s use of one of the most bizarre meta-inanities of modern politics: bringing up a nasty associative smear while at the same time fretting over the supposed poor campaign advice that would give him the chance to make that very same smear! It’s a testament to the strange evolution of cable news coverage, wherein actual political analysts were first put on panels with hardcore partisan pundits (you know, for balance!), and then wholly replaced by them. Now we have the pundits pretending to both give sage analysis of politics while at the exact same time stumping for their party and politics.

Between this and Expelled, Stein really takes the cake when it comes to trivializing the Holocaust.


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


The Creationist Claptrap Jindal Wants in Public Schools: Luskin’s Missed Wrist

July 15, 2008

As you are probably already aware, thanks to Republican Governor and sometime amatuer exorcist Bobby Jindal, the 4th wave of creationism is now officially underway in the great state of Louisiana.

As with every other wave, this movement involves simply recycling the usual stable of crappy creationist claims, but this time without any explicit title (not even “Intelligent Design”) or even any explicit unity between the arguments, let alone any hint of a specific alternative conclusion that they are all pointing towards. Instead, creationist standards are to be repackaged as “scientific criticisms,” divided up, and sprinkled liberally throughout textbooks and idiosyncratic classroom curricula. And politicians like Jindal are meant to abet the effort by passing “academic freedom” bills that curiously target the teaching of evolution, and only evolution, as needing special protection for the teaching of “critical views.”

The obvious trick inherent in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.

Read the rest of this entry »


Intelligent Design Fan DaveScot Demonizes Chance

June 25, 2008

Over at Uncommon Descent, helper-honcho DaveScot has a post up claiming that Richard Lenski’s now famous E Coli. evolution paper commits a fatal error right in the first paragraph.

I started reading Lenski’s full paper myself to see what raw data was provided and I got no farther than the first paragraph beyond the abstract when I encountered a bias error that a chance worshipper (sic) would never notice. My emphasis:

At its core, evolution involves a profound tension between
random and deterministic processes. Natural selection
works systematically to adapt populations to their prevailing
environments. However, selection requires heritable variation
generated by random mutation
, and even beneficial mutations
may be lost by random drift. Moreover, random and deterministic
processes become intertwined over time such that future
alternatives may be contingent on the prior history of an evolving
population.

The bold portion is patently wrong. Selection operates on any heritable variation whether random or not. That the authors would use the language they did (random variation) and the peer reviewers didn’t notice it is testimony to the chance worshipper (sic) bias that pervades evolution
research.

In case you missed him repeating it for emphasis, DaveScot has recently begun to refer to scientists as “chance worshipers,” proving that if you can’t argue on par with someone, your best fallback is to ridicule them with cutesy names that belittle their arguments by implying that they are mere dogma.

But why is it that scientists like Lenski so often speak of “random” mutation? Because that’s exactly what they observe when they look at how variation emerges in genomes over time. While it’s true that selection could, in theory, work on non-randomly selected traits, that’s just not what we see happening in practice, and not particularly relevant to what Lenski is describing in any case. In fact, the whole point of Lenski’s paper is about the power of contingency: the way even random events open or close doors of possibility.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that DaveScot doesn’t quite understand what scientists mean by “random” in this context. No biologist literally means that events like mutations occur with no causal explanation: that literally anything can happen to anything. What they mean is that the mutations that do occur, caused by all sorts of different processes, copying errors, and so on, are not correlated in any observable way with the outcomes they generate.

This misunderstanding quickly gets DaveScot into trouble when he tries to provide evidence that mutation isn’t random:

The Scripps researchers, in a nutshell, discovered that E. coli, when stressed (such as running out of food as in Lenski’s experiment or in the presence of antibiotics in the Scripps experiment) selectively increases the mutation rate on certain genes. Thus the mutations in this case are not random but rather directed at a certain area in an attempt to solve a certain problem.

But the paper in question does not, in fact, suggest that the mutations in question aren’t random. What it describes is a particular mechanism E. Coli have for essentially inducing more copying error (reducing the fidelity of inherited traits) in response to environmental pressures. There’s no evidence that the E Coli. are actually specifically choosing certain mutations over others based on any foreknowledge of whether those mutations will be beneficial or not. All they’re doing is tossing the dice more often on a particular set of genes.

And while the fact that a particular set of genes is singled out for modification is certainly interesting an interesting feature (though not unlike many other genetic known features that conserve certain parts of the genome), it’s still just a mechanism within the E Coli. itself, not a mark of intelligent intervention, intelligence, or foreknowledge.


More Early Tetrapod Fossils Help Uncover the Origin of Life on Land

June 25, 2008

Another interesting specimen uncovered in the sprawling family tree of the early tetrapods (the four-limbed fishy conquers of land): Ventastega curonica.

It’s worth noting, yet again, how fossil evidence generally works when it comes to evolution. Discerning the exact ancestry of most specimens is generally implausible… but that’s not really what scientists require in the first place. What they want and need is to flesh out the overall family tree:

Scientists don’t think four-legged creatures are directly evolved from Ventastega. It’s more likely that in the family tree of tetrapods, Ventastega is an offshoot branch that died off, not leading to the animals we now know, Ahlberg said.

“At the time, there were a lot of creatures around of varying degrees of advancement,” Ahlberg said. They all seem to have similar characteristics, so Ventastega’s find is helpful for evolutionary biologists.

Of course, some people, such as the science journalists that penned the piece, seem a little rusty on the concept:

Ventastega is the most primitive of these transition animals, but there are older ones that are oddly more advanced, said Neil Shubin, professor of biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. He was not part of the discovery team but helped find Tiktaalik, the fish that was one step earlier in evolution.

“It’s sort of out of sequence in timing,” Shubin said of Ventastega.

Shubin’s likely point here, rather poorly represented in the article, is not that we’d necessarily expect to see Ventastega specifically “in sequence,” but simply that it isn’t on the direct line from which all land animals are descended.

To many lay readers, however, the “primitive” and “out of sequence timing” might seem like elements of a mystery: why would something still have “old” features?

But in fact, if Ventastega is an cousin/offshoot of the branch from which all later land animals are descended, then these terms are really only relative. Ventastega, after branching off from other tetrapods, went its own way: retaining some traits that became modified in the main tetrapod line, and gaining some traits unique to its own branch.

The former retained traits are “primitive” only in the sense that they are more like what earlier tetrapods had than what the particular line of tetrapods that we care most about went on to change. Had those tetrapods gone extinct and Ventastega’s descendants gone on to father all life on land, we’d be talking about the “primitive” traits of the formerly mainline tetrapods, compared to Ventastega.


NRO’s Mary Eberstadt Pouts in the General Direction of Atheism

June 24, 2008

Thanks to Ed Brayton, I’ve recently been made aware of a rather sad spectacle. Apparently National Review scribe Mary Eberstadt has been laboring away in obscurity for the last month or so, penning what her editors seem to think is a clever take on C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (in which a demon instructs his nephew in the business of inspiring human sin).

I’m not a fan of Lewis’ quaint, preening writing style to begin with, but at least the man gave off the air of erudition (even if he did indulge in embarrassing apologia like the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” gambit). Eberstadt, on the other hand, very literally (perhaps even intentionally) writes like a gossipy teenage girl from the 80s gushing about Corey Haim. Except of course, that she employs hip-to-be-square terms like “BFF” and “Oh snap!”

Lewis’ Letters worked because he employed the creative conceit of professional demon tempters to expose and explore universal human failings… and, by amusing proxy, revealed how human beings could actually avoid the demonic designs on their souls. Screwtape, the narrative voice of the tale, was a master manipulator. It was a satire, to be sure, but Screwtape himself was not played as a fool: he was meant to illustrate precisely how dangerous sin and temptation could be.

Eberhardt, on the other hand, has no higher purpose than to first pretend to be an atheist then act as mindbogglingly stupid as possible. It’s the literary equivalent of a schoolyard “you’re all like this: duhhhhhh.”

Like Brayton, I feel compelled by my profession to dissect the sorry affair point by point, but I can’t quite bring myself to actually read more than a shuddering gasp at a time. What few coherent points she does appear to be making are either trivial straw men, endless harping on substance-free matters like “Brights,” or bringing up classic controversies to which she adds nothing new. So if anyone can please extract a coherent argument from this right-wing bestseller-to-be so that I can address it directly, I’d much appreciate the service.

And while I won’t have much credibility in saying so, I honestly don’t see any comic wit or incisive satire at work here. Maybe someone a little more patient than I can point some out. Because here’s an example of the sort of stuff you have to endlessly wade through in search of a point…

I’m not even sure why I still feel them myself, so long after my own Turn to atheism. It’s true that when my ex-boyfriend, Lobo, got stoned, there was nothing he liked better than opening all his Dad’s coffee-table books on Renaissance art and eyeballing the paintings and sculptures. And it’s true that this was one of the few things Lobo did that I enjoyed doing with him when I wasn’t stoned myself. That was before his Dad kicked him out and we moved to Portland, You know. I’m not saying Lobo was all bad, by the way. Just mostly. That’s what happens when You pick up Your boyfriend in rehab I guess!

Whooooaaa! Girlfriend went there!

And it just goes on and on like that: in this case, pages of that sort of stuff all essentially to make the single, exceedingly bland non-point that believers have made a lot of great art and that Sam Harris (a non-artist) hasn’t. Great. Thanks for the five minutes worth of literary agony.

I’m honestly embarrassed for her. If this is really a “serious work of Christian apologetics” then atheists have quite little to fear.

Christians often complain that atheist critiques of religion are simplistic and carelessly dismissive. But as Eberstadt aptly illustrates, atheists are a model of polite, interested commentary compared to how they are often treated in return.


Ben Stein, Still Classy, Tells ADL to Shove It & Finally Doubts Darwin Quote

June 21, 2008

Via Thoughts in a Haystack, I see that Expelled is currently appealing to Canadian audiences and reviewers… and getting about the same critical results it saw in the US.

John Pieret highlights two interesting new elements of the story.

First, there’s Stein’s response to the Anti-Defamation League, which was understandably unhappy about the way in which Stein’s film played the Holocaust for a cheap ideological goose, and completely ignored the rather pertinent role of antisemitism:

When I asked Stein about this statement, his response revealed his hostility toward the Anti-Defamation League more than anything else, as he told me bluntly, “It’s none of their f—ing business.”

Next comes the rather shocking realization that Stein is apparently only just now either realizing or openly admitting that the Darwin quote he reads in the film from Descent of Man… the one supposedly showing Darwin’s love of eugenics and amorality… was a highly edited, misleading quote mine:

When I alerted him to the alteration of the Darwin quote and read him the full passage, he said he was “kind of dismayed if that’s true.”

It’s a little late to be “kind of dismayed.”

I have a lot of sympathy for creationists who basically read lists of carefully compiled and context-excised quotes supposedly from biologists, and are basically hoodwinked into a bunch of misconceptions about what those biologists really thought and argued.

But when you put together an entire motion picture whose premise is that the majority of working scientists are basically giant conspiracy of dunces and you know better… well, we’re rather past the point where you can employ ignorance as an excuse.