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?

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When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

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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.


The Best Book on Atheism Out Today

May 24, 2008

No, it’s not from Dawkins, or Hitchens, or even Harris.  It’s David Ramsay Steele’s “Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy.”   Presented as a sort of primer on all the common atheist responses to theist claims, Steele’s book bears far more in common with George Smith’s classic “Atheism: The Case Against God” (which itself used to be the token atheist work in Barnes & Noble philosophy bookshelves long before Dawkins came along) than anything else.

Steele is clean, concise, and straight to the point, with a refreshing minimum of rhetoric and diverting character assaults.  The result is a nice, nearly encyclopedic compendium of atheistic responses that is well worth a place on the bookshelf, and far better than most slapdash internet sources.

While much of his material might be old hat to old hands at these sorts of philosophical matters (the relatively perfunctory discussion of evolution in my case), this is a weakness borne of the need to be fairly comprehensive in a relatively short work.  There is still a pleasure in seeing the same arguments explained well, particularly when some of his strongest objections to things like the “free will” defense of evil, or the “improbability” of existence, are also some of the rarest encountered in these sorts of debates.  He also includes a much-needed discussion of some of the core belief claims specific to Islam.

Of course, theists now often complain that the philosophical objections that atheists have to god beliefs never change: that the new atheists have little to offer over the old.  But I think there is a far more plausible alternative: it is theists who merely repeat the same arguments, and arguments that are false or unconvincing one day will continue to be for the same reasons tomorrow.  All that matters is the strength of these arguments, and whether critics can really deal with them, as opposed to merely finding ways to dismiss them.

Whether his arguments are old or new, Steele leaves very little wiggle room for apologists, even in the small amount of space he’s allowed himself.  Certainly a single book can never anticipate and respond to every possible objection, and critics of atheism are bound to have plenty.  But what he has down on paper gives me every reason to suspect who’d dominate further rounds of debate as well.


Sternberg Was Not Expelled By Big Science: More on Ben Stein’s Movie Misrepresentations

April 18, 2008

In honor of Expelled’s release, it’s really worth taking another long hard look at one of its key cases: the supposed destruction that rained down upon Dr. Richard Sternberg for publishing an article supporting Intelligent Design in a systematics journal. Since the crux of the film’s case (and the claims that even movie reviewers which hated the film bought into, is the idea that academics are wrongly persecuted merely for being open-minded) is that we’re living in another dogmatic Inquisition where merely questioning the scientific orthodoxy is career suicide, you’d think a little more attention would be given to seeing whether these claims really hold up to scrutiny.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches on the Culture Wars has written a phenomenal article covering the controversy over at eSkeptic. The content covers much of what Expelled Exposed’s section on Sternberg does, but in much more detail.

The Discovery Institute makes a tepid response to the later, and you know what? It’s a good one for what it needs to do: which is simply to sound plausible at first. You read through it, and it sounds like it has some really strong points, and as long as you stop there, maybe you’ll think you’ve done your part, heard from both sides, and maybe split the difference.

Unfortunately, Ed Brayton is still around and kicking, and lays bare just how deceptive this additional defense of Sternberg’s ephemeral martyrdom is as well.


More Detailed Expelled! Review/Overview & Lying About the Origins of Life

March 26, 2008

Probably the most in-depth account of the film yet: Josh Timonen has written up his basic summary of how the Intelligent Design film Expelled! tries to make its case.

There’s a lot to digest in his account, but in a way, not very much new to talk about. As I’ve noted, there just isn’t a heck of a lot that’s new to the science/creationism debate in this film: it’s like a recently released greatest hits album from a long-defunct 70s band… and they couldn’t even bother to slap together any unreleased tracks or a new cut or anything.

Just to hit on a single aspect while we’re at it: you can’t get much more pathetic than dragging out the Miller-Urey experiment and then claiming that:

  1. it was meant to create life
  2. nothing happened

Both claims are simply ludicrous. The whole point of the Miller-Urey experiment, the whole reason that it’s in textbooks, is that the result was, in fact, very surprising, especially considering the very modest expectations going into it. To not explain what that result was, or to paint the thing as if it were some sort of Frankenstein-switch-throwing-dud… it’s almost criminal.

As should be obvious, Miller and Urey never purported to be creating life, and no textbook claims that this is what they did. What they discovered were that the distinctive amino acid building blocks of carbon-based life as we know it were, in fact, not the universal rarity that scientists had previously assumed.

As it happens, Miller and Urey were working with what was a very preliminary model of what the early earth was like: a simulation that we now know was likely not representative of the general environment. But, also as it happens, this actually boosts the importance of their find, rather than diminishing it: it’s significant that they didn’t have to endlessly tinker and fine tune their experiment to produce these molecules. They got them even just with a very sloppy early attempt. And, as we now know, these molecules form under a very broad range of possible early earth conditions (including those that we now think are more accurate), as well as other key molecules found to form in the conditions of asteroids and other space debris that the early earth was constantly being pelted with (a simple scientific reality that Expelled! apparently tries to ridicule or avoid by lumping it under the decidedly more speculative and whimsical idea of panspermia).

It’s one thing to note that life on earth is made up of the basic raw materials found in the universe and on planets like Earth (carbon, nitrogen, etc.) That’s interesting, but there’s little in the way of specific structure or organization implied there. What Miller and Urey demonstrated was that much of the distinctive core alphabet of molecules that all life on Earth is now composed of… are found forming naturally in the very times and places were we know life likely began. Not only that, but recently studies into the have found that, guess what, the sequences of modern DNA that seem most ancient contain substantially higher amounts of the very sections of the amino acid alphabet that experiments like Miller/Urey’s have shown most readily form in early Earth conditions.

Again: this isn’t the be all and end all of demonstrating that life began via chemical processes, or even answering the question of exactly how. We most certainly do not yet know how life began: no one does. But for those who are actually interested in someday having an explanation, rather than just an opaque theology, it’s incredibly significant: an extremely suggestive finding that, were it not to imply something about the origins of life, would otherwise have to be a pretty amazing coincidence.

There’s really no way for creationists to spin away the implications. So, as we will apparently see yet again in Expelled!, they simply lie about it.

Addendum: I probably should have linked to it in the original brouhaha over Myers’ expulsion, but his daughter Skatje also has her own write-up of the film available.