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

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

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.

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.

ID Champion William Dembski Declares War on Christians, Children

June 13, 2008

Ok, so I’m not exactly the Onion when it comes to headlines. But what else to make of this post on Uncommon Descent, where Dembski basically demands that all Christians swear loyalty to his partisan movement, or else be labeled as traitors and atheist collaborators? What else to make of his following strategy for “defeating” his enemies:

What’s our strategy. The strategy is multipronged. Let me just give you one prong: WIN THE YOUTH. The release date for Miller’s book is June 12th. I’ve got a book titled Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know (co-authored with youth speaker and high-school teacher Sean McDowell) whose release date is July 1st. It is geared specifically at mobilizing Christian young people, homeschoolers, and church youth groups with the ID alternative to Darwinian evolution. (emphasis added)

Given the highlighted text, it seems like Dembski and crew have pretty much given up on trying to convince the bulk of scientists (both religious and non-religious) of their ideology by, say, penning and publishing some positive evidence for their claims. A simple mathematical proof of Dembski’s various information theory claims would be a nice start. But, as filthy Simpsonian beatniks used to say: they’ve tried nothing, and they’re fresh out of ideas! And now they’re going to take it out on the children instead.

As referenced in the quote above, what’s got Dembski so outraged in particular is Ken Miller’s new book, entitled Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (out now!). After all the kvetching over people judging Expelled before seeing it, Dembski now seems to agree that advance copy is good enough to gab about, and he’s royally pissed about the book jacket’s implication that ID is crippling science education as well as impoverishing the theological imagination.

Fair enough, though Dembski doesn’t seem to actually be inclined to respond to those accusations at present. Instead, he’s prepared to simply dismiss their concerns and arguments based solely on to what degree Richard Dawkins might agree with them.

And as James McGrath points out, there’s something deeply… well, silly about trying to one-up someone else’s book endorsement from Human Genome Project-leader Francis Collins with his own endorsement from… Ann Coulter, a woman whose own readership was apparently so troubled by her use of complete sentences and paragraphs that she had to publish a book of random quotes to mollify them.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what Dembski’s Pied Piper act is all about when his book comes out in July.

Myself, I’m highly looking forward to sitting down with a copy of Miller’s new book this weekend. And I suspect that the dustjacket is about as far as Dembski will ever want to venture, given Miller’s track record for solid, evidential smackdowns of Intelligent Design claims.

Anti-Evolutionary Expelled Falls Off the Radar?

May 13, 2008

4 weeks in, and Ben Stein’s anti-evolutionary expose Expelled appears to be petering out on its run. Last weekend it only took in 0.3 million from its remaining 402 theaters, bringing its total haul to a respectable $7.2M It’s still not clear how much the film actually cost to make (probably not too much), or how much it cost to promote (probably quite a lot, considering the pricey markets they bought ads in), and thus whether Premise Media will ultimately break even.

More notably, there doesn’t seem to be any signs as of yet that the film has become the sort of cultural sensation its producers had hoped: no students raising their fists in biology classes, and aside from the pre-orchestrated “academic freedom” bills (many of which seem to have lost some steam themselves), little political impact. The movie’s blog hasn’t been updated in 3 weeks.

So what more is there to say at this point? Intelligent Design has a new corporate ally on the block, and for its opening salvo, it butted heads with the mainstream media and scientists, and mostly just ended up replaying the same old battles one more time. All without anyone having much new to say or any side accomplishing much.

Other than that, I really can’t think of anything. The larger debate goes on, unabated, with yet more bad blood between the participants. C’est la vie, I suppose.

Finally: My Own Expelled Review Extravaganza

April 27, 2008

So, I went to see Premise Media’s Expelled. I paid my way (though matinée), sat alone in an empty theater, and took notes. And now it’s finally time to parse things for your pleasure.

Just as a framing device, I’ll pose some questions as a way to setup and organize my thoughts about various aspects of the film.

I should also clarify at the outset that I’m going to be treating figures who speak unopposed throughout the movie, people like Steven Meyer, David Berlinski, and so on, as if they speak for the film. I think, given how the film played out, this is perfectly fair. They are in some ways more the voice of the film than Stein, who basically is there to nod along and agree with them, or prompt them with leading questions. Indeed, aside from the bookend footage of Stein traveling to meet them or speaking at Pepperdine, I could just as easily imagine the film’s credits listing Berlinski, Meyer, Sternberg, and others as the opinionated hosts interviewing Ben Stein and trying to convince him of their position.

Anyhow, off we go:

Read the rest of this entry »

Expelled’s First Weekend: Was Ben Stein Hot or Not?

April 21, 2008

So Expelled has had its first big opening weekend: huge success? Crushing disappointment? I really have no way to tell, though it certainly doesn’t seem to have done what the producers were promising.

Deadline Hollywood Daily suggests that the film has underperformed so far, and despite the huge influx of recent viewers I’ve had gloating about how the film really stuck it to those dastardly evolutionists, it doesn’t look like the film opened big enough to match the major marketing mojo spent on promoting it. Nor does the free publicity of the pro-science side’s harsh response to the film seem to have amounted for much.

Still, if i had to guess, the film is likely to be a slow burner in the theaters (i.e. stick around for a while, albeit on a smaller scale) and ultimately make huge backend bank on DVD sales.

Me, despite being a pretty unabashed critic, I’m happy whether it does well or not. While less widely celebrated propaganda is probably a good thing, I think by and large more attention given to a subject like evolution balances out the bad information that gets people excited. The film also drives a pretty nice nail into the coffin of the “the ID movement has no religious agenda” argument, and the claim that evolution, in contrast, is a similarly atheist enterprise is so weakly and selectively supported by the film that its not likely to hold up in the places it would matter.

I’ll hopefully get a chance to catch it sometime this week, and I won’t feel in the least bad about handing the producers some extra money. They can have all the cash they want to make as big of a fuss as they want.

Meanwhile, Randy Olson, producer of the “wake up scientists, creationists are better at mass communication than you” film Flock of Dodos, is bemoaning the lack of similar projects on the mainstream science side. I’m not sure I disagree with any of his points, quite, but I’m just not sure I see where he thinks such efforts would come from, how they would be organized, and so on.

It’s quite true that creationists have lots of money and media strategies and PR firms and so forth on their side, whereas most scientists and science advocates have little money for PR and even less interest in the debate. But I’m just not sure what it buys creationists over scientists other than a lot of confused, ranting fans. Broader public support could certainly create a lot of headaches for biologists and educators, but when it comes down to brass tacks a whole lot of perception still isn’t going to recreate scientific reality.

Update: The second weekend’s estimated results are in. It doesn’t look like most theaters will have much to specially justify keeping Expelled in past the standard two weeks, but honestly, this is pretty much the standard trajectory for most documentaries (few of which ever open this wide to begin with). While it came nowhere close to the official hype, this certainly seems like a modest, not tanking, take for a documentary on its own terms. For the producers, it really all comes down to how much they spent on promoting and marketing the film (apparently quite a lot: national ad buys on some of the top rated cable shows?).

Transplanted Lizards Evolve New Traits in Just 36 Years?

April 21, 2008

Science Daily reports on a new study in which a species of lizards, transplanted to a new island, evolved a number of new traits in just 36 years. As is often the case with Science Daily, I’m a little skeptical of the reporting. If the transplanted lizards experienced morphological changes, how could they be genetically “identical” to the source population? And no matter how rare these “cecal valve” structures are in lizards, the fact that they are known in other lizards should at least suggest the alternative hypothesis that they are an environmental reaction rather than a genetic change (though it could also be a very simple and common mutation that only takes hold in certain environments).

In any case, rapid evolutionary change in response to a new environment is actually nothing new. Many previous studies have transplanted species into a new environment, and then observed morphological changes (the unit of measure here is charmingly called a “Darwin“) happening that are orders of magnitude faster than the fastest changes observed in the fossil record.

Findings like these are part of why the incredulity of most creationists about the power of evolutionary change is hard to square with the known realities of biology. If anything, one of the big mysteries in evolution is not how large changes can possibly happen quickly (or happen at all), but rather just the opposite: why change seems to have happened so slowly in the past compared to the potential for speedy change that we observe in the present.

Lessons that Ben Stein Taught Kevin D.

April 21, 2008

Seems like the target audience for Expelled is already picking up on the basic tactic of the film. To paraphrase one evangelical blogger:

How dare people be close-minded and not allow debate!

(…comments disabled)

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.

HJ Live Interviews Expelled’s Mark Mathis

April 15, 2008

Greg Wright and HollywoodJesus have been covering the film Expelled! over at SteinWatch for quite some time now. Wright has been fairly skeptical of both sides of this debate, and while I’ve spent some time disagreeing with his positions on the film, he’s nailed down enough excess, overstatement, and error from people in both camps to qualify as a must-read perspective.

For instance, Wright today has an interview with Expelled’s associate producer, Mark Mathis that manages to get significantly more detail on the film’s production than we’ve seen previously, including mention of other film titles that were under consideration along with “Expelled” earlier in the project’s production. Mathis also repeats his usual implication about the film not receiving substantive criticism:

Throughout the last weeks, maybe even months, what we have seen are allegations, charges that are made, that are not substantive, that don’t cut to the heart of the film’s arguments, that are really nothing more than insignificant distractions.

I agree that in the grand scope of things, debates over the behavior of the production are pretty insignificant (though I’m not sure that those aren’t issues still worth looking at on their own terms). But when it comes to whether critics have addressed substantive issues, I would say that it’s either Mathis that’s simply too distracted to notice that they have done so (indeed, in many cases have been doing so long before the movie was even conceived), or that he himself wants to distract others from noticing said substantial criticism.

If you missed it, Wright also interviewed PZ Myers a little ways back about his perspective on the film, his featured interview in it, and the infamous Mall of America screening that Myers was ejected from.

Expelled Exposed Goes Live With Response to Anti-Evolutionary Film

April 15, 2008

Expelled! is a movie promoting all the standard creationist canards, and Expelled Exposed is the answer to that movie. I don’t have time to review the site in detail until later today, but it looks nice, clean, and fairly comprehensive.

Link, read, and laugh at the idea that “debate” is silenced on these issues.