29 August 2005

Usually smart newspaper. Unusually stupid columnist.

In a page E-1 column, WaPo Columnist Sally Jenkins manages to spew out an enormous number of unsupported assertions in a very limited amount of space. My space here is virtually unlimited, but my time is not, so I'll just bring up a few of them and the questions that they raise.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a neuroscientist and research professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, "intrinsic intelligence." Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus. He finds Darwinism, as it applies to a high-performance athlete such as Tony Stewart, to be problematic. To claim that Stewart's mental state as he handles a high-speed car "is a result of nothing more than random processes coming together in a machine-like way is not a coherent explanation," Schwartz said.

Instead, Schwartz theorizes that when a great athlete focuses, he or she may be "making a connection with something deep within nature itself, which lends itself to deepening our intelligence." It's fascinating thought. And Schwartz would like to prove it's scientifically justifiable.

The gap from fascinating thought to scientifically justifiable cannot be simply wished away. There was a question that any competent reporter should have asked there, but which Jenkins quite unsurprisingly did not bring up: exactly how does Schwartz propose to test that "thought"? What metric does he propose to use to measure it. How does he intend to ensure objectivity in the experiment? Ok, that was more than one question, but you get the idea.

It seems to be yet another example of IDers compensating for their lack of actual completed experiments by mentioning absurd potential experiments that they may carryout - someday. After, of course, they finish lobbying schoolboards to teach this "science" that may someday be the foundation for the great things that they might get around to doing. Who was it who said, "ID is the science of the future - and it always will be"?

Human muscle can only get so strong, it will only produce as much force as it has area, about 3.5 kilograms of weight per square centimeter.
Does anybody have any idea of what she is talking about here? I sure don't. For starters, weight isn't a unit of force. For another thing, why is she talking about area? What type of area is she talking about here? Surface area? Cross-sectional area? It can be a really terrible thing when someone trys to display knowledge that they don't actually have.

Our bodies break down a lot. If we were designed more intelligently, presumably we wouldn't have osteoporosis or broken hips when we get old. Some evolutionists suppose that the process through which people evolved from four-legged creatures to two, has had negative orthopedic consequences.
Hello, Mr. Apple, I'd like to introduce you to Mrs. Orange.

Osteoporosis is a bone disease that is characterized by a loss of bone density. It is primarily a disease of old age, and is most commonly seen in postmenopausal women. Both nutrition and hormones play a role in this disease process. Upright posture per se does not. The effects of osteoporosis are seen frequently in the hip and spine, to be sure, and are particularly noticable in these areas because of our upright posture. However, the wrist is also a common site for osteoporosis-related fractures. The effects there are somewhat less noticable, since they don't effect mobility the way hip fractures do, and they don't effect posture the way spinal fractures do.

The negative consequences of our two-legged posture tend to show up in other places. Chronic lower back pain is one example of this. Flat feet are another, as, I suspect, is ankle weakness. From an evolutionary standpoint, such weaknesses are not a problem. Natural selection, after all, will accept any solution that is good enough to get to the next generation. Intelligent design is another matter. I suspect that if such a designer were found, there would be plenty of people trying to figure out where to file the malpractice complaints.

Crackpot speculation? Maybe -- maybe not. ID certainly lacks a body of scientific data, and opponents are right to argue that the idea isn't developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution.
Somehow or another, Jenkins has once again managed to miss asking a blatantly obvious question: if the idea isn't developed enough to be taught as equivalent to evolution, why in hell is it that the leading proponents of ID appear to have spent more time lobbying to have ID taught than they have "developing" their crackpot speculation into something more scientific?

One of the things we learn in a grade school science class is a concrete way of thinking, a sound, systematic way of exploring the natural world.

But science class also teaches us how crucial it is to maintain adventurousness, and surely it's worthwhile to suggest that an athlete in motion conveys an inkling of something marvelous in nature that perhaps isn't explained by mere molecules.
It may indeed be worthwhile to suggest that there are things that may not be explained by mere moleules. It is, however, mere molecules that make up the natural world, and mere molecules are what science is limited to studying. Find a way to quantify beauty, and it may become possible to study it scientifically. Until then, however, such speculations are simply not scientific.


Hat Tip: Pharyngula
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