11 November 2005

The Washington Post misses the point

An editorial in today's Washington Post discusses the school board election in Dover, Pennsylvania. The editorial makes a number of excellent points about the nature of the Intelligent Design controversy. They point out that getting thrown out of office is one of the risks you take when you play politics, and that the Intelligent Design movement relies entirely on politics to get their material into schools. They also point out that while the Discovery Institute claims to lack religious motivation, many of the people pushing Intelligent Design at the local level are clearly religiously motivated.

Those are all very good points, and it is definitely nice to see a newspaper like the Washington Post take an editorial position that favors teaching real science. Unfortunately, this editorial also makes a fundamental mistake when it discusses an issue related to the history of Intelligent Design, and this mistake leads to a conclusion that ends up just a bit wide of the mark.

The Post's mistake in relating the facts of the ID movement comes in the second paragraph of the editorial, when they say:
"Because advocates of intelligent design have never been able to convince scientists that their theory has scientific merit, they've relied on political methods to get it into school curriculums."
Both clauses of this sentence are pretty much accurate. Intelligent Design proponents have not convinced scientists that their theory has any merit (scientific or otherwise), and they have in fact relied entirely on political methods to wedge their "theory" into public school science classrooms. The problem with the statement rests with the choice of conjunction. Had the Post joined the clauses with "and," they would be entirely correct. Unfortunately, they chose "because" instead.

The Intelligent Design proponents were using politics to push their material long before they ever even attempted to convince scientists of anything. In fact, they have put virtually no effort whatsoever into arguing for Intelligent Design within the scientific community. In science, you convince other scientists that your ideas have merit by devising experiments to test them, carrying out those experiments, and publishing the results in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Intelligent Design advocates did not shift to using political methods to advance their agenda because they tried and failed to convince scientists that they were correct. They used political methods to advance their agenda instead of trying to use scientific methods to convince scientists that their ideas have merit. This is still the route that they are taking. There are individual graduate students who have managed to exceed the peer-reviewed journal output of the entire Intelligent Design movement this year.

The editorial concludes:
"[Elections are] a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but once that controversy has been politicized, it's hard to see how it can be resolved any other way."
I absolutely agree that elections are a strange way to resolve a scientific controversy, but that is not what is happening here. Intelligent Design is not a scientific controversy. For Intelligent Design to be a scientific controversy, they would have had to actually make an effort to do science, and they would have had to actually try to convince scientists that their ideas have some merit. They have done neither.

What they have done is to make a strong effort to use political tactics to push their platform into the schools, and to use public relations tactics to convince people that their ideas represent a scientific controversy. Fortunately, the voters of Dover rejected their political tactics. Unfortunately, their public relations strategy appears to have worked on the editors of the Washington Post.

10 November 2005

An update on Robertson

Earlier today, I posted some comments about Pat Robertson's statements regarding the school board election in Dover, PA. Later in the day, Robertson issued a clarification. In the interests of fairness, balance, and full disclosure, I thought it best to make sure I give the clarification as much attention as I did the original statement. The clarification reads as follows:
"I was simply stating that our spiritual actions have consequences and it's high time we started recognizing it. God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in His eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin…maybe he can help them."
I hope that clears up any confusion that you might have had about his statements earlier today.

Two views on war

This Veterans' Day, we find ourselves, yet again, a nation divided over whether or not the war we are fighting is just. These divisions stand out the most clearly when you look at the differing views held by families who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Some feel that we are not fighting for a cause that is worth even one more life. Others believe that abandoning the fight would be the same as abandoning those who lost their lives in it.

Veterans' Day is observed on the anniversary of the armistace that ended World War I, the War To End All Wars. That was eighty-five years, too many wars, too many deaths, and too many dashed hopes ago. Even then, the same differences about the worth of war were present.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-John McCrae

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
-Wilfred Owen

No matter what our opinion of the war may be, I think we all hope that we will be at peace next Veterans Day.

Some new Dover follow-up

As I'm sure you'll recall, the (outgoing) Dover School Board swore up and down that they wanted to add a mention Intelligent Design to their science classes in the interests of science. The fact that someone died on a cross really had nothing to do with that decision. Religion had nothing to do with it. The fact that the people who wanted it were creationists was purely a coincidence.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the voters disagreed with that decision, and tossed every member of the board who was up for reelection out of office. Apparently, their decision to do this wasn't based on an opinion of bad science, but on a rejection of God. That's the view of Pat Robertson, anyway. The right wing "Christian" wingnut, whose most recent brush with notoriety came when he suggested that the US should assassinate the president of Venezuela, had this message of Christian love and tolerance for the voters of Dover:
“I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.”

A videoclip of Robertson's statement can be found via People for the American Way. PZ Myers, as usual, also has a take on this one. Frankly, I think his comparison of Robertson's twisted brand of Christianity with a Mafia extortion racket is a bit over the top. He really owes the mob an apology.

Once agan, Pat Robertson proves to be an embarassment to Christianity. I really don't know whether to laugh about this, or get mad. It's so over the top, it's just impossible to really believe.

09 November 2005

I'm a little late getting on the bandwagon here...

...but let's talk about torture and secret prisons.

It would appear that The Republican leadership is up in arms over the leaking of classified information to the Washington Post, which resulted in a page-one article about secret prisons that the CIA has apparently been running overseas since 9/11. Their demands for an investigation into this particular leak, at this particular time, strike me as being mostly in the interests of politics, following the indictment of Libby for lying to FBI agents and a grand jury during an earlier leak investigation, but that's beside the point.

Also beside the point, at least at the moment, is how this particular leak illustrates the need for a shield law that would allow reporters to keep their sources secret. Some things need to be made public, particularly when the government wants to hide them. Yes, such a law would almost certainly have prevented the special prosecutor from finding the evidence necessary to indict Libby, and it will make it harder for police and prosecutors to investigate crimes. That's a price I'm willing to pay to know that there is something out there that is independent of the government, but can still keep a close eye on the actions that the government takes, and report on misdeeds at high levels within our country's leadership. In the finest American traditions, I don't trust the government, and I like the idea that someone is watching it. But as I said, that is beside the point right now.

This issue marks the first time I have been entirely in agreement with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: "Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails."

That's for damn sure.

It boggles the mind. Our government has joined a long and upstanding tradition of fascists, communists, and miscellaneous tinpot dictators in creating a system of jails that operates under so much secrecy that almost nobody knows who is incarcerated in them. The prisoners in those jails have absolutely no rights, and the CIA can do unto them whatever they want. The vice-president is lobbying Congress to preserve the right for the CIA to torture prisoners. He says that removing that right would restrict the president's flexibility in conducting the "War on Terror". It would remove one of the tools that can help us fight the terrorists.

Personally, I don't think thumbscrews should be in our toolbox.

Never before in my life have I been ashamed to be an American. I have disagreed with policies of our government, to be sure. There have been individual acts of our government that have outright disgusted me, both at home and abroad. Never before, however, has our government done something that has made me feel this unclean. Secret prisons and unpersons are supposed to be the things that we fight against. They used to be the things that we fight against. Friday, we stop to honor our veterans, many of whom fought against regimes that did things like that. Today, we don't fight against it - we've become it, instead.

Secret prisons and unpersons. The very thought, the very concept is UnAmerican. It runs counter to everything that we have ever stood for. But it is being done, and it is being done in the name of protecting American citizens from terrorists. Personally, I would rather die an American than live in a nation that holds even its deadliest enemies as secret prisoners, devoid of all rights. That is not the nation that our founders pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish.

08 November 2005

A clean sweep in Dover

The York Dispatch is reporting that eight out of the eight incumbent school board members in Dover have lost their bids for re-election to pro-evolution candidates. Wes already gave the preliminary results in an earlier Panda's Thumb post. What I'd like to do is talk about the implications a bit.

First, it's worth noting that voter turnout was higher in Dover than in other school districts, and that the school board was the reason. If you look at the official election results page for the county, you will see that voter turnout for the county was about 20%. (This speaks rather poorly for us as a country, even if it is an off-year election, but that's another issue.) The turnout in two of the four Dover districts hit the 40% mark, a third district was at 35%, and the last 23%. People care about this issue.

It is also worth noting that this was a hotly contested election. If I've done the relatively simple math correctly (not necessarily a safe assumption at this time of night), it looks to me like the Dover CARES candidates won 52:48. That's actually a lot more significant than it looks at first glance. Dover is heavily Republican, as the rest of the results indicate, and the Dover CARES candidates were running as Democrats. They may have only gotten 52% of the vote, but the Democrats running for County Commissioner and Inspector of Elections each only managed to get 35% of the vote.

People do care about this issue, and it appears that they care about good education for their children. The candidates from Dover CARES have managed to demonstrate, once again, that getting up off of your ass and doing something can really make a difference. Don't ever underestimate that.

If you are reading this, and you are not already doing something offline, start. Talk about the issues with your friends and neighbors even - especially - if they are on the other side. If you can, host something like Cafe Scientifique. Get involved with the local school board or PTA, particularly if you have children in the district. Sure, it requires time, and who has time. Sure, it is inconvenient. But it is the right thing to do.

Now comes the hard part: once you get involved, stay involved. The fight over whether science education in America should be governed by science or religion is one that is not going away any time soon.

Let's take the news from Dover not just as a sign that it is possible for people who get involved to make a difference. Let's take it as a sign that we can make a difference - if and only if we get up, get involved, and stay involved.

Wells, and the future of ID

Jonathan Wells just reposted an article over at ID: The Future that he wrote about a year ago. The article is a fictional account looking at the history of the ID movement from now until 2025. Here's what Wells thinks will lead (or will have lead - I never can keep track of the right tense in these future history pieces) to the downfall of Darwinism:
Surprising though it may seem, Darwinism did not collapse because it was disproved by new evidence. (As we shall see, the evidence never really fit it anyway.) Instead, evolutionary theory was knocked off its pedestal by three developments in the first decade of this century-developments centered in the United States, but worldwide in scope. Those developments were: (1) the widespread adoption of a "teach the controversy" approach in education, (2) a growing public awareness of the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory, and (3) the rise of the more fruitful "theory of intelligent design."

For the moment, I will ignore the first two points. The entire "Teach the Controversy" approach at the moment is built around Well's book Icons of Evolution, which is about as misleading and incorrect a book as I've ever read. If you want more information on that, there is a nice collection of material available at the TalkOrigins Archive.

Instead, I am going to look at his predictions regarding the rise of Intelligent Design. After all, teaching that evolution is wrong might make legions of religiously motivated anti-evolutionists happy, but it does nothing on its own to advance Intelligent Design. A negative argument against evolution might show that evolution is wrong, but it does nothing to show that any alternative is right. At the moment, the ID movement only has a negative argument. They have not defined the "theory of Intelligent Design," and they have not tested it. In fact, one of the witnesses for the pro-ID school board in the recently concluded Dover Trial testified that he thought ID was "too young" to have developed testable hypotheses yet.

Since this is the case, I think it might be interesting to see what Wells thinks ID will be able to do (someday in the unspecified future):
The third and perhaps most decisive development was a series of breakthroughs in biology and medicine inspired by the new theory of intelligent design... For years the controversy remained largely philosophical; then, in the first decade of this century, a few researchers began applying intelligent-design theory to solving specific biological problems.

I'm not sure exactly what "intelligent-design theory" is just yet, and I doubt that anybody else is either. There definitely didn't seem to be much of a concensus about it during the defense's case in Dover. That makes it a bit more difficult for me to figure out how this "theory" is going to lead to advances. Let's see what Wells thinks:
Darwinists immediately declared the other 95 percent "junk"-molecular accidents that had accumulated in the course of evolution. Since few researchers were motivated (or funded) to investigate garbage, most human DNA was neglected for decades. Although biologists occasionally stumbled on functions for isolated pieces of "junk," they began to make real progress only after realizing that the DNA in an intelligently designed organism is unlikely to be 95 percent useless. The intensive research on non-coding regions of human DNA that followed soon led to several medically important discoveries.

We will ignore the fact, for the moment, that Wells is misrepresenting the current state of scientific research in this area. There is actually plenty of work being done on "junk" DNA, and that there are actually some evidence-based reasons to think that at least some of the junk DNA is junk. We also know that some of the non-coding regions do have functions. In many cases, for example, the regions of DNA that code for proteins are separated by a certain distance from regions of DNA that regulate the gene. The length of the separation is important, but the sequence is not.

Scientists do not believe that some of the DNA is junk because we are "committed Darwinists". We believe that some of the DNA is junk because there is evidence that indicates that some of the DNA is junk. The accumulation of non-functional DNA in the genome can readily be explained as the byproduct of common descent, but that is not the reason that we think it's junk.

But let's set that aside for the moment. Where's the "intelligent design guided" research? Where are the preliminary results? What is the methodology? Where's the Beef?

If you think that there will be massive benefits to study in this area, why aren't you out doing it?

Wells goes on to talk about another area of study:
Another insight from intelligent-design theory advanced our understanding of embryo development. From a Darwinian perspective, all the information needed for new features acquired in the course of evolution came from genetic mutations. This implied that all essential biological information was encoded in DNA. In contrast, intelligent-design theory implied that organisms are irreducibly complex systems in which DNA contains only part of the essential information. Although a few biologists had been arguing against DNA reductionism for decades, biologists guided by intelligent-design theory in 2010 discovered the true nature of the information that guides embryo development.

This is another misrepresentation of the state of science. The role of environmental factors in development has been under investigation for quite some time, and I doubt that there are very many scientists around right now who think that DNA determines everything. In fact, I was at a seminar on Friday that discussed experiments conducted on the development of some fish in an environment designed to simulate microgravity. The effects were quite noticable. Of course, it sounds like Wells is suggesting something more than genotype-environment interactions here, so it will be interesting to see what his scientific research demonstrates.

You are doing scientific research, aren't you, Jonathan?

You do have experiments running, don't you? You have projects ongoing in your lab righ now, right? You do have a lab, don't you? So where are the preliminary results? What is the experimental design that you are using? What methods of data collection are you using? Where is that beef?

All three of these developments-teaching the controversy, educating people about the lack of evidence for evolutionary theory, and using intelligent-design theory to make progress in biomedical research-were bitterly resisted by Darwinists in the first decade of this century. Defenders of the Darwinian faith engaged in a vicious campaign of character assassination against their critics in the scientific community. Meanwhile, their allies in the news media conducted a massive disinformation campaign, aimed primarily at convincing the public that all critics of Darwinism were religious zealots.

For crying out loud, Jonathan, WHERE'S THE DAMN BEEF? What you've just put up there sure isn't beef - it's a low quality, vinegary wine.

Let's be clear. We are not opposing you because of our ideology. We are opposing you because we think that you are wrong. In fact, you are wrong on several different levels. Your positive evidence for Intelligent Design is absent. Your negative arguments against evolution are incorrect and misleading. If you want us to stop opposing you, show us the beef.

And don't even try whining about evil Darwinists refusing to fund or publish your stuff. All new hypotheses face uphill battles for funding, but you folks have it easy. All you've got to do is divert some of that money the Discovery uses to push it's message into the schools into bench research. The annual budget there could fund a couple of reasonably good labs.

So why isn't this being done? What's the excuse this time? When are you going to stop talking about your vision of the future of ID research and start doing ID research?

07 November 2005

No bucks, no Buck Rogers

Money makes science go. Without money, we cannot conduct experiements, and without experiments, you have no science. On a more personal note, without money, I can conduct no experiments, and without experiments, I can get no degree. This is why I was so stressed out a couple of weeks back when I was hammering out my proposal, and that was why I was so happy today to find out that I've been granted some funding from the agency I submitted the proposal to. It's only about 2/3 of what I asked for, but every dollar helps.

Some (beter late than never) Carnival Barking

New editions of both Circus of the Spineless and Tangled Bank were published this week. Enjoy.

06 November 2005

The Dover Case - Closing Arguments

The closing argument delivered on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Dover, PA Panda lawsuit by Eric Rothschild is available via the ACLU of Pennsylvania's website. It is a powerful argument, and it is well worth reading in full.