Thursday, December 09, 2004

Around the Blogs

My fellow evolution bloggers have been posting such great stuff lately, I think I'll mooch off them for today.

John Wilkins of Evolving Thoughts debunks the annoying old myth that Darwin did not ectually explain the origin of species in his most famous book. As Wilkins shows, he certainly did:


However there are the following points to make:

1. Darwin did give an answer to the origin of species in The Origin of Species.

2. Recent work shows that in fact his mechanism does, realistically, generate new species from time to time (reviewed nicely by Schilthuizen 2001).

Schilthuizen, Menno. 2001. Frogs, flies, and dandelions: the making of species. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3. Many new species are formed either by polyploidy or in allopatry, in fact.

ergo

4. Darwin explained some, but not all speciation.

The myth seems to be that Darwin did not even try to explain new species in TOoS. He did. He gave a good explanation - it just happens that it does not explain most speciation.


Read the full article for the details.

Wilkins also has a link to this interesting article, from the Phi Delta Kappa website about the threat ID poses not just to science, but to all fields of inquiry:


If you're not a high school biology teacher, you may be missing some of the current excitement in American education. There has been a sea change in the tactics of the anti-evolution forces, whose efforts have waxed and waned ever since the Scopes Trial. Before you dismiss this topic as of no interest to you as a history, English, or social studies teacher or as an administrator, watch out for the Wedge. For the Wedge is looking for you, too. Evolution is simply the initial target of opportunity, and there is a special emotional attachment to rooting it out. But make no mistake: if the first dangerous weed, modern science, can be removed from the garden, your area will be ripe for replanting as well.


And later:


The Wedge Strategy, which derives from the writings of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, proposes nothing less than “the salvation of Western Civilization” by, among other things, the removal of evolution from science education and the institution of a Christian belief system throughout American society.

In their more aggressive postures, the advocates of Intelligent Design have proposed a reestablishment of “proper science,” science that will always take into account the work of a Supreme Being, an Intelligent Designer, or even, if you catch them in an unguarded moment, God.11 The restoration of the science that was being pursued in England prior to the Darwin/Huxley revolution -- all to the greater glory of God and mindful of His great works -- is central to the Wedge Strategy. And, of course, this very aim gives the lie to proclamations of a purely scientific revolution. Proponents need to have science itself redefined to include the supernatural if they are to conduct their revolution.

It's a strange scientific revolution that seeks to establish its position in secondary school curricula before the research itself has been accomplished. But this obvious impediment is removed if the revolution is based on a redefinition of science rather than on new research.


Wilkins offers some further comments on the subject here.

And at The Panda's Thumb Gary Hurd weighs in with a provocative, and entirely correct, post about the commonalities between evolution deniers and holocaust deniers:


When I read Prof. Young’s piece, I was immediately taken with the social and intellectual parallels between Holocaust deniers and evolution deniers. I recalled reading Lying About Hitler by Richard J. Evans (2001) which relates the court battle that followed when Holocaust denier and pseudohistorian David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt over her accurate portrayal of Irving in her book “Denying the Holocaust” (1994, Plume Books). Both Lipstadt and Evans give details of how the Holocaust deniers operate that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has invested much time studying evolution deniers such as the Intelligent Design Creationists (IDC) of the Discovery Institute, or Young Earth Creationists (YEC) such as Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind, or the Institute for Creation Research (which was recently characterized in the San Francisco Chronicle as “the world leader in creation science”). Lipstadt has written that Holocaust deniers, “… misstate, misquote, falsify statistics, and falsely attribute conclusions to reliable sources. They rely on books that directly contradict their arguments, quoting in a manner that completly distorts the authors’ objectives.” It would be hard to write a more apt description of creationist “scholarship” as attested in the Talk.Origins Archive article “Quotations and Misquotations” by Mike Hopkins, or in “The Quote Mine Project” edited by John Pieret.


I would only add that Holocaust denial is suffused through and through with anti-semitism. The major creationist organizations in this country are guilty of a great many things, but anti-semitism isn't one of them. In that important respect, the comparison breaks down.

But the fact remains that fringe groups routinely make use of a few basic rhetorical tricks when making their case, and it is useful to be able to recognize them when you see them. I often tell people that in many cases, even if you do not know the minutiae of a particular scientific discipline, you can still spot a crank when you are confronted with one. Hurd has pinpointed many of the tell tale signs, both in the paragraph above and in the remainder of his essay. Go read it.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Nakamura, Stripunsky, and Goletiani Win US Chess Championships

I have a date tonight with a big pile of final exams and a red pen, so perhaps you'll indulge me in a quick chess post.

The U.S. Chess Championships concluded this weekend. After the dust had settled, grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Alexander Stripunsky scored an amazing seven points out of nine to tie for first. Nakamura won the two game playoff to claim the title of U.S. Champion.

The title was well earned. Nakamura is only sixteen, and if he continues to improve as rapidly as he has over the last two years there's no telling how far he might go. He got a bit lucky to win from a lost position in the last round, but he also beat several strong players without apparent effort.

Nakamura's stepfather is the well-known chess coach Sunil Weeramantry. As a little kid chessplayer I attended Sunil's summer chess camp. (Yes, I went to chess camp. You got a problem with that?) To this day Sunil says hi to me when he sees me at tournaments.

Cool. Two degrees of separation from the champ.

And Stripunsky? Well, prior to tying for first in this tournament his most notable achievement, in my opinion anyway, was his convincing win over your humble blogger in the 1997 U. S. Amateur Team Championship in Parsippany, NJ. As I recall, Stripunsky arrived forty-five minutes late for the game as a result of some mix-up with his hotel reservation. After fifteen moves, he had used an additional five minutes, while I had used up over an hour. Very little of that time was spent thinking about actual moves, of course. Mostly I was wondering how I had managed to get into such a mess after so few moves. Those grandmasters really know how to play this game!

The women's title was won by Rusa Goletiani, so congratulations to her as well. For more information than you could possibly want about the tournament, go visit the official website.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Ruse

Florida State University philosophy professor Michael Ruse has been one of the most passionate and eloquent defenders of evolution against creationism since the nineteen seventies. His testimony in the 1981 creationism trial in Arkansas was instrumental in persuading the judge to rule that laws requiring that equal time be given to creationism in any classroom where evolution was presented were unconstitutional. He was the founding editor of the academic journal Biology and Philosophy, which remains one of the few non mathematics journals I make a point of looking at regularly. I have read several of his books over the years and have always found them interesting and insightful. His recent book Darwin and Design is probably the best in existence on that subject, and the short section it contains about ID achieves the proper balance of strong argumentation and obvious disdain.

Over at The Panda's Thumb, Matt Young recently offered this brief essay critical of Ruse for coediting the recent Cambridge University Press anthology Debating Design with ID proponent William Dembski.

Sadly, I'm afraid I must agree with Matt on this one.

I have previously argued that debating creationists in public venues is a good idea as long as (a) It is some nonscientific, preferably religious organization that is sponsoring the debate and (b) The evolution defender knows what he is doing. Cambridge University Press (CUP) may not be a scientific organization, but they are certainly one of the most prestigious university presses in the world. I doubt that CUP would have published the anthology without Ruse's participation. By collaborating with Dembski in this way Ruse has given ID proponents the opportunity to claim that a highly respected university press agrees that there is a serious and important debate going on here. As Matt pointed out in his article, they have already taken advantage of that opportunity.

Engaging creationists is a balancing act. You have to weigh the harm done by allowing nonsense to go unchallenged with the possible propaganda victory you give them by engaging them at all. In my previous post on this subject I pointed out that people like Stephen Jay Gould were, and Richard Dawkins is, quite right not to debate creationists. As I said before, they are such big fish that the propaganda victory would simply be too great. CUP is also a big fish, and with Ruse's blessing they have now certified that ID folks are saying something worth listening to.

Sadly, I count two other similar examples of poor judgment on Ruse's part in recent years. First, he contributed the following endorsement to the jacket of William Dembski's book No Free Lunch:


I disagree strongly with the position taken by William Dembski. But I do think that he argues strongly and that those of us who do not accept his conclusions should read his book and form our opinions and counterarguments. He should not be ignored.


The problem here is that, actually, William Dembski should be ignored, and in a better world he would be ignored. No Free Lunch contributed two main arguments to the ID literature. First, there was Dembski's claim that the No Free Lunch theorems of optimization theory provide reason to be suspicious of a fully naturalistic account of evolution. Second, he claimed to have calculated the probability of a flagellum evolving by natural means. Both of these claims were preposterous. Spend five minutes with the original Wolpert and Macready papers on the NFL theorems and you realize that they do not have the consequences for evolution Dembski says they have (as explained in some detail by Mark Perakh here). And his calculation was based on a mountain of blatantly false assumptions. So why is Ruse telling everyone to read and take seriously Dembski's book?

Another lapse was this editorial about the decision to pass over Dr. Raymond Damadian for a Nobel Prize for his work on MRI machines. Without rehashing the details of the case, Ruse suggested that the decision was based at least in part on the fact that Damadian is a young-Earth creationist. Sadly, he did not have a shred of evidence on which to base that charge. And as I argued in this blog entry at the time, there were plausible alternative, non-sinister reasons for denying him the prize.

But imagine the impact this editorial had among creationists! I learned of the article because it was cited favorably by the creationist website Access Research Network. For years they have been claiming that elite scientific organizations are dogmaticlly opposed to anything they have to say, and here comes Ruse to tell them they're right.

In each of these cases I believe Ruse crossed the line between fruitful engagement and undue legitimization.

Michael Sprague recently wrote this essay agreeing with my comments about debates. In the comments section to that post Ruse offered the following defense of the anthology he edited with Dembski:


Let me simply say this: In 1981 we evolutionists had to go south to Arkansas to fight the creationists in court -- I think the trouble was that we had not made the effort to take on the Creationists, and I vowed that I would not let that happen again -- hence, the things that I do including co-editing books with the opposition -- I realize that this can be seen as giving them legitimacy -- I think we live in a democracy and we should try to work things out, and as an academic I am committed to reason -- I think our arguments are better than theirs and hence I am willing to be judged alongside them


Ruse understands better than anyone the balancing act I described earlier. He understands that creationism has far more to do with politics than with science, and he understands that the actual arguments made in the back and forth between evolutionists and ID folks play only a small role in the way the public perceives the debate. Sadly, he seems to have forgotten all of that here.

I have written before about my experiences at the ID conference Darwin, Design and Democracy III in Kansas City in 2002. One of the speakers at that conference was Biola University philosophy professor J.P. Moreland. In the course of his presentation, Moreland unleashed the following:


Ruse testified in that trial by claiming that creation science, which is what he called it at that time, failed to come up to the necessary and sufficient conditions for science, it was religion masquerading as science, and it shouldn't be allowed in school classes. About eight or nine years later, he gave a lecture and it was taped, to a group of science educators. He admitted he had lied at that trial and that he knew darn well that ID theory was a perfectly scientific theory, he knew it, but he lied because there weren't any other experts there that could check him. The reason he ended up having to fess up is that in the literature after the Little Rock trial he was hammered to death by other philosophers of science.


Not a word of this is true, of course.

After the conference I brought this quote to Ruse's attention. He was kind enough to reply with the following remark (since he allowed me to include this quote in an article I was writing about the conference, I don't think he will object to me repeating it here):


The sad thing is that I am the one dyed-in-the-wool Darwinian who tries to relate in a serious and non-hostile fashion with the ID people, and they return the favor with sneers and stories.


Indeed. So much for settling things by reason. So much for putting our arguments next to theirs. High-mindedness is all fine and well, but when it is not reciprocated it does more harm than good.

So Ruse knows what some ID proponents are saying about him when they are preaching to the choir. Despite this, when Biola University subsequently hosted an ID conference, Ruse was perfectly happy to attend and be gracious. I don't understand it.

I continue to be a great admirer of Ruse, and I will look forward to any books he chooses to write in the future. I do wish he'd reconsider some of his recent activities, however.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

More on Debating Creationists

A while back I posted this brief essay on the subject of debating creationists. I argued that on balance the benefits of confronting creationist nonsense in public venues outweighed the harm of giving them a propaganda victory by engaging them on an even footing.

Matt Young subsequently posted this counterpoint over at The Panda's Thumb:


Deborah Lipstadt, the distinguished expert on the Holocaust, refuses to debate with Holocaust deniers. If I remember a radio interview correctly, Prof. Lipstadt said, in so many words, “I do not debate with liars.” In her view, a respected historian’s debating Holocaust deniers would give them and their views stature and credibility they do not deserve. Indeed, the very fact of a debate will imply that there is something to debate, that Holocaust denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.

Evolution deniers such as intelligent-design creationists may not be consciously fabricating anything, but their intellectual output is as devoid of content as Holocaust denial. Debating or collaborating with them, it seems to me, will imply that there is something to debate, that evolution denial is a legitimate intellectual endeavor.


This was written as a prelude to a discussion of some of Michael Ruse's recent activities. I will address that subject in a future post, but for now I'd like to stick to the topic of debates.

I see a big difference between holocaust deniers and creationists. Specifically, there is no evidence that holocaust denial is gaining much traction among the public. I know of no attempt to insert holocaust denial into high school history classes, for example. There are no prominent holocaust deniers who are given respectful press coverage. Their books do not sell well and their organizations do not have many members. For these reasons, I believe Ms. Lipstadt as quoted above is right not to debate them.

That doesn't mean they should be completely ignored, of course. Dangerous nonsense must be confronted. I think all serious people owe a debt of gratitude to, for example, Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman for their book Denying History, and to Ms. Lipstadt herself for her book Denying the Holocaust. Addressing the arguments of holocaust deniers in print is far different from sharing a stage with them.

Creationism, in its various forms, is different. Even in its most primitive form it is supported by nearly half the country. Its advocates have had great success in finding sympathetic school boards. Many others know little about the subject, but instinctively support “equal time” laws out of a sense of basic fairness. It's hard to see how engaging them in public debates could give them more legitimacy than they already have.

Also weighing in on this subject is Michael Sprague, who offers these thoughts over at Philosophy of Biology. After defending Michael Ruse against Young's criticisms, he writes:


After acknowledging that Michael Ruse is both my advisor and the financial sponsor of this blog, I must say that I agree with Rosenhouse on this issue. As recent Gallup polls show, creationism doesn't need legitimization by the scientific community to gain acceptance among the public. If anything, it is evolution, more and more, that needs public support. Especially in light of the trend towards the censorship of American public school textbooks and teachers on the issue of evolution, it is plausible to think that many creationists are unlikely to have exposure to the scientific side of the story. If creationism is all you hear, it doesn't matter how illegitimate it may be in the eyes of academics.

We should look at debating creationists not as a propaganda victory for the other side, but as a much-needed opportunity for our side to be heard by people who won't otherwise hear it. Admittedly, not many creationists are likely to be swayed to the side of enlightenment by such a debate, but I should think no reasonable undecided person will be turned against it, because the creationist arguments are just that bad. And if just a few walk away with a better appreciation for the power, the elegance, and the beauty of the scientific explanation of life - and the absolute silliness of the pseudo-scientific nonsense brought against it by creationists - it is an important victory for science.


It's always nice to be agreed with, and I thank Sprague for his eloquent remarks.

I feel compelled to mention, however, that on the subject of Ruse's recent activities my views are closer to Young's than they are to Sprague's. I will address that in a subsequent post.