Thursday, January 13, 2005

Agape Press Responds to the Decision

After completing the previous entry, I visited the Agape Press website. They responded to the decision in precisely the manner I predicted at the end of my previous entry:


A Christian attorney says a federal judge has joined the ACLU in its crusade against critical thinking by ruling that a suburban Atlanta school district must remove an evolution disclaimer from science books.

On Thursday (January 13), U.S. District Court Judge Clarence Cooper ordered the Cobb County Board of Education must remove from inside the textbooks a sticker that says “Evolution is a theory not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” Continuing, the sticker admonished students that the material “should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Evidently the caveats did nothing to dissuade Judge Cooper, who said the stickers violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Parents and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the stickers in court, arguing they violated the “separation of church and state” -- and Cooper agreed.


Actually, the parents and the ACLU argued that the stickers violated the Establishment Clause of the first amendment, as well as the Georgia state constitution.

But what really struck me about the Agape Press article was this paragraph:


But Brian Fahling, an attorney with a Mississippi-based pro-family organization, says the stickers do not constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause.

“I think it's absolutely beyond the pale that we live in a nation where the fact that maybe people who had religious beliefs [and] wanted to encourage their students to think with an open mind is somehow now a violation of the Establishment Clause,” says Fahling. “It just makes one unable to comprehend how the judge got there -- other than ultimately a hostility, I think, to religion.”


Of course, the judge wrote forty-four pages explaining how he arrived at his decision. He based his finding on the Lemon test, relevant Court precedents for applying the Lemon test, and the evidence that was before him. But as I mentioned before, subtelties like that are too difficult for the religious right to contemplate.

Cobb County Stickers Ruled Unconstitutional

The judge has now ruled in the Cobb County “sticker” trial. A pdf of the full decision can be found here.

At issue in the trial was the constitutionality of placing the following sticker in the all public school biology textbooks:


This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, sfudied carefully, and critically considered.


The judge has found that the stickers are unconstitutional and must be removed. He based his decision on the three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court in the case Lemov v. Kurtzman:


Under the Lemon test, a government-sponsored message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if: (1) it does not have a secular purpose, (2) its principal or primary effect advances or inhibits religion, or (3) it creates an excessive entanglement of the government with religion.


The judge found that the stickers passed the first prong, finding that there was a plausible secular purpose for the labels. But the stickers failed the remaining two prongs, and were therefore unconstitutional.

According to the decision, to pass the first prong it is only required that some secular purpose be found for the message. It does not have to be the primary purpose, or the one that motivated the people crafting the message. With that in mind, the decision states:


Based on the evidence before this Court at the summary judgment stage, the Court ruled that the School Board did not act with the purpose of promoting or advancing religion in placing the Sticker in the science textbooks. To the contrary, the Court found that the School Board sought to advance two secular purposes. First, the School Board sought to encourage students to engage in critical thinking as it relates to theories of origin. Second, given the movement in Cobb County to strengthen teaching on evolution and to make it a mandatory part of the curriculum, the School Board adopted the Sucker to reduce offense to those students and parents whose personal beliefs might conflict with teaching on evolution. The Court was satisfied on summary judgment that these two purposes were secular and not a sham.


Sadly, the wheels come off when the remaining prongs are considered:


In this case, the Court believes that an informed, reasonable observer would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders. This is
particularly so in a case such as this one involving impressionable public school
students who are likely to view the message on the Sticker as a union of church and
state. Given that courts should be “particularly vigilant in monitoring compliance with the Establishment Clause in elementary and secondary schools,” Edwards 482 US. at 583-$4, the Court is of the opinion that the Sucker must be declared unconstitutional See also Smith, 827 F .2d at 690 {stating that courts must use “'particular care” when “'many of the citizens perceiving the governmental message are children in then formative years”'} (citation omitted)


Later, the judge writes


While the School Board may have considered the request of its constituents and adopted the Sticker for sincere, secular purposes, an informed, reasonable observer would understand the School Board to be endorsing the viewpoint of Christian fundamentalists and creationists that evolution is a problematic theory lacking an adequate foundation.


For me, this really gets at the heart of the matter. With sufficient imagination you can contrive a secular purpose for these stickers to promote. But the fact is that everyone knows the point of the stickers was to incline students towards rejecting evolution and accepting evolution. Elsewhere in the decision the judge provides evidence that the sitckers were having precisely that effect.

The judge concluded the decision with the additional finding that the stickers violated the Georgia state constitution:


In the instant case, it is undisputed that the Cobb County School Board used the money of taxpayers to produce and place the Sticker in dispute in certain of the Cobb County School District science textbooks This Sticker aids the beliefs of Christran fundamentalists and creationists. In light of the prior interpretation of the Georgia Constitution provision challenged by the Plaintiffs and given the Court's
conclusion above that the Sticker violates the Establishment Clause of the First
Amendment, the Court likewise concludes that the Sticker runs afoul of the Georgia
Constitution.


The decision is forty-four pages long, and goes into tremendous detail about the legal reasoning that went into each part of the decision. Indeed, what impresses me about it, and what usually impresses me about legal decisions, is how clearly they are written, and the sheer wealth of prior case law that is used to back it up.

I mention this because you can be sure the right-wingers will completely ignore the actual legal reasoning that went into the decision, and instead pound their usual drum about activist judges and strict constructivism and the like. To a conservative, judicial activism is when the Court rules in a way it doesn't like. If any of the cable chat shows do a segment on this decision, you can be sure the discussion will be framed in that way. They'ss get a Pat Robertson or a Jerry Falwell to talk about judicial tyranny and the ongoing war of liberals against God. The on ething they absolutely will not talk about is the substance of the decision.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Heddle Replies to Derbyshire

An even dumber reply to Derbyshire is provided in this post from blogger David Heddle. It opens as follows:


Today John Derbyshire of NRO took a break from tradition, which is to say that he wrote a post in which he did not refer to himself in third person. It was refreshing not to read about “the Derb.” However, he completely mangled his subject matter, Intelligent Design.

Now I limit myself to ID as it applies to cosmology. That, to me, is a much more fascinating question than the biological ID debate. Why argue evolution vs. ID in biological systems when the real question is, how is it that life is even possible? Evolutionists don't want to deal with this puzzle. They are content to accept that (1) the earth was here and fertile and (2) life originated somehow. From that starting point, which they don't find particularly amazing, they employ evolutionary theory to explain life's diversity. Fair enough, and certainly a proper avenue of scientific research.


If Heddle wants to talk about cosmology that is fine, but the fact is that Derbyshire was perfectly clear that he was talking about the biological side of the debate. Heddle is simply changing the subject.

Furthermore, the snarky, obnoxious tone of this paragraph is completely uncalled for. It is not that evolutionists don't want to address the questions of the origin of life or the origin of the Earth, it is that those questions lie entirely outside their domain of expertise. As Heddle notes, evolutionists study what happens after life develops. I'm happy to see that Heddle considers this a legitimate avenue of scientific research.

An upon what, exactly, does Heddle base his assertion that evolutionists don't find it amazing that life exists?

Heddle closes his post by repeating his error:


Finally, Derbyshire makes a theologically incorrect statement, at the very beginning of his post:


It is possible to believe in God and not believe in ID;


That is incorrect. While you might take issue with the arguments of any particular ID proponent, I suggest that it is not possible to believe in God and not believe that He intelligently designed the universe, even if only in the minimalist/deist sense that He set the initial conditions and then stepped away. At the end of the day, at least in classic monotheism, there are really two choices: the universe is a random accident and there is no God (atheism) or, regardless of the mechanisms employed and the degree of His subsequent involvement, God designed and created the universe (theism).


Of course, Heddle is using the term “ID” to refer to the minimal claim that there is some designing intelligence behind the order of the universe. Derbyshire, as was obvious to anyone who read his posts, was using “ID” to refer to a collection of arguments levelled against modern evolutionary theory. Not only did Derbyshire not commit a theological error (whatever that is), what he said is obviously correct (and ought to be stated more often).

Discovery Institute Responds to Derbyshire

Not everyone is so pleased with Derbyshire's posts, however. The Discovery Institute has weighed in with this reply. After a brief introduction they write:


There are lots of arguments for ID in a variety of scientific disciplines, from various areas of biology and the origin of life, to physics, astronomy, and cosmology. (Go here to find out more.) But the only argument Derbyshire seems willing to identify with intelligent design is Mike Behe’s. And he doesn’t even describe it accurately. Behe focuses on features of certain “molecular machines.” Behe argues that there are certain structures in biology that are “irreducibly complex.” They’re like a mousetrap. Without all of their fundamental parts in place, they don’t work. Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection and random variation must build systems one small step at a time, by traversing a path in which each step provides a present survival advantage. It can’t select for a future function. So the Darwinian mechanism isn’t a good explanation of such structures.

On the other hand, we do know of causes that can exercise foresight, that can produce irreducibly complex structures. We usually know the effects of such causes when we see them. We call them “intelligent agents.” Such agents can use foresight, can conceive of a plan and implement it. They would be causally adequate to explain such structures. So intelligent design is a better explanation for them than the Darwinian mechanism.


Derbyshire's description of Behe comes from this post and goes as follows:


As I understand Intelligent Design theory, it rests on the idea that there are phenomena, especially in biological evolution, that can only be explained by the intercession of a directing intelligence. Behe's “irreducible complexity,” for instance, says: “You can't get from HERE to HERE (in the evolution of an organism) by any conceivable natural process, because the intermediate steps make no functional sense.”


If you can discern any important difference between Derbyshire's description of Behe and the Discovery Institute's description of Behe, please let me know.

Since the DI has chosen to repeat Behe's argument once again, perhaps I will be forgiven for reminding people why this argument is very, very stupid. As the DI blogger points out, Behe examines certain molecular machines and finds that if they are missing any one of their parts then they cease to function. This is said to rule out the possibility that it formed gradually via the prolonged action of natural selection.

But this claim is false, and for an obvious reason. The fact that every part in its current form is needed for the machine to function in its present context does not imply that every part has always been necessary in every ancestral organism in which it appeared. In other words, as biologist H. Allen Orr first pointed out, you could have the following scenario: Initially you have a simple system performing some function. Later a part gets added that improves the functioning of the system, but is not necessary. Later still, a change to the original system renders the added part essential. The result will be a system that formed gradually, yet satisfies Behe's definition of irreducible complexity.

This is hardly the only scenario. Irreducible complexity can also arise when you have redundancy in a system. If two parts are performing the same function within a machine, and one of those parts then develops some different function, then the remaining part will be essential.

Now, even if these scenarios were pure speculation they would be sufficient to refute Behe's argument. It is Behe (and his blogging defender) who are claiming that it is so implausible to think that such irreducibly complex systems evolved gradually, that we do better to invent out of whole cloth an intelligent being capable of creating them. It is for them to show that such scenarios as I have described are not plausible.

As it happens, however, the scenarios I described above are not pure speculation. To pick one of many known examples, we know, from both fossil evidence and embryological evidence, that the bone structure of our inner ear (which satisfies Behe's definition of irreducible complexity) evolved from similar bones in the reptilian jaw as the result of a redundant jaw joint. The literature contains numerous other examples of the same phenomenon. Indeed, none of the systems Behe has chosen to focus on in his writing (such as the human blood clotting cascade or the immune system) are as difficult to explain as Behe wants you to believe.

Furthermore, experiments in artificial life have routinely shown that irreducibly complex structures can form via gradual selection acting on randomly generated variations. ID folks sneer at such demonstrations. They are wrong to do so. All of the relevant features of natural selection are accurately modelled in such experiments. They show decisively that any assertion that natural selection is fundamentally incapable of generating irreducible complexity is completely wrong.

We should also point out that when it comes to making an affirmative case for ID in biology, the argument from irreducible complexity is all they have. Everything else is either a criticism of evolution, or is based explicitly on Behe's work. William Dembski's musings about complex specified information, which in creationist fantasy land is said to provide a mathematical foundation for ID, contributes absolutely nothing to the discussion (and is totally wrong to boot). The fact is, when it comes time for him to produce the probability calculation that will prove the bacterial flagellum could not have evolved, he bases the calculation explicitly on the assumption that Behe's argument is correct.

That's ID in a nutshell. Their one affirmative argument is false as a matter of logic. It only gets worse for the ID folks when you consider the actual scientific literature.

That is why Derbyshire, and all other people not blinded by religious wishful thinking, have little trouble seeing through it.


Derbyshire on ID

Ultra-conservative John Derbyshire of National Review Online is not someone I usually quote favorably. But just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, Derbyshire occasionally gets it right. In this blog entry Derbyshire tells us exactly what he thinks of ID:


(1) If scientist X passes a remark about the universe sure being a mysterious place, he has not thereby placed himself in the ID camp. ID is a specific set of arguments about specific scientific topics. Of those arguments I have seen, none struck me as very convincing.

(2) None of the ID people I have encountered (in person or books) is an open-minded inquirer trying to uncover facts about the world. Every one I know of is a Christian looking to justify his faith. This naturally inclines me to think that they are grinding axes, not conducting dispassionate science. This is, in my opinion, not only a path to bad science, but also a path to bad theology. ID is, in my opinion, a species of Science Envy -- like Deconstructionism or Marxism. Science has been brilliantly successful in the present age at explaining things, making things, and improving our health and comfort. People whose natural attraction is to non-scientific disciplines -- literaty criticism, history, theology -- want some of the action.

(3) I do not feel myself to be under any moral obligation to set out detailed arguments against this or that ID-er here on The Corner. Such arguments can be found all over the web, for those who want them. I have better things to do than repeat here what can be easily found.

(4) The “coincidence” point (i.e. “How come physical constants are just precisely what they need to be in order for us to exist?”) is very fascinating to any thoughtful person. I have never seen an answer that struck me as very satifactory; but the non-ID answers -- e.g. the Anthropic Principle in its various forms (Google it) -- are at least as satisfactory as the ID ones (“Because God made things that way.”)


Couldn't have said it better myself. I especially liked that second point.

Derbyshire followed-up with this subsequent post on the subject. Here's an excerpt:


Some readers have chid me for referring to ID as “flapdoodle.” This was, they say, ill-mannered of me. Heaven forbid I should be thought ill-mannered! Me! I therefore beg you to strike out the word “flapdoodle” and replace it with one of the following, according to taste: balderdash, baloney, blather, bunkum, bushwa, claptrap, gobbledygook, hocus-pocus, hogwash, hokum, hooey, humbug, mumbo-jumbo, piffle, rigmarole, tripe, twaddle.


Maybe I'll have to go read his number theory book.

I'm also pleased to note that Glenn Reynolds agrees with Derbyshire. Reynolds is also a conservative, and maintains the blog Instapundit.

Since I routinely take the right to task at this blog it's always nice to have an opportunity to point out that it is only one segment of conservative thought that is anti-science and anti-intellectual. It's a pity the brainless ones are the ones currently in charge of the Republican party.

If more Republicans thought like Derbyshire and Reynolds on this issue, I would still vote for Democrats. But I wouldn't worry so much when Republicans win.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Eastern Open

A commenter to yesterday's posts asked when I will discuss my recent chess exploits. And since I don't really need much encouragement to talk about chess, here goes:

The tournament was called The Eastern Open and the final results are available here. As you can see I finished with 3.5 points out of 8 (Two wins, Three draws, Three losses), which was good enough for a share of 36-46 place. There were 70 players in my section.

Actually, I was very happy with that result. Large tournaments like this are divided into sections so that you only play against people of roughly the same strength as you. Sitting at the top of the heap is the Open section. As the name suggests, anyone who wants to can play in that section, but as a practical matter it is the place where all the grandmasters and their ilk play.

For scheduling reasons that I won't try to explain, I, with my putzy little rating of 1901, had to play in the Open section. The winner of the tournament was grandmaster Alexander Ivanov. His rating is 2640. Get the idea? (If you're not familiar with the rating system, basically, everyone's rating is a four-digit number. The number by itself means nothing. It is only in comparison to someone else's rating that it has any significance. After each tournament game your rating changes according to a pre-set formula that depends on the result and the difference in ratings between the two players. The higher the number, the stronger the player.)

Since I was one of the lowest-rated players in the section, I was rather pleased to be able to hold my own against some very strong players. I managed to play three staright draws against players rated over 2100. I was particularly pleased with my fifth round draw against FM Boris Reichstein (FM being an abbreviation for “Really freakin' good.” It also stands for “FIDE Master.” That's pronounced FEE-day, and is itself an abbreviation for Federation Internationale Des Echecs.) That's my best result to date against someone with that title.

My rating gives me the title of “Class A Player.” Below me reside the class B, C, D and E players. Above me are the Experts, FIDE Masters, International Masters and Grandmasters. That means that on the one hand I'm a pretty good player, but on the other, I still have a lot to learn.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable tournament.

Louis vs. Limbaugh

In this column from December 30, New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis offers some wise words on the latest attempts to insert creationism into school science curricula:


Laugh if you want, but it's not funny. Kids around the country are being taught religion masquerading as science, in violation of the law. In Cobb County, before the kooky textbooks-with-stickers approach, students got specially altered books with blank pages where the evolution section belonged.

Small wonder that a CBS poll last month showed 55% of Americans believe God created humans, more or less complete, sometime in the last 10,000 years.

Evolution and the literally exhaustive geologic records that establish the Earth's multibillion-year age remain the most solid, well-proved science ever developed. It's not incompatible with the Bible, provided one is prepared to read symbol and metaphor into the Good Book, along the lines of interpreting each of the six days of creation in Genesis as a billion years or so.

Religious fundamentalists reject this approach, turning a theological error into an 80-year political crisis. The Supreme Court has twice struck down the far right's disingenuous “two sides of the controversy” approach as a transparent, unconstitutional effort to enlist government in the religion business. (Emphasis Added)


I especially like that bold-faced comment.

As part of his ongoing crusade to prove that he is, indeed, more ignorant than his brother, David Limbaugh offered this response. Let's consider a few excerpts:


In this NY Daily News column, Errol Louis vents more than a little frustration at “the loony right.” Louis is upset that “Religious conservatives are trying to upset Scopes vs. Tennessee, the 1925 `monkey trial' that struck down a law prohibiting the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution.” He then proceeds to cite a number of examples, and, in the process, terribly confuses certain concepts, including Biblical creationism and intelligent design.


Now, I am among those who believe there is no important difference between Biblical creationism and intelligent design. The latter is just a watered-down version of the former, offered for the sole purpose of finding a version of creationism that might pass constitutional muster. As it happens, though, there is a reason Limbaugh does not provide any examples of Louis engaging in this confusion. Louis, in fact, does not conflate ID with Biblical creationism. He merely describes both as bad science.


Here's his first example:


In Cobb County, a suburb of Atlanta, the school board is being sued in federal court for ordering stickers to be placed inside science textbooks reading: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” A ruling on the case is expected soon.


But for our culture's indoctrination on these issues, Louis's reaction would puzzle me. Is he upset with the statement that evolution is a theory or at its mandatory placement in the science textbooks? I've been reading quite a bit about the problems with Darwinism lately, as well as the increasing credibility of Intelligent Design theory. It amazes me how much disinformation has been taught in our public schools, universities, and our culture in general on evolution. See Jonathan Wells' Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? Why Much of What we Teach About Evolution is Wrong, Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Darwin on Trial," by Phillip E. Johnson, and Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, by Michael J. Behe, for starters.


Of course, I suspect that Louis, like all sensible people, objects to the simplistic dichotomy between theory and fact. As for Limbuagh's little reading list, we should point out that all four of the books he mentions have been thoroughly debunked. We might also point out that Denton's book was published in 1986, Johnson's book was published in 1991, Behe's came out in 1996, and Wells' appeared in 2000. Not exactly cutting edge stuff.

None of these books was put through any sort of scientific peer review before being published. Furthermore, the books by Johnson and Wells were published by explicitly right-wing publishers. This is a good lesson in how the right-wing game is played. First, establish a publishing house that will print any sort of scientific gobbledygook that happens to support a pre-ordained viewpoint. Then pass it along to an eloquent mouthpiece like Limbuagh; someone who is good at pushing the buttons of the zombie set. The merits of the arguments made in these books is not important, almost no one reads them anyway. What matters is that they exist, thereby allowing people like Limbuagh to say, “Hey! This guy says evolution is nonsense, and he wrote a book!

Limbaugh's column goes on in this vein, hitting the usual ID talking points. As many other's have noted, right-wingers are remarkably good at staying on message. So Limbaugh repeats the tired old tropes about there being a bias against ID among academics, that ID folks just want to have a fair and open debate, and that ID is gaining steam as a scientific theory. All of it is nonsense, but that does not matter. In his role as a spokesperson for modern conservatism, Limbaugh works unencumbered by the need for basic accuracy.

Wanna See My Cats?

Just follow this link! Aren't they cute?

Monday, January 10, 2005

Gingrich on God

Also in today's Washington Post is this short article about Newt Gingrich's forthcoming book. This paragraph caught my eye:


Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says he “got fed up with people who argue that somehow the concept of the creator wasn't central to how the Founding Fathers understood America.” So in a book being published today, he includes a 19-page “Walking Tour of God in Washington, D.C.,” cataloging references to the Bible, Moses and a heavenly father on the Capitol, monuments and memorials.

“In the last 30 years, you had this politically correct delegitimizing of God in American public life, which I think is a denial of the core of American civilization,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday.


I am certainly persuaded that many of the Founding Fathers believed in God, and viewed the world in a way that was influenced by that belief. But the fact remains that they did not include a single reference to God in the constitution, and mentioned religion only in the context of not imposing religious tests on people. Had they wanted to make America a Christian nation, they had their chance.

Describing theism as the core of American civilization is the sort of delusional overstatement that really ought to relegate Gingrich to Cranksville. Surely the ideas of representative democracy and individual freedom have far more to do with American civilization than does God-belief.

And please do not tell me that it was their deep Christian faith that led them to realize the importance of representative democracy and indivudal freedom. The fact is that every Christian government that preceded them thought that Christianity implied tyranny, despotism, and the oppression of non-Christians. The Founding Fathers chose to create a representative democracy because a few moment's thought shows that such a system provides the best hope for creating a stable, just society. They had seen the alternatives and did not like them.

Science and Politics

Roger Pielke Jr. is the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado. In today's Washington Post he offers these thoughts on the subject of the politicization of science advisory panels.

Let's consider a few excerpts:


The Bush administration has been hammered over the past few years by accusations that it is “politicizing science,” especially through the practice of stacking advisory panels with political partisans. For instance, in 2002 a professor at the University of New Mexico claimed that an invitation to join the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse was rescinded when he failed to express to an agency official his support for President Bush.

An accumulation of such experiences has led to a number of investigations and reports on the process for selecting members of federal science advisory panels. These panels provide scientific input to the government on issues ranging from environmental standards to regulation of prescription drugs. But the apparent solution to this problem -- to cleanly separate science from politics -- is impossible, and the commonly prescribed cure for current abuses is worse than the disease.


It might be true that it is impossible for an individual to completely separate his political views from his interpretation of scientific evidence, but that isn't really the issue here. There is such a thing as the scientific community, and when that community comes to a clear consensus on important issues the people advising the president should not be drawn solely from the minority side.

The problem isn't simply that Bush has been stocking his panels with political conservatives. It is that he is doing so for the specific purpose of hearing only what he wants to hear. The example Pielke provides is a good illustration of this. Another example is global warming. The clear consensus among scientists is that global warming is real and that human actions are partly to blame for it. Bush finds this message unappealing. So he stacks his panels with people who will tell him that actually global warming is a lot of nonsense. He is using his panels to provide scientific cover for political actions he wishes to take, and not to provide unbiased advice regarding scientific issues.


A November report of the nation's leading nongovernmental science advisory body -- the National Research Council (NRC) -- recommended that presidential nominees to science and technology advisory panels not be asked about their political and policy perspectives. The NRC describes the political and policy views of prospective panelists as “immaterial information” because such perspectives “do not necessarily predict their position on particular policies.” This “don't ask, don't tell” approach has been endorsed by Democratic decision makers, as well as by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) commented, “Once you begin letting politics get in the way of choosing scientists to offer expert advice, you corrupt the very process designed to get you good advice.”

But in fact politics is unavoidable in the empaneling process. The real question is whether we want to openly confront this reality or allow it to play out in the proverbial backrooms of political decision making.


Pielke is enamored of the idea that science and politics are hopelessly intertwined, but he never gets around to defending it. The fact is that scientists of different political persuasions routinely manage to come to an agreement about what the facts are about nature. The purpose of science adivsory panels is not to make policy, but to provide the administration with the information it needs to decide on what national policy ought to be. Pielke seems to think that the only options in that regard are left-wing fire-breathers or right-wing fire-breathers.

Again, I agree that politics and science can not be completely separated, but it is possible to do a far better job than the Bush administaration has done.

As for asking nominees about their political views, I'm not sure what Pielke has in mind. Take the advisory panel on drug abuse he mentioned earlier. What sorts of political questions should such a nominee be asked? What does “openly confronting” this reality entail?


In nearly every other area of politics, advice is proffered with political and policy perspectives at the fore: the Supreme Court, congressional hearing witness lists, the Sept. 11 commission, to name just a few. In no other area where advice is given to the government is it even plausibly considered that politics can or should be ignored. And while science is the practice of developing systematic knowledge, scientists are both human beings and citizens, with values and views, which they often express in public forums.


This is very silly. Pielke sounds like one of those post-modern critics of science who argue that science is just another myth, with no greater claim to truth than any other route to knowledge. His opening sentence says very clearly that providing science advice is just another area of politics. It is one thing to say that a person's political views influence the way he considers evidence. It is quite another to suggest that the way one arrives at an opinion about, say, abortion or tax policy, is the same as the way one arrives at an opinion on the reality of global warming. The former two examples have a lot to do with one's opinions on morality and justice. There is no “fact of the matter” when the question is the morality of abortion or the fairness of the progressive income tax. There is a fact of the matter when the question is global warming, and there is some hope of arriving at a definite answer by accumulating enough evidence.

Yes, I agree, scientists have values and views. But when a clear consensus emerges in the scientific community on some issue, you can't simply brush this aside as a political opinion.

The column continues in this vein, with Pielke refusing to address the real issue: That Bush is nominating people for these panels based on their political qualifications, and not on their scientific achievments. He also never tells us what should be done to address this problem. The closest he comes in his closing paragraph:


More important than the composition of scientific advisory panels is the charge that they are given and the processes they employ to provide useful information to decision makers. The current debate over these panels reinforces the old myth that we can somehow cleanly separate science from politics and then ensure that the science is somehow untainted by the “impurities” of the rest of society. Yet paradoxically, we also want science to be relevant to policy. A better approach would be to focus our attention on developing transparent, accountable and effective processes to manage politics in science -- not to pretend that it doesn't exist.


The opening of this paragraph is pretty good. It is pretty clear that Bush is stacking his panels with people who will allow their political convictions to dictate their scientific advice. Such people are not employing good processes to provide useful information to decision makers.

But I have no idea what he means by “managing politics in science.” For that matter, he never actually takes a stand on the merits of the criticisms levelled against the Bush administration in this regard.

While I was Away

Phyllis Schlafly weighed in with this standard bit of creationist insanity. It's a standard cut-and-paste job. One short excerpt should suffice to give you the flavor:


Many textbooks feature pictures of giraffes stretching their necks to feed high off of trees, but genetics and observed feeding habits disprove that as a basis for evolution of their long necks. Moreover, the striking beauty of the colored pattern on the giraffes illustrates that design, not merely usefulness, is what animates our world.


Had Schlafly read the commentary that accompanies those giraffe pictures, she would have noticed that they are there solely as an illustration of the now refuted notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In other words, they are there for their historical significance. There hasn't been a textbook in a hundred years that's presented “prolonged stretching” as the evolutionary mechanism behind the long neck of the giraffe. Usually such pictures appear for the purpose of contrasting Lamarck's ideas about evolution with Darwin's ideas.

Actually, as Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, a better argument against those pictures is that Lamack actually said very little about giraffes, and that his evolutionary theory was more sophisticated than the caricature often presented in modern textbooks. But that's a subject for a different day.

Normally this is the point where I would accuse the writer of deliberately lying. In this case, however, I suspect Schlaffly genuinely doesn't know any better. She knows she finds evolution objectionable on religious grounds, and that is enough.

As for the beautiful color of the giraffe indicating design and not natural selection, I would simply point out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Does the incredible ugliness of the common slug indicate that it was not designed by God? And does she have any basis for saying that the coloration of the giraffe does not serve some adaptive purpose?


EvolutionBlog Returns

Happy new year to all! Now that my recent travels have come to an end, EvolutionBlog will resume regular posting. In general I put up new material Sunday-Thursday. Sadly, the yahoos are as active as ever. I do not anticipate hurting for material...