Monday, May 16, 2005

Brief Blog Break

I will be heading to Minneapolis on Wednesday to participate in the HB Global Chess Challenge at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Should be fun!

Regular blogging will resume next week.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

In Happier News...

Happily, there are still some media outlets out there who care about truth and eloquence. CSICOP's Creation Watch site has just posted my second column. It's a condensed version of my researches into a blatant instance of quote-mining by William Dembski. Enjoy!

It's Official: The Truth Counts for Nothing!

So let me see if I have this straight. First Nature writes this ridiculous puff piece about my occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova. Then Slate presumes to lecture us about how creationism has evolved over the last few years and us blinkered scientist types haven't noticed.

Now The Washington Post writes this glowing profile of Phillip Johnson.

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, Johnson is the author of Darwin on Trial, the steaming pile of lies, distortions and ignorance that kicked off the modern ID movement roughly fifteen years ago. Somehow the fact that every major scientific assertion in that book was false, that Johnson routinely quoted scientists out of context and that he plainly did not understand the branches of science he was writing about didn't find it's way into the Post's piece.

Instead we get passages like this:


The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There's a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch. He pulls a dog-eared copy of a Post editorial out of his shirt pocket and reads aloud:


“With their slick Web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of 'intelligent design' -- a 'theory' that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution -- are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. . . . They succeed by casting doubt on evolution.”


The 65-year-old Johnson swivels his formidable and balding head -- with that even more formidable brain inside -- and gazes over his reading glasses at the reporter (who doesn't labor for the people who write the editorials).


Gives you the warm fuzzies, doesn't it?

The article does occasionally drag itself away from the arduous business of presenting Johnson as the simple country lawyer who, doggone it, just isn't convinced by all that ev-o-dence the academic pointy-heads keep throwing at him about evolution. Occasionally we get the other side:


William Provine, a prominent evolutionary biology professor at Cornell University, enjoys the law professor's company and has invited Johnson to his classroom. The men love the rhetorical thrust and parry and often share beers afterward. Provine, an atheist, also dismisses his friend as a Christian creationist and intelligent design as discredited science.

As for the aspects of evolution that baffle scientists?

“Phillip is absolutely right that the evidence for the big transformations in evolution are not there in the fossil record -- it's always good to point this out,” Provine says. “It's difficult to explore a billion-year-old fossil record. Be patient!”

Provine's faith, if one may call it that, rests on Darwinism, which he describes as the greatest engine of atheism devised by man. The English scientist's insights registered as a powerful blow -- perhaps the decisive one -- in the long run of battles, from Copernicus to Descartes, that removed God from the center of the Western world.


I don't know what fossil record Provine is looking at, but it sure seems to me that the fossils do indeed document quite a large number of big transitions. When we can arrange the fossils into a veritable flip-cartoon and practically watch our ape-like ancestors turn into human beings, or watch a reptile transform itself into a mammal, among other examples, I'd say the fossil record documents major transitions about as well as it theoretically can. And fossils are hardly the only line of evidence to suggest how the big changes occurred.

And, just in case Provine wasn't obsequious enough for you, here comes Stuart Kauffman:


Is it irrational to inquire if intelligent life is seeded with inevitabilities?

“Give Johnson and the intelligent-design movement their due -- they are asking terribly important questions,” says Stuart A. Kauffman, director of the Institute for Biocomplexity at the University of Calgary. “To question whether patterns and complexity, at the level of the cell or the universe, bespeak intelligent design is not stupid in the least. I simply believe they've come up with the wrong answers.”


People on my side of this really have to learn not to balance their criticisms of ID with corresponding bits of praise. Especially when it's totally undeserved praise. Who, exactly, thinks it's stupid or irrational to wonder whether the universe and everything in it is the product of a designer? I'm as hardcore an atheist as you're ever going to meet, but I think it's a perfectly reasonable question. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a scientist who thinks the question itself is stupid.

But what is stupid and irrational is the idea that any of the arguments the ID folks are presenting have any merit at all. The contribution of the ID folks to the public discourse is not simply to wonder whether God exists. Pretty much everyone since the dawn of civilization has wondered about the same thing. No, the only thing the ID's have contributed are a collection of spectacularly bad scientific arguments.

The article goes on like this. Towards the end we get a quote from Ken Miller, but it's too little too late.

As I've said before, there are countless scientists toiling away in labs, working their tails off to try to push back the frontiers of ignorance just a little bit. Virtually none of them will be profiled by The Washington Post.

If you want the Post to notice and be nice to you, it seems the way to do it is by writing sleazy dishonest books and finding a lot of right-wing donors to fund the promotion of your ignorance. That'll get you on the front-page of the Style section.