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Saturday, August 04, 2007

So the significance of Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution is beginning to be understood?

First Things top editor Richard John Neuhaus defends Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution, noting about Richard Dawkins' attack review in the New York Times,
You usually know that somebody is losing the argument when he loses his cool and resorts to bluster, abuse, caricature, and the invocation of authorities who agree with him. The New York Times Book Review, for reasons that surpass charitable explanation, gave Michael Behe’s most recent book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, to Richard Dawkins for review. Behe is a biochemist, author of Darwins Black Box, and a proponent of Intelligent Design. Dawkins is an atheist polemicist against religion, holds the ill-named Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is author of the God Delusion.

Dawkins begins by saying he feels "sorry" for Behe, whom he describes as the “poster boy of creationists everywhere.” Never mind that Behe is not a “creationist.” No less than three times in the review, Dawkins alludes to the fact that Behe’s colleagues in his university’s biology department have publicly distanced themselves from his position. The other biologists at Lehigh University disagree with Behe. It follows that he must be a nut. Further, “Behe is taking on Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J.B.S. Haldane, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith, and hundreds of their talented coworkers and intellectual descendents.” This is what is known as argument from authority.

Basically, Dawkins cannot answer Behe's findings about the inability of OBSERVED Darwinian evolution to do what he claims, so he is forced to resort to these rhetorical dodges. It should play well among older middle aged women who shock themselves with their opinions.

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Cambridge University hires fundamentalist nutcase

How could Cambridge possibly have hired a fundamentalist nutcase, Boston Globe columnist asks?:
DID YOU hear about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge University? This would-be instructor wasn't simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled "Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John." Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says "In the beginning," he determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely "intelligent design" but out-and-out divine creation. This applicant's writings on astronomy, for example, include these thoughts on the solar system: "This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being . . . He governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done."

Any actions are justified to get rid of this nut, right?

Go here to find out who the nutcase is.

Tenure: A dull dog's idea of heaven?

ID-friendly astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who is appealing his tenure denial at Iowa State to the Iowa State Board of Regents, may have some ammunition in the form of an article in The Scientist by Frank L. Douglas, "Discrimination in Academia", blasting the tenure process.

Gonzalez, the ID-friendly astronomer associated with the Privileged Planet hypothesis, was denied tenure under circumstances that many have seen as viewpoint discrimination. Now, the editor says on behalf of Douglas,
Editor's Note: Frank Douglas resigned from senior positions at MIT earlier this summer, in the wake of the Institute's controversial denial of tenure to James Sherley, who staged a hunger strike in protest in February. In this piece, which will run in the October issue of The Scientist, Douglas describes his reasons for resigning, which go beyond the Sherley case. We're publishing it early online to spark a discussion of diversity on university campuses.

Readers are invited by The Scientist to comment on the case. In his own right, Douglas says,
On June 3, I resigned from faculty and administrative positions at MIT, effective June 30. I did so because I perceived an unconscious discrimination against minorities and because my colleagues and the institute authorities did not act on my recommendations to address these issues. The timing was such that many of my colleagues thought I was resigning over the case of James Sherley, who was denied tenure in 2004 and went on a hunger strike earlier this year in protest. But my decision was based on the complex, insidious nature of discrimination in a university context.

Not to worry, Frank. Lots of people would understand. But here's something really interesting:
A key player in starting the mischief was Nancy Hopkins, about whom I wrote last year,
In an analogous situation, Larry Summers, a key project backer, lost his own presidency last year for nothing more than pointing out that women are not as well adapted to the hard sciences as men.

That fact is massively overdetermined by evidence, but what does evidence matter in the face of a demand to demonstrate a politically correct proposition rather than a factually based one?

Indeed, one phase of Summers' difficulties over his remarks on women in science provides a sobering lesson as to what to expect from the Harvard OoL project.

Biology prof Nancy Hopkins walked out of Summers' talk, proclaiming that his remarks made her sick. Specifically, she told The Globe ,that if she hadn't left, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up."

Now, ... what if a hard science guy announced that challenges from his colleagues cause him to nearly black out or throw up unless he can just walk out on them? Should he be given a demanding chair? For that matter, which of the ID theorists is having a nervous breakdown because of remarks made by the adult toddlers over at the Thumb? People do not have to be tough in order to survive (it often pays better to be nice, actually), but they do have to be tough in order to survive certain types of positions.

I guess American academics need to decide if they want to live on their knees, and if the latter, to kneel to just everyone who gets sick or throws a fit?

(Note: I also wrote a series on peer review, why it often comes to be dominated by mediocrities whose mission in life is to swat down new ideas. A number of proposals for reform are under discussion.)

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Myths about science and religion: A little research saves a lot of apology

(This is my most recently published ChristianWeek column, focusing on stuff that religious people supposedly used to believe that no one ever believed (except maybe some gullible materialists). )

The ignorance and opposition to science of religious folk has been staple of antireligious tracts for centuries. Often, the tales remind me of bogus miracle stories - so good they can’t be false. Two recent examples are worth noting:

Religious folk, we have been told, opposed anesthesia in childbirth because women should suffer the Biblical curse of Eve (Gen 3:16). Medical historian A. D. Farr actually went to the trouble of methodically searching the literature from Britain in the 1840s and 1850s, when modern anesthesia during childbirth was first introduced. He found that religious opposition was a figment of later propaganda.

How did the idea get started, despite a lack of evidence? Well, now, that’s a story ....

Most clergy, theologians, and religious physicians approved the painkiller pioneered by Edinburgh professor of midwifery James Young Simpson in 1847. A few clergy feared that Satan was behind pain relief, but a key theologian (Chalmers) dubbed these dissenters as “small theologians” and advised ignoring them. Religious objections seldom turned up anywhere in Farr’s systematic search of the literature of the day.

Actually, lay women were more likely than clergymen to oppose anesthetics. Some unhappy women saw labor as the price girls ought to pay for the “joys of marriage.” But when Queen Victoria—the legendary soul of propriety—accepted anesthesia for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853, such objections came to sound unfashionable, and perhaps uncouth. Farr also suggests that the pioneer anesthetists unintentionally created the impression of a religious debate by writing tracts supporting anesthesia—though few actually opposed it.

How then did the idea that religious objections hindered the spread of anesthesia in childbirth become so widely believed that it became a staple of twentieth century accounts of the history of obstetrics? Mainly through unsupported statements.

First, a Simpson biographer referenced “religious objections” in 1873, without quoting evidence. Twenty-three years later, Simpson's daughter Eve made the same claim, but she did not cite any new evidence. In fact, as Farr notes, she was only 14 when her father died. Thus she was unlikely to be his confidante, hearing sensitive information that he withheld from others.

In 1896 American diplomat A.D. White claimed in History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom: “From pulpit after pulpit Simpson's use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abdundantly [sic], the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was ‘to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.’”

Of course, these events had not occurred. But in the right environment, unsupported statements mushroomed into indisputable factoids.

An antireligious factoid of more recent vintage held that the turn of the year 1000 A.D. was “a time of apocalyptic panic, fevered preaching, penitential excesses and, for the Christian faithful, ominous signs and wonders. Daily work was set aside and property, even family, abandoned as Christian Europe waited on both dread and hope for the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Call it the Y1K problem.”

Really? As Peter Steinfels—whose mocking purple prose is quoted in the preceding paragraph— reports (July 17, 1999, New York Times), there was no universal calendar back then, hence no general agreement about when midnight 1000 A.D. would occur. Many cultures did not begin their day at midnight. In any event, many parts of Eastern Europe were not Christian yet. No mass panic was even possible, let alone documented. The mass panic thesis entered popular imagination via anti-religious literature of the 19th century, written by people who probably knew little and cared less about the history of our current calendar, which dates only from 1582 and was not universally accepted until the 18th century.

Why raise these matters? Because I sometimes hear well-meaning Christians make excuses for “the ignorance of the Christian past” when in fact, the main problem is the ignorance of the Christian present So many of the anti-religious claims turn out to be myth that it is wise to disbelieve them all, until independently verified. Knowing the facts is always empowering, and it can even be reassuring.

*Farr, Senior Chief Scientific Officer for the North East of Scotland Blood Transfusion Service in Aberdeen, Scotland, published his paper in Annals of Science, 40 (1983), 159-177).

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Creationism and popular culture: A friend visits Kentucky's Creation Museum

The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology, be it noted, has denounced the recently opened Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky:
Dr. Catherine Badgley, a professor at the University of Michigan and president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, remarked, “according to the Creation Museum, the history of life is short, sin-ridden, and laden with moralizing imperatives. In contrast, the real fossil record shows that this long history is brimming with discoveries of new kinds of animals, plants, and environments, inviting people to use their unusual minds to question, to reason, and to wonder at life’s remarkable variety.”

Unusual minds? Interesting choice of words. But what on earth has happened to the Society for Invertebrate Paleontology? Why aren't they chiming in? Maybe next month. Never mind. The Creation Museum has just recorded its 100, 000th visitor, so it won't need the additional puff for a while ...

A thoughtful lawyer friend visited the Museum, following in the steps of a perceptive New York culture critic. He kindly sent me some thoughts:
I just visited the museum on Saturday. It was a zoo. We got there at 2:00 pm and were turned away for a lack of available parking. We finally got in around 2:30 and spent a good part of our time standing in long lines. The exhibits are very well done and have been designed for children and uneducated adults. The placards that describe the exhibits consist of very short sentences that make the points clearly and succinctly. The movies are first class with not only sound effects but vibration effects in seats and water sprinkling during the clip that explains the world wide flood.

My friend, who is well versed in issues around evolution and disagrees with most of the Museum's key interpretations of Earth's history, is particularly interested in issues of bias. He explains,
What I found interesting about the new Creation museum is that it very clearly explains the preconception used and makes no attempt to assert that its presentation is unbiased. It is an honest statement of an effort to reconcile biblical explanations with the observed data. You will never find this candor in the evolution museums. An observer knows up front that this interpretation is based specifically on a religious text. The museum also addresses the moral implications of a world guided by human reason rather than the moral and ethical principles and wisdom found in the Bible. This take home message is riveting.

He contrasts that with the assumption of materialism that underlies the taxpayer-funded museums - an assumption not shared by most museum-goers in the United States:
Glaring omissions render evolution museums that are popping up around the country extraordinarily misleading. Misinformation and deception is based primarily on omission rather than explicit misrepresentation. Most of what is said in the evolution museums is probably true. It is just misleading because of an extraordinary body of relevant information that is not included.

What I would like to see is an origins museum that simply presents a complete set of the material evidence relative to the issue of origins that is necessary for a reasonable member of the public to make an informed decision about the matter. So far, I am not aware of any museum that does this.

I am glad that my friend is a patient man. I expect he will wait a long time. So far, the publicly funded museums' response has been to give docents (guides) training in dealing with the objections of visitors and to develop new exhibits promoting their view, sometimes with a hard sell.

This should not be surprising, because as historian Michael Ruse (himself a Darwinist) notes,
Evolution after Darwin had set itself up to be something more than science. It was a popular science, the science of the marketplace and the museum, and it was a religion—whether this be purely secular or blended in with a form of liberal Christianity … When believers in other religions turned around and scratched, you may regret the action but you can understand it—and your sympathy for the victim is attenuated. (Michael Ruse, The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debates (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2000), p. 114.)

It's worth noting that the Creation Museum was built with private, not public, funds. We are in an interesting phase in popular cultural history, to be sure: American museum goers are compelled by law to fund the Darwinists' side of the story, however dodgy. Those who dissent respond by building - at their own expense - a museum to tell their side, do the public a service by making their religious agenda clear to all.

Museum not particularly friendly to intelligent design

Also from my friend's report, the Creation Museum:
... is not particularly friendly to ID. I saw no evidence of the bacterial flagellum or of the work of [key intelligent design theorists] Michael Behe or Bill Dembski. I had to go through the entire book store to find an ID video and finally stumbled on Unlocking the Mystery of Life.

Let's see, Unlocking was published in 2002, and was soon overshadowed by the controversy surrounding its stable mates, Privileged Planet and the clearly religion-directed Case for a Creator . Obviously, the Creation Museum isn't going to any trouble to stock ID materials if it missed the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Privileged Planet.

Thus, an interesting pattern is shaping up: The paleontologists greatly help the Creation Museum by denouncing it - making far more sympathizers aware of it than Answers in Genesis could afford to reach from its own resources. Then the creationists in turn help the ID theorists by making clear what creationism is and what it is not. Creationism is about the BIBLE, see? It's not about intelligent design theories like Behe's* Edge of Evolution or Dembski's design inference.

Anyway, here is a series of private photos taken by an unsympathetic source that give you some idea what's inside.

Would I go to the Museum, given the opportunity? Of course. In a heartbeat. Just as I would go to a Museum of the Medieval Worldview and a Museum of the Materialist Worldview. I love cultural history. ANd I think the Cration Museum is valuable for clearly distinguishing what creationism is and what culture sustains it, separating it from the broader question of intelligent design of the universe or life forms.

*Behe, for what it is worth, is not in any sense a creationist. For example, in Edge of Evolution, he argues for common descent of humans and chimpanzees. (But note his key point: Common descent does NOT necessarily mean that we can go from goo to zoo to you by the means that Darwin and his heirs put so much faith in - in fact, the evidence is actually against that. His is a very unpopular finding among Darwinists, to be sure, but it is not evidence for the creationism promoted by the Creation Museum my friend visited.

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Service Note

I haven't been blogging for a couple of days because I was writing a proposal for a new book (none of the ones below, which are in print or nearly so). More on the new one later:

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?, or my book of essays on faith and science topics, Faith@Science: Why science needs faith in the 21st century (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2001). You can read excerpts as well.

My other blog is the Mindful Hack, which keeps tabs on neuroscience and the mind.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

NEW!! My review of Mike Behe's Edge of Evolution

Evolution in the light of intelligent design - look up intelligent design topics here.

Animations of life inside the cell, indexed, for your convenience.

Anti-God crusade ... no, really! My recent series on the spate of anti-God books, teen blasphemy challenge, et cetera, and the mounting anxiety of materialist atheists that lies behind it.

Catholic Church A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

Collins, Francis My review of Francis Collins’ book The Language of God

Columnists weigh in on the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

Darwinism dissent Lists of theoretical and applied scientists who doubt Darwin

Gilder, George A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

Intelligent design academic publications.

Intelligent design-friendly students should be flunked, according to bio prof Evolutionary biologist’s opinion that all students friendly to intelligent design should be flunked.

Intelligent design controversy My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy, or my talk on media coverage of the controversy at the University of Minnesota.

Intelligent design controversy timeline An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

Intelligent design and culture My review of sci-fi great Rob Sawyer’s novel, The Calculating God , which addresses the concept of intelligent design.

March of the Penguins A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

Origin of life Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.

Peer review My backgrounder about peer review issues.

Polls relevant to the intelligent design controversy A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

Stove, David O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

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