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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Deprogram from Darwin legends - free and fun!

I now have a chance to say more about retired Australian political science prof Hiram Caton's new Web site on the pious Darwin legends that currently infest popular media. (I first mentioned it here but couldn't follow up until now.)

Caton, a friend and associate of the late David Stove, author of Darwinian Fairy Tales, has done extensive research on the real story behind Darwin and his Origin of Species - and no, it is not the pious legends you will be hearing on public television.

Both Caton and Stove are recognized as agnostic philosophers with limited use for pious legends in science or religion (must be something in the air Down Under?) Anyway, here is Caton's beginning stab at hauling away the trash (and his deceased colleague would be proud):
^Belief that the Origin was a 'revolutionary' scientific breakthrough conflicts with the fact that public opinion was at the time saturated with the evolution idea. It was so widespread that in 1860 the showman P T Barnum put on display a freak, styled Zip the Pinhead, alleged to be the 'missing link' between apes and humans.

^The natural selection principle was first stated in 1831 by Patrick Matthew, and was independently discovered in 1836 by Darwin's naturalist colleague, Edward Blyth. Herbert Spencer came close to a formulation in 1852, and Alfred Wallace discovered it in 1858.

^The Origin did not found modern biology. By 1850 it was a thriving science whose leading men were Louis Pasteur, Claude Bernard, Rudolph Vircow, and Robert Koch. Darwin, a naturalist, was not involved in this research mode. Conversely, evolution was not a parameter of experimental biology.

^The Origin did not instigate a 'revolutionary' disruption of science from religious belief. That antagonism became a cultural force thanks to the French Revolution. By the 1830s, French and British radicals invoked evolution as a rebuttal of religious beliefs about God's creation.

By 1860 this position was widespread throughout Europe and Latin America. Conversely, numerous scientists and clergymen believed in the compatibility of science and religious faith. That includes the discoverer of the first quantitative biological laws, Gregor Mendel.

^The only practical application of Darwinian theory with potential cultural impact was eugenics, devised by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton. Three of his sons were dedicated to the eugenics cause, and one of them, Leonard, was the patron of a key figure in the creation of neo-darwinism, R A Fisher, as well as President of the Eugenics Society
Dr. Caton tells me that his Web page, Whither Progress? on "Major Changes in Evolution Theory" is almost finished, and thanks me for reporting his views accurately, noting
I believe that you know that I don't believe that the extensive revisions and corrections of Neo-Darwinism imply rejection of evolution; rather the improvement of our understanding of it.
Yes, I got that. He argues that " ... the Modern Synthesis is obsolete, and that a new grasp of evolution is in the making, has been argued by numerous authors. My purpose here is to highlight some major innovations that have transformed evolution science.", which he does. Darwintrolls, this is not for you. Serious thinkers, have a look.

Check out his deprogram from Darwin legends here.

Dr. Caton also writes me to record, for historical purposes, the response of one much-feted "religious" Darwinist,
Among the responses I've had from my mailouts is one from a prominent evolutionary biologist , who is giving a paper on Darwin and religion at the Duquesne University Darwin celebration in November 2009. He wrote:

"Your synopsis says a number of truths, but they may amount to half-truths, since they seem to me to miss (but not only) what is the most important contribution of Darwin to the history of ideas: that he completed the Copernican Revolution by bringing the design of organisms into the realm of science. At a non-technical level, I elaborate this notion in my recent Darwin's Gift to Science and Religion (Joseph Henry Press, 2007)."
Caton then offers his response:

Good morning Professor!

Thanks very much for responding to my email. I'm aware that you are among those to whom my evidence is in opposition. Specifically, I maintain that Darwin was but one in a long line of naturalists and experimental scientists whose study of living nature was based entirely on natural causes. In 1859, the British and American public had been exposed to the evolutionary naturalism of Herbert Spencer and the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

Commentators such as Ernst Mayr dismiss Vestiges as romantic garble of no scientific significance. That view was also expessed by some scientists of the time, e.g., Herschel and Sidgwick.

Nevertheless, Vestiges presented what was for many (e.g. the young Alfred Wallace, Abe Lincoln) a convincing argument that living nature could and should be explained entirely on natural principles (documented in Secord's Victorian Sensation).

Furthermore, there was an extensive purely naturalistic evolution literature, mostly in French, from 1790--1840, documented by Corsi, The Age of Lamarck).

On p. 159 of your book you write: "Indeed, a major burden was removed from the shoulders of believers when convincing evidence was advanced that the design of organisms need not be attributed to the immediate agency of the Creator, but rather is an outcome of natural processes." Perhaps today (not all believers would agree), but not historically. In 1864 Pope Pius IX decreed the Syllabus of Errors. Eighty errors are enumerated under ten headings: Pantheism, Naturalism, and Absolute Rationalism; Moderate Rationalism; Indifferentism and Latitudinarianism; Socialism, Communism, Secret Societies, Biblical Societies, Clerico-Liberal Societies; Errors Concerning the Church and Her Rights; Errors about Civil Society, Considered Both in Itself and in its Relation to the Church; Errors Concerning Natural and Christian Ethics; Errors Concerning Christian Marriage; Errors Regarding the Civil Power of the Sovereign Pontiff; Errors Having Reference to Modern Liberalism. Under the last three headings, the encyclical deals extensively with varieties of the demand for separation of church and state. Under the first heading, the first six errors are:

1. There exists no Supreme, all-wise, all-provident Divine Being, distinct from the universe, and God is identical with the nature of things, and is, therefore, subject to changes. In effect, God is produced in man and in the world, and all things are God and have the very substance of God, and God is one and the same thing with the world, and, therefore, spirit with matter, necessity with liberty, good with evil, justice with injustice. - Allocution "Maxima quidem," June 9, 1862.

2. All action of God upon man and the world is to be denied. -- Ibid.

3. Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations. -- Ibid.

4. All the truths of religion proceed from the innate strength of human reason; hence reason is the ultimate standard by which man can and ought to arrive at the knowledge of all truths of every kind. -- Ibid. and Encyclical "Qui pluribus," Nov. 9, 1846, etc.

5. Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to a continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the advancement of human reason. -- Ibid.

6. The faith of Christ is in opposition to human reason and divine revelation not only is not useful, but is even hurtful to the perfection of man. -- Ibid.

Notice that Evolution is not one of the ten headings. Nowhere in this document is evolution or Darwin mentioned. Nowhere. So according to the Church, not Darwin, but pantheism, naturalism, and absolute rationalism should be credited for freeing believers from the burden you mention.

Dr. Caton also advises me that
Several other mailout recipients have identified errors in my history, but on inspection they turn out to non-errors, and of course I've responded as I did to (the) Professor.

His email persuaded me that my response to him should go up on the legend website in an expanded form. I'll also include the London Times obituary of Darwin. It's a long-very long-eulogy whose extravagance is matched only by praise of Stalin and Mao. Darwin is the greatest scientist and thinker of all times, &c &c. He's so great that the writer doesn't even compare him with anyone else--except Newton, who, of course, he excels.
Well, Dr. Caton, the BoBos need a god and I guess his name is Darwin.

Anyway, if you have read this far, check this out.


Science education: Yawn Central ... oh, no, wait! This just in ....

In an American election year, the science lobby worries that many people don't know enough about science to make informed decisions, according to G. Jeffrey MacDonald ("Are we science-savvy enough to make informed decisions?", USA Today, August 8, 2008):
... only 26% believe that they themselves have a good understanding of science. And 44% couldn't identify a single scientist, living or dead, whom they'd consider a role model for the nation's young people.

These results are disturbing, science education experts say, because scientists aren't the only ones who must distinguish solid scientific methods from bogus ones. Some important scientific questions are being debated this year, including food safety, imported-product safety and the effect of biofuels.
But most of their recommended solutions won't be much use because people either can't or won't follow them. I think a Media Studies course would be more useful - if it improves skill in distinguishing how information becomes "news" and how to distinguish hype from hope.

Meanwhile, another round of kvetching about "why American kids don't like science", this time featuring Mr. Microsoft himself. Bill Gates, according to Peter Wood at, offers a solution:
... while Gates didn't make the point in so many words, his call for more H-1B visas was really testimony to the incapacity of American education to inspire children to take an interest in science and motivate young adults to follow though. He noted that 60 percent of the students at the top American computer-science departments are foreign-born.
Woods comments,
Let me offer a different explanation. Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market's demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off - often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren't very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, "Why bother?"

- How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science (August 8, 2008)
Well, East Coast American lawyer Edward Sisson, a sympathizer of the intelligent design theorists - who told me to go ahead and say so - couldn't resist giving Wood's article a "thrashing" and invited me to print his comments here. Done!
As the father of two teenagers, I make a point of watching the TV shows they like, while I am with them. What they watch are shows in which sports stars show off their fancy houses ("cribs") and fancy cars and swimming pools etc. Or else they watch shows set in high schools, in which the students are never shown studying, they are shown in their social lives (always dynamic) and sports, and in lives filled with family conflicts and friends-conflicts. Or they watch shows like America's Next Top Model (fashion modeling) or Project Runway (fashion clothes design) or other competition talent shows (American Idol (pop singing) being the premiere example). Or shows like The Apprentice (business entrepreneurs) or Top Chef (high-fashion cooking). In summary, shows involving young people engaged in emotionally passionate activities. If the science community can come up with a way of making a show that shows young would-be scientists or engineers involved in exciting competitions, it ought to do so.
Woods noted,
Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years. Students usually have to catch the science bug in grade school and stick with it to develop the competencies in math and the mastery of complex theories they need to progress up the ladder. Those who succeed at the level where they can eventually pursue graduate degrees must have not only abundant intellectual talent but also a powerful interest in sticking to a long course of cumulative study. A century ago, Max Weber wrote of "Science as a Vocation," and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.
Sisson replies,
The TV shows I described above sometime show the fruits of success for people who are successful in those fields: sports stars' fancy houses, cars, etc.; the lives of fashion models or fashion clothes designers or pop singers or business entrepreneurs. If the science community can come up with a way of making a show that shows that successful scientists or engineers are rewarded with exciting lives, it ought to do so.
Woods notes,
At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn - and worse, fail to develop as "whole persons" - if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren't among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who "feel good" about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.
Sisson replies,
This is false. The TV shows teens like are full of emotional moments where someone is told he or she does not measure up on the merits and has to leave. I have never met a teenager -- and I meet lots, having both a teen boy and a teen girl -- who has an over-assessment of his or her abilities due to undue praise from parents or teachers, or who feels that he or she does not need to work hard at "intellectual ascents" because he or she has already achieved an "intellectual ascent."
Woods notes,
The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences. Modesty? Yes, for while talented scientists are often proud of their talent and accomplishments, they universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most-unyielding standards of inquiry. That willingness to play by nature's rules runs in contrast to the make-it-up-as-you-go-along insouciance that characterizes so many variants of postmodernism and that flatters itself as being a higher form of pragmatism.
Sisson replies,
The comment immediately above applies here too. The self-praise of scientists who "universally subscribe to the humbling need to prove themselves against the most unyielding standards" far better describes every high-school jock who wants to excel in sports.
Woods notes,
The aversion to long-term and deeply committed study of science among American students also stems from other cultural imperatives. We rank the manufacture of "self-esteem" above hard-won achievement, but we also have immersed a generation in wall-to-wall promotion of diversity and multiculturalism as being the worthiest form of educational endeavor; we have foregrounded the redistributional dreams of "social justice" over heroic aspirations to discover, invent, and thereby create new wealth; and we have endlessly extolled the virtue of "sustainability" against the ravages of "progress." Do all that, and you create an educational system that is essentially hostile to advanced achievement in the sciences and technology. Moreover, those threads have a certainty and unity that make them not just a collection of educational conceits but also part of a compelling worldview.
Sisson replies,
Again, false. Only a minority of students make social politics their priority, and the students who have a personality prone to want to get into social activism are unlikely ever to choose the very different kind of life offered by science. Much of this article devolves into denunciation of liberal social trends in education. Regardless of whether you like those trends or not, I see no relationship between those trends and the decisions of students not to pursue lives in science.
Woods notes,
In his testimony, Bill Gates did more than glance at the failures of American schooling. Our record on high-school math and science education is particularly troubling. International tests indicate that American fourth graders rank among the top students in the world in science and above average in math. By eighth grade, they have moved closer to the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, our students score near the bottom of all industrialized nations. As a result, too many of them enter college without even the basic skills needed to pursue a degree in science or engineering.
Sisson replies,
Again, false. This is not a failure of schooling, the decline over the years between 4th grade and 12th grade reflects the fact that higher and higher percentages of each class of students learns, over the years, how comparatively dry and un-passionate and un-remunerative a life in science is as compared to other paths of life in America, fewer and fewer see any reason to prepare for a kind of life they just don't want to lead. Is not the Dilbert strip a fairly accurate portrayal of the quality of life most such students would lead, if they took that path? Why would we expect any student to want to grow up to be Dilbert?
Woods notes,
On the other hand, nothing in his testimony suggested recognition that American education's cultural imperatives play a role in diminishing the importance of science and technology in the eyes of the great majority of students. I don't take it as a tragedy if our top graduate programs fill up with ambitious and talented students from abroad; if we need to issue more H-1B visas to sustain our high-tech industries, let's do it with dispatch. Welcoming some of the world's most educated, talented, and ambitious scientists to our shores only strengthens the nation. But the apathy of so many homegrown American students to the intellectual challenges of science is something else - something that building schools, multiplying computers, and ginning up STEM programs won't touch.
Sisson replies,
For foreign students, Dilbert's life may well be better than any other option they can see for themselves. Not so for American students.
Woods notes,
Bill Gates may not be the right person to tell us how to restore that mixture of awe, admiration, sheer ambition, delight in meeting difficulties, and stubborn curiosity - the patient exuberance - that draws students into the adventure of science. A few of our students catch it despite the preoccupations of their teachers and their textbooks. But what to do about the larger problem? I'm starting my own Hilbert's list [of unsolved math problems].
Sisson replies,
American students do not believe science is an adventure. They think it is Dilbert's life. If it really is an adventure, why aren't there TV shows that show what an adventure it is? If America can make a show that makes fashion clothing design an adventure, America can make a show that makes science an adventure. If, in fact, it is.

The biggest problem here is that the promise of science-as-an-adventure, as promoted in the 1950s and 1960s, plainly failed. The big impetus for American science education was Sputnik and the space race. I have a colleague who remembers that era vividly -- he was in grade school and suddenly science was all the rage. This was the great driver of science education in America: the exploration of space. Well, we went to the moon-- and, in the public's opinion, there wasn't anything exciting there. We sent fly-by probes to all the planets, and again there wasn't anything exciting, as far as the public is concerned. We landed two rovers on Mars - and the most exciting thing about this achievement is our own rovers, and how long they have lasted. What the rovers actually saw, and explored, wasn't exciting. Now we have a Mars digger, and it's finding water ice. Exciting?

No. From the late 1700s through to the early 1900s people thought there were vast water canals, there could be civilizations -- so a little ice is not exciting, it is a big let-down. And now it appears perhaps the soil there is antagonistic to life.

And, of course, to turn to our key issue, the science world repeats endlessly that life bubbled-up out of mud or other matter, and its course of development into us was a giant accident, and there is no reason to pay any attention to any idea of God -- and then they put the label "isn't this exciting" on a picture of the world and of us that is as desolate and boring as the surface of the Moon, or the surface of Mars. And believe me, the public does find them boring.

My area's cable TV provider includes the NASA channel. It has zero production values. Endless long sequences out the shuttle window of earth below. Nerdy astronauts in dorky clothes describing how they turn knobs and so forth. The public just doesn't see any adventure in this. That isn't the fault of the schools, it is the fault of the fact that what science has actually discovered doesn't excite, and the process of discovering it conveys no adventure.

When you're in the broccoli business you can spend hours telling people that broccoli tastes as fun as ice cream. But folks, it doesn't. If you're selling broccoli to a community that otherwise has only rice or potatoes to eat, you may get a lot of satisfied customers. But in America, science is a broccoli stand surrounded by ice cream parlors. That's the reality.
I think Sisson is on to something there, on at least two points:

Foreign students: Yes, absolutely. As a Canadian, I get nervous when I hear Americans bellyaching about the number of "foreign" students at their universities (I know they mean my #1 son-in-law, among others, even if they are too polite to spell it out). But getting into a posh US U is a vital career asset to many foreign students, one for which they will sacrifice much. And a career in science is of much more use if you need to provide for your family than a career in art history would be. So it's not exactly a choice anyway.

Science as dullness raised to an art form: Does anyone remember the scene in Mrs. Doubtfire where the Robin Williams character points out that the kids' science show currently airing is just awful? As Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin transforms the show, and it takes off.

But yes, all too many science shows do sound like Dr. Snore the Science Bore rather than the wonderful March of the Penguins. But whoops!, March was accused of being an ID-friendly documentary, and the producers went to the trouble of denying it, pointing out that, after all, penguins are not faithful to their spouses. ...

So here we are, folks, at the crack of Yawn ...

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When science becomes oppressive religion: Do they use propane instead of faggots for the stakes?

David Rice III draws my attention to “Science: A Religion Unto Itself” (08/12/2008) in the Bulletin (Philadelphia) by Sense of Duty author Michael P. Tremoglie, reflecting on what happens when science becmes a dogmatic religion. Noting that "The smug attitude of the liberal intelligentsia about "scientific theory" is rather shocking when given the mutability - and fallibility - of "scientific theories," he cites a number of hilarious examples of top scientists getting it all wrong. He recalls for us the fate of an Expelled scientist:

One of the most sterling examples of the hatred the scientific community possesses for the nonconformist - and for those who dare to mention Intelligent Design - is that of Richard Sternberg, who was burned at the stake, metaphorically, by the scientific community.

Mr. Sternberg, an evolutionary biologist with two doctorates in biology, was thought to defend Intelligent Design, when, as editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, he published, in 2004, a paper making the case for ID.

Soon afterwards a campaign began against him by Smithsonian scientists, where Mr. Sternberg was a research associate. "They were saying I accepted money under the table, that I was a crypto-priest, that I was a sleeper cell operative for the creationists ... I was run out of there," a Washington Post article quoted Steinberg.

A congressional investigation confirmed this. They examined e-mail traffic from scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and noted, "retaliation came in many forms ... misinformation was disseminated through the Smithsonian Institution and to outside sources. The allegations ... were later determined to be false."

Sternberg's crime was that he took the evidence for design in our universe seriously, instead of trying to explain it away, as all his colleagues were busy doing. But the Smithsonian has a history of that which goes back a long way.

See also: The Smithsonian secretary vs. the Cambrian explosion (Yes, they hid the evidence for many years.)

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