Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I rorschach my colleagues

While verbing an eponym

The math professors in my department are a diverse group of people, so you can't expect them all to react in the same way. However, we do all have an affinity for math in common, so should we all respond in like manner to a cartoon with a math-based punch line? Maybe—but we sure didn't.

I ran across this cartoon while noodling about the Internet. It's from Cyanide and Happiness, and this particular cartoon is by “kris”:

Did you find that amusing? I laughed aloud, printed it out, and carried it about the math department. Here's what my colleagues said when I asked them why it was funny (if indeed it was):
  • “Well, the idea of killing yourself if you don't know math.”
  • “Uh, I don't know. Is it funny?”
  • “It reminds me of my students.”
  • “Any joke about killing yourself is pretty funny.”
  • “I'll laugh at anything.”
  • “The idea that hanging yourself and going to a movie are okay alternatives to talk about.”
  • “I could tell I was supposed to laugh.”
  • “Yeah, he's bad at math, which is why he made the rope too long. He can't even measure things right! Should we tell our students that math skills are necessary to a successful suicide?”
I was disappointed. That last colleague was the only one who reacted the way I did. Yes, it's the dangling rope. Clearly that's the gimmick. One fellow instructor looked at the cartoon again after my explanation: “Oh, it's a visual joke. I didn't even look at the rope.”

Hey, guys, you have to take into account all pertinent information. That's what we tell our students, right? So: measure twice; hang once.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Headless experiment

Go ahead: Click on it

This came from Acephalous by way of PZ Myers. It's supposed to be an experiment in meme propagation. Coturnix says it's been done before, but I guess it's okay to repeat experiments. Click on the link to play the game—I mean, to participate in the scientific investigation.

Touch-a, touch-a, touch meme!

Monday, November 27, 2006

The heretic sniffer

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

In A flip of the Coyne I discussed the retirement of Father George Coyne as director of the Vatican Observatory. Coyne had sharply criticized a commentary by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn that appeared to boost intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. While Roman Catholics are required to believe that God created the eternal soul and infused it into the first human beings, Christianity's oldest and largest sect has tended to stay clear of the evolution versus creation debate. (Perhaps a lesson was learned in the aftermath of the Galileo affair.) John Paul II even went so far as to say that evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” but it looked like Schönborn was trying to scuttle back from the late pontiff's declaration.

Was Coyne, a mere Jesuit priest, forced to step down from the directorship of the Vatican Observatory as punishment for his boldness in criticizing a cardinal? The current pope is not thought to be as friendly toward science as his predecessor and Schönborn is supposedly one of Benedict XVI's favorites, lending some credence to the idea that Coyne was being disciplined. Father Coyne himself, however, declared quite simply that his retirement was his own idea, that he had been seeking to retire for some time, and that he was glad the Vatican had finally granted his petition to relinquish his duties at the observatory.

The situation was reviewed in detail in an article written by Charles Collins, an American writer living in Rome, and published in Inside the Vatican, a monthly magazine of Catholic orthodoxy and Church gossip. Collins quoted Coyne extensively and described Schönborn's espousal of intelligent design as a triumph for Seattle's Discovery Institute, to which he ascribed the genesis of the cardinal's critical statements on evolution.

Apparently Collins went too far. He and Father Coyne are now both at risk of suffering the soft cushions and comfy chairs of the inquisitors with nice red uniforms. The freelance heretic sniffers burst into the pages of the November 2006 issue of Inside the Vatican in the guise of Joseph H. Gehringer of New Jersey, who penned a furious letter to the magazine's editors:

This article in your October issue comes close to being the very worst article ever published in your magazine. And it is certainly the most dishonest and most misleading. It relies entirely upon falsehood, misrepresentation, omission, distortion, and the statements of a priest who has openly and repeatedly expressed heretical ideas on the issue. While pretending to discuss “intelligent design” and the relevant teachings of the Church, Mr. Collins totally distorts the issues and misleads readers on the teaching of the Church and of Pope Benedict XVI.

The most important and serious individual falsehood is Mr. Collins' claim that “Pope Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis that the Church does not forbid the teaching of evolution.” Neither in Humani Generis, nor anywhere else, did Pius XII say any such thing. What he did say comes close to the exact opposite! After discussing evolution and related issues in sections 35 to 38 of that encyclical, Pius XII—in section 41—declared: “We charge the Bishops and the Superiors General of Religious Orders, binding them most seriously in conscience, to take most diligent care that such opinions be not advanced in schools, in conferences or in writings of any kind, and that they not be taught in any manner whatsoever to the clergy or faithful.”

Since this is the only reference to “teaching” in the encyclical, it is obvious that the claim of Mr. Collins is an insidious falsehood.

Equally false, and equally significant (although for a different reason), is the claim of Mr. Collins that the essay of Cardinal Schoenborn “was sponsored by The Discovery Institute.” The reason for this falsehood is quite obvious: Mr. Collins is deliberately trying to confuse readers on two very separate and distinct ideas, each of which can be described by using the term “intelligent design.”

On one hand, The Discovery Institute is a purely secular organization, promoter of “intelligent design” as a “scientific theory,” with no connection whatever to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Cardinal Schoenborn's essay in The New York Times, and his subsequent commentary elsewhere, dealt entirely with the philosophical (and theological) concept of “intelligent design,” a belief in which is obligatory for Catholics. As Cardinal Schoenborn pointed out, the Catholic must believe in the “intelligent project which is the cosmos...”

Not one word about this teaching of the Church, or its presentation and defense by Cardinal Schoenborn and Benedict XVI, appears in the Collins article. Instead, he devotes more than half of his paragraphs to the scientific question of whether ID qualifies as a “theory.” In other words, the teaching of the Church on the concept of “intelligent design” is deliberately and completely distorted and ignored by discussing only a current “scientific” controversy.

Instead of quoting Cardinal Schoenborn, or Benedict XVI, or Pius XII, or other relevant Magisterial rulings, Mr. Collins devotes over one-third of his entire article to quotations of Fr. Coyne and comments about him. Of course, in line with his distortion of the real issues involved, he ignores a whole series of public statements by Fr. Coyne which are clearly contrary to Catholic teaching, and probably heretical.

Fr. Coyne tells us that Almighty God never “intervenes” in the cosmos. But this is a denial of the possibility of miracles. Why does Mr. Collins ignore this?

Fr. Coyne tells us that Almighty God is not “omnipotent.” But this is a denial of Catholic dogma. Why does Mr. Collins ignore this?

Fr. Coyne tells us that Almighty God is not “omniscient.” But this is another denial of a Catholic dogma. Why does Mr. Collins ignore this?

Fr. Coyne insists that the universe is the product of chance, necessity, and its own fertility. But this contradicts the teachings of the catechism, of John Paul II, and of Tradition. Why does Mr. Collins ignore this?

The Church teaches that everything which has ever existed owes its existence to the Almighty. But Fr. Coyne tells us, “To need God would be a very denial of God.”

In his article, Mr. Collins quotes the claim of Fr. Coyne that the original statement of Cardinal Schoenborn contained at least five errors. But the claim of Fr. Coyne is absolutely false.

Yet Inside the Vatican just blindly and stupidly repeats the false accusation of Fr. Coyne, never correcting any of its obvious errors. Are the editors of Inside the Vatican so theologically obtuse that they believe the falsehood that John Paul II's comment that “evolution is more than a hypothesis” is “a fundamental Church teaching”?

Such a claim is an obvious and blatant lie. Yet it appears—approvingly—in Inside the Vatican.

What has happened to your supposed interest in truth?

The real teaching of the Church, of course, is that the universe does reflect the Divine Intelligence. But that crucial concept is ignored. Instead we have falsehoods about Pius XII, Cardinal Schoenborn, and a total distortion of the significance of “intelligent design” in Catholic teaching.

In the homily quoted earlier, Benedict XVI made an observation that is obviously applicable to Fr. Coyne and Mr. Collins: “Some, deceived by the atheism they carry within themselves, imagine a universe devoid of guidance and order, as though a force at the mercy of chance.”

Joseph H. Gehringer
Manahawkin, NJ, USA
Since I have not recently read Pius XII's Humani Generis, I decided to take another look at its alleged proscription of evolution. In his diatribe, Gehringer noted that sections 35 to 38 discuss evolution and he further observes that section 41 abjures its readers “to take most diligent care that such opinions be not advanced in schools.” I'm curious about sections 39 and 40, of course, which intrude between the discussion of evolution and the stricture again “such opinions.” Shall we pin down the antecedent of “such opinions” a bit more precisely than Gehringer was wont to do? Here's the entirety of section 39, which talks about biblical exegesis and the admitted pre-existence of extra-biblical tales that appear to have been incorporated into scripture:
39. Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers.
Section 40 goes on to say that modern Catholic scholars in the universities and seminaries “are far removed from those errors.” Clearly, “those errors” relate to putting nonbiblical tales on an equal footing (for historical biblical analysis) with scriptural accounts (which are supposed to be divinely inspired). The next reference in section 40 is to “such new opinions,” after which section 41 strictly enjoins their promulgation.

Where did evolution go?

My purpose here is not to defend the Roman Catholic Church's position on evolution, which I do think is in danger of tipping back toward the antiscientific side under the influence of cardinals like Schönborn. Rather, I am dissecting a particular argument and attempting to show why it is doubtful—even in its own sectarian context. As a former Catholic, I do retain a measure of fondness for the Church's generally careful and frequently awkward relationship with science. After all, book burnings, cross burnings, and Scopes were all predominantly Protestant activities. Catholics tended to steer clear. And what other Christian sect sponsors a major observatory? What other Christian sect has a teaching order as sophisticated as the Jesuits (perhaps I should have been one)? In fairness, though, I must admit that the Church's attitude toward science is not wholly rational or benevolent in all areas (whenever sex is involved, of course, they all turn into gibbering buffoons).

The toothless Cardinal Fang

I did a little research to track down the identity of the unhappy Mr. Gehringer. It appears he is a published creationist with a number of attacks on evolution to his credit. Gehringer is represented on-line by a book review in which he specifically insists that a literal reading of Genesis is orthodox Catholic doctrine and by an essay titled The Myth of Evolution. Perhaps you get his drift. Both of these documents are part of the Living Tradition collection, a website that styles itself as an “Organ of the Roman Theological Forum.”

The Myth of Evolution is labeled with a July 2002 date, but it proves to be a classic compilation of hoary creationist talking points. Gehringer is a more elegant writer than most creationists, but he keeps the same bad company as all the others.
[E]volutionists frequently disagree among themselves, as do creationists. As a result, it is quite common to find creationists quoting evolutionist scientists to support their own arguments. In fact, creationists have published a number of books which rely almost entirely on quotations from evolutionists.
What is this but a tribute to quote-mining, a favorite creationist past-time? It's more propaganda than scholarship, but anti-evolutionists couldn't live without it. Gehringer certainly can't:
A number of famous evolutionists, including Gould and Eldridge, when speaking to other scientists, admitted that the fossil record does not support gradual evolution. But when their statements were used by creationists as an argument against evolution, they reversed themselves and claimed there were many transitional fossils....

Niles Eldridge: “paleontologists have been insisting that their record is consistent with slow, steady, gradual evolution where I think that privately they’ve known for over a hundred years that such is not the case.”

Did you get that? Gould and Eldridge tell the creationists they're wrong to try to use punctuated equilibrium to deny the existence of transitional forms and then they're accused of changing their story. But Gould and Eldridge were arguing that the rate of evolution was subject to periods of acceleration (their existence and degree still a point of discussion and disagreement among scientists), so that transitional forms were not as common in the fossil record as Darwin might have expected. They never argued that those forms were entirely missing. Eldridge criticizes the old paradigm of “slow, steady, gradual” evolution and is then enlisted by the creationists as an evolution denier—when all he is denying is a very specific model of the rate of evolution.

Gehringer then complains about the evolutionary development of the horse, takes a jab at Ernst Haeckel's drawings, the supposed “staging” of the British peppered moth evidence, and the allegedly unbridgeable gap between microevolution and macroevolution. It's all there, with the usual references to the usual creationist tracts (Evolution? The Fossils Say No! by Gish, Icons of Evolution by Wells (published by Regnery—automatically a sign of unreliability), Refuting Evolution by Sarfati, Of Moths and Men by Hopper, and the notorious Of Pandas and People by Davis & Kenyon). And don't worry, Gehringer remembers to cite both Piltdown and Nebraska Man! (But he forgets to mention that scientists—not creationists—figured out that Piltdown was a hoax and that Nebraska Man was a misidentification.)

Indeed, there is nothing new under the creationist sun. And there's nothing quite as fossilized as an old creationist argument—not even the Roman Catholic Church.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Republican legacy of cheating

A history of improbability

The narrative for Election 2006 is neatly in place: The Republican Party lost because it lost its way and became what it had opposed. Rush Limbaugh made this clear with his post-election confession that he would no longer need to “carry the water for people who I don't think deserve having their water carried.” His admission of hypocrisy aside (not surprising), Limbaugh's declaration made it clear that the GOP had fallen into error.

It's very sad, of course, to think that it took the Republican-led House of Representatives only twelve years to fall into the sink of corruption and hubris that took the Democrats forty years of hegemony and complacency to achieve. Of course, it takes time to break some promises. For example, there was no way Republican George Nethercutt could violate his pledge to serve only three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives until almost six years had gone by, after which he declared his candidacy for a fourth term (and later a fifth).

I would argue, however, that dishonesty is natural to the Republican Party, it being one of their defining characteristics. While the Democrats have their own sins to expiate (timidity being one; a disgracefully long dalliance with racism in their Solid South days being another), I claim that the GOP's history of dishonesty is bred in the bone, permeating root and branch. But that's okay, you see, because when you're the good guys, you are allowed to do whatever it takes to win. The “good guys” must win. Got it. Deus lo volt!

Have you ever noticed that the Republican Party is immune to the laws of probability? One might expect, all things being equal, that Lady Luck would bestow her largesse impartially on our two national political parties, but this has never been the case. When it comes down to actual cases, fluke after fluke favors the GOP. The catch, naturally, is “all things being equal,” which they never are. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell are examples of why the equal playing field is difficult to come by. As chief election officers for their respective states, both Harris and Blackwell worked tirelessly to maximize the Republican vote and disenfranchise as many potential Democratic voters as possible. (Both have finally paid for their sins in landslide defeats for statewide office.)

Oh, but these are just special cases, right? I mean, what about old Mayor Daley and the Chicago machine that helped deliver Illinois to JFK in 1960? What about Lyndon Johnson's improbable primary victory over Coke Stevenson in Texas in 1948? It would not be difficult to add to this list. Nevertheless, the Democrats have nothing to compare with the GOP's absolutely phenomenal ability to steal the White House from rightful Democratic victors. I've already alluded to Harris's role in frustrating the vote count in Florida so as to secure its electoral votes (and the presidency) for George W. Bush, even while Al Gore held a nationwide plurality of the popular vote and (quite likely) a narrow plurality of the Florida ballots. That was merely the latest example of the Republicans' penchant for stealing the presidency. Their grand tradition goes way back.

There have been three elections since the Republican Party came into existence in which the winner of the popular vote for president was not sworn into office. In every single case, the Republican candidate took the White House. Quite a remarkable sweep. But, you say, what about the Electoral College? After all, presidential elections in this country are not based on a direct vote of the people. While this is unfortunately true, the evidence of fraud and political manipulation is strong in all three contests.

I've already cited the fiasco of 2000, from which the nation continues to suffer. Let's look at the other two instances.


The manner of the election of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency resulted in his being popularly known as “Rutherfraud” Hayes or even “His Fraudulency.” To believe in the legitimacy of his election, you need merely accept the proposition that three southern states voted for a Republican less than a dozen years after the conclusion of the Civil War. Of course, it helped that U.S. troops still occupied much of the South.

Although Samuel J. Tilden, governor of New York and Democratic nominee for president, amassed a national vote total of 4,285,992 in contrast to the 4,033,768 votes received by Hayes, Republican office holders and political operatives immediately filed protests over the results in Florida (yes, good old Florida), South Carolina, Louisiana, and Oregon. After strenuous politicking and deal-making, a supposedly neutral commission set up to handle the disputes awarded all of the challenged electoral votes to Hayes, permitting him to eke out a one-vote majority in the Electoral College. Each vote in the commission was 8 to 7 in favor of Hayes, who thereby also picked up the unaffectionate nickname “Old 8 to 7.”


Only Franklin D. Roosevelt won more presidential popular elections than Grover Cleveland. Roosevelt won four terms, while Cleveland topped the balloting in three consecutive elections. As students of history know, however, he was sworn in only twice, for non-consecutive terms that make him the only man to figure twice in the presidential roster: Cleveland is both No. 22 and No. 24.

As for No. 23, that's Benjamin Harrison. In the election of 1888, Harrison pulled in only 5,440,216 votes to Cleveland's 5,538,233. In the Electoral College, however, Harrison garnered 233 to Cleveland's 168 and walked away with the presidency.

One key to Harrison's victory was New York state, which he carried by a narrow margin despite the fact that Cleveland was himself a New Yorker. Another was the redoubtable Matthew Quay, chair of the Republican National Committee. Harrison reportedly told Quay that he discerned the hand of Providence in his close-run election victory. This did not please Quay, who let off some steam later in the presence of reporters. Said Quay, “Think of the man! He ought to know that Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it.” So who did have a damn thing to do with it? Apparently quite a few behind-the-scenes operators. Quay said that the president-elect would “never know how many Republicans were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president.”


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Claremont tussles over ID

Evolving a right wing

The Claremont Institute in southern California is a bastion of originalists who not only know the founding principles of the United State of America, but believe we should go back to them. In practice, this point of view translates into a traditionally conservative agenda of limited government (unlike what passes for “conservative” in most quarters these days) and enhanced property rights. The Claremont Institute's quarterly publication, the Claremont Review of Books, carries the subtitle A Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship. Earlier this year, it tumbled into a food fight over evolution and intelligent design.

Some conservatives are quite aggrieved that so many of their brethren insist on linking right-wing political philosophy with creationism. James Q. Wilson, the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, took up cudgels against the notion that conservatives need be creationists when he wrote an essay titled Faith in Theory (Why “intelligent design” simply isn't science) for the Wall Street Journal:
When a federal judge in Pennsylvania struck down the efforts of a local school board to teach “intelligent design,” he rightly criticized the wholly unscientific nature of that enterprise. Some people will disagree with his view, arguing that evolution is a “theory” and intelligent design is a “theory,” so students should look at both theories.

But this view confuses the meaning of the word “theory.” In science, a theory states a relationship between two or more things (scientists like to call them “variables”) that can be tested by factual observations. We have a “theory of gravity” that predicts the speed at which two objects will fall toward one another, the path on which a satellite must travel if it is to maintain a constant distance from the earth, and the position that a moon will keep with respect to its associated planet....

The other meaning of theory is the popular and not the scientific one. People use “theory” when they mean a guess, a faith or an idea. A theory in this sense does not state a testable relationship between two or more things. It is a belief that may be true, but its truth cannot be tested by scientific inquiry. One such theory is that God exists and intervenes in human life in ways that affect the outcome of human life. God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.
There are no surprises here for the informed citizen who knows a little bit about the enterprise of scientific research and the standards of proof that accompany it. Wilson continues his essay by discussing such things as the religious motives of intelligent design advocates and design flaws in nature (the eye's “blind spot”) that suggest the absence of an intelligent designer. He was promptly taken to task, of course, by those ID sympathizers whose will to believe in a creator God makes them eager to embrace ID as scientific (and not a thinly veiled attempt to make fundamentalist religious dogma more respectable).

Henry V. Jaffa responded to Wilson in the Spring 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books in an essay titled Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?. He makes the perfectly obvious point that evolution is silent on the issue of God, so the faithful need not object to lessons on evolution in school, but then he says that intelligent design is equally neutral!
Professor Wilson is behind the curve of controversy on this topic, which has raged in recent years beyond the boundaries of the 19th-century debates—or of the absurd Scopes trial. There is, for example, nothing in Darwinian theory that excludes the possibility that natural selection is the means by which God created the species. It may be an act of faith to believe this, but it is no less an act of faith to deny it. There is therefore nothing in the logic of evolution, strictly speaking, that places it in opposition to the Bible. Hence there never was any compelling reason for Biblical fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of evolution; nor is there reason now for Darwinian fundamentalists to oppose the teaching of intelligent design.

While there is nothing in the theory of evolution that contradicts the proposition that this is how God created, there is also nothing in the theory of intelligent design—many intelligent design advocates to the contrary, notwithstanding—which necessarily implies a designer.
Jaffa thereby presents us with a designer-free theory of intelligent design. Having ticked off the large majority of IDists, he sums up his argument for his version of design:
The idea of goodness—what Plato called the idea of the good—must pre-exist any work to be called good. To call a work good, whether the work be by God, or man, or chance, implies a pre-existing design. But the design, in itself, is independent of the designer. How the world came to be may be a mystery. That man is a rational being is a fact which we take as a starting point. If this fact is seen as the end or purpose of the evolutionary process, then we must conclude that the stages of the evolutionary process were means leading to this end. We must conclude that evolution in itself is an account of the accomplishment of a grand design.
No, I don't quite follow it either. How did “purpose” get in there? What Jaffa is talking about is ultimately just a form of theistic evolution, a notion toward which many scientists are indifferent. As long as this God person doesn't keep interfering, then He's welcome to sit on the sidelines and let his minions try to give Him credit for the results.

The Summer 2006 installment of the Claremont Review of Books returned to the issue with a reply to Jaffa's criticisms by Wilson himself. Here is Wilson's rebuttal, in full:
Debating Intelligent Design

I am puzzled by my friend Harry Jaffa's objection to my Wall Street Journal essay on Intelligent Design, since I agree with his central argument: there is “nothing in Darwinian theory that excludes the possibility that natural selection is the means by which God created the species” (“Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?,” Spring 2006). Evolution rules out the possibility that God created each species one at a time but it does not rule out the possibility that God designed natural selection, infused mankind with a soul, or presides over an afterlife.

My objection to Intelligent Design is not that no Designer could exist, but that the advocates of Intelligent Design produce false arguments to support that Designer's existence. Their argument is that some biological phenomena display such “irreducible complexity” that evolution could not have produced them. As teams of biologists have shown, this is false. I.D. proponents are entitled, as is everyone else, to believe in God, but they are not entitled to create a misleading test of His existence. I doubt that I am “behind the curve” on this matter, since the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all said the same thing.

As the federal court in Pennsylvania showed in its lengthy opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover, I.D. supporters repeatedly argue that facts prove God's existence and thus evolution must be wrong. The court struck down the school board's requirement that I.D. be taught, on the grounds that this rule violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. I have some trouble with how courts interpret that clause, and no doubt Professor Jaffa does as well, but the clause, amply if sometimes weirdly supported by many Supreme Court decisions, governs public schools.

I tried in my essay to distinguish between two meanings of the word “theory.” In one case, a theory is a scientific prediction that can be tested by facts. In the other, a theory is an assertion based on faith or speculation. Darwinian evolution is a theory in the first sense, one that is amply supported by facts even though it cannot say very much about the existence of God. Intelligent Design is a theory in the second sense. Its advocates, like the Discovery Institute, wish “to defeat scientific materialism” and replace it with “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” (I quote from the Discovery Institute's “Governing Goals.”)

It is true that a debased and incorrect view of evolution was once used to allege that blacks are inferior. But a debased and incorrect view of religion has also been used to support dictatorial regimes. Evil exists, and we must defend human dignity against it. And even evolution can teach us something (but not everything) about what is good. Our human experience leads us to acquire a moral sense even if we are neither religious nor scientific.

James Q. Wilson
Pepperdine University
Malibu, CA
Wilson's letter to the Claremont Review of Books was accompanied by other reactions to his initial essay and Jaffa's rejoinder. The usual ID talking points appeared in various guises in a letter from Joseph M. Bessette of Claremont McKenna College:
I take it that Jaffa's point is that the actual scientific claims of Darwinian theory are irrelevant to the large questions of human purpose and the human good.... Although Jaffa may well be right philosophically, what seems to me incontestable is that over the past century-and-a-half Darwinian theory has eroded the claims of human dignity, human nobility, and free will. Certainly, many of the practitioners of modern science have reached just this conclusion.

Regrettably, in defending (a kind of) intelligent design, Jaffa, like many of those he criticizes, fails to recognize that there is a genuine scientific debate over the tenets of Darwinian theory. I do not mean the notion of descent with modification, an idea that precedes Darwin himself, but the claim derived from the 20th-century's neo-Darwinian synthesis that random mutations in the human genome combined with natural selection can account for the diversity of the living world. Biologists and chemists with respectable academic credentials challenge the argument that environmental selection pressures operating on random copying errors in the DNA molecule can produce fantastically complex molecular machines. Mathematicians calculate the unrealistically low probabilities for the events presumed by Darwinian theory, even over long timescales. Information theorists raise doubts about the power of random mutation and natural selection to account for the vast growth of complexity and information content in living beings since the first simple cell. Physicists and others point to the amazing “fine tuning” of the universe: the laws and constants of nature seem to be precisely what they have to be for life to exist.

... One track in the Intelligent Design argument explicates the mathematical basis for distinguishing chance occurrences from those caused by an intelligent actor.

The keepers of the Darwinian orthodoxy have succeeded, unfortunately, in convincing many that there is no genuine scientific debate over these matters. We are told that the debate is really one between modern science and biblical literalism, or, somewhat more charitably, that the debate is a metaphysical one outside the ken of science. Yet ever since the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species serious scientists have challenged the adequacy of mutation and natural selection to account for the living world. Serious scientists still do.
As usual, whenever someone cites the “genuine scientific debate” going on between evolutionists and IDists, there is the false implication of some kind of parity between the two sides. However, a membership directory of the National Academy of Sciences would be but a small portion of the evolution side of the debate and the roster of research associates of the Discovery Institute would be a whopping preponderance of ID's supposedly genuine scientists.

Speaking of the keen intellects of the Discovery Institute, the DI was represented in the ID discussion in the Claremont Institute's publication by none other than Jonathan Witt.
Harry Jaffa asks “Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?” and suggests it probably isn't the federal government, much less a low-level district judge in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Last winter, Judge John Jones ruled that mentioning Intelligent Design in the Dover, Pennsylvania, science classroom was impermissible. Many assume the ruling merely protects Darwin's theory of evolution from faith-based challenges in that school district. But the Supreme Court settled that issue 19 years ago. Judge Jones reached much further. He and men like James Q. Wilson insist that nature provides not “a shred of evidence” for design, and then set about denying students and teachers the freedom to discuss voluntarily not only design arguments in biology, but even design arguments that appeal to the Big Bang or the fine tuning of the laws of physics.

Intelligent Design is much broader than biology. I.D. holds that some features of the natural world are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause rather than to purely material causes. The idea stretches back to ancient Greece and has been updated by 20th-century discoveries in physics, cosmology, information theory, and the information revolution in biology. New evidence has reinvigorated it, and that's why some who oppose the idea want to minimize discussion of it. What's the solution? Don't mandate Intelligent Design. Don't label it a thought crime. Prof. Jaffa has the right prescription: mandate intellectual freedom.

Jonathan Witt
Discovery Institute
Seattle, WA
Witt dutifully repeats the Discovery Institute talking point that Kitzmiller is an act of censorship, forbidding even the “mention” of intelligent design. The decision actually, however, simply declares that ID is not a scientific theory and, as such, cannot be taught in a science classroom. A biology teacher in Dover is still able to mention ID—just as a geography teacher might mention the notion of a flat earth.

The lop-sided debate will undoubtedly continue.

Update: Pim van Meurs over at The Panda's Thumb cites a little-noted observation by Dembski that intelligent design need not always imply an intelligent designer. Perhaps this is where Jaffa got the notion. Check it out.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Quackery fact & fiction

It's only a novel

I have developed a fondness for the novels of Patrick O'Brian, a self-indulgent writer whose virtues outweigh his sometimes cavalier treatment of both his narratives and his readers. O'Brian is especially good reading for those who relish the artful use of language and the frequent deployment of playful vocabulary. As a word maven, I thus find that the Aubrey-Maturin novels suit my taste.

By a curious coincidence, this holiday week has been bracketed by matching bookends, one from O'Brian's fiction and another from the continually unrolling saga of my family history. The fiction is from the early pages of The Truelove, where Dr. Maturin is found taking Captain Aubrey to task:
‘Of course, as I have told you these many years, you eat too much, you drink too much, and you do not take enough exercise. And this bout I have noticed that although the water has been charmingly smooth ever since we left New South Wales, although the boat has rarely exceeded a walking pace, and although we have been attended by no sharks, no sharks at all, in spite of Martin's sedulous watch and mine, you have abandoned your sea-bathing.’

‘Mr Harris said is was bad in my particular case: he said it closed the pores, and would throw the yellow bile upon the black.’

‘Who is Mr Harris?’

‘He is a man with singular powers, recommended to me by Colonel Graham when you were away on your tour of the bush. He give you nothing but what grows in his own garden or in the countryside, and he rubs your spine with a certain oil; he has performed some wonderful cures, and he is very much cried up in Sydney.’

Stephen made no comment. He had seen too many quite well educated people run after men with singular powers to cry out, to argue or even to feel anything but a faint despair.
When Maturin finally persuades Aubrey to resume his swimming regimen, he promptly meets with disapproval from the crew members who know their captain was advised by the charlatan Harris to give over his saline ablutions. After all, Harris is known to be a natural healer, and what could be more—well—natural?

It's only her life

The matching bookend is also fiction, but not in the way you might expect.

My sister-in-law missed Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of the family. She stayed at home, suffering through her second week of abdominal distress. The illness finally overcame her reluctance to visit the family physician, who ordered up a CT scan and other medical exams, the results to be ready the day after Thanksgiving. We all heard at dinner that the early indications suggested one of three possible diagnoses: appendicitis (although not yet acute), diverticulitis, or a bowel-obstructing mass. The latter was the most worrisome, with its potential for malignancy.

The doctor's appointment was set for today (Friday) at mid-morning. I would be traveling back to northern California, but my mother promised me that she would call with the results of the tests as soon as she heard from her daughter-in-law. Noon came and went without a phone call. More hours ticked by until finally, hours later than expected, I got the anticipated call. The doctors had determined that my sister-in-law had a “mass” (as they discreetly termed it) that threatened occlusion of her bowel. Her physician recommended surgery to remove it and discover whether it was benign or malignant, after which they would know whether further treatment would be indicated.

The delay in transmitting this information to the rest of the family was occasioned by my sister-in-law's very natural decision to seek a second opinion. She promptly headed off to one of her favored medical practitioners for further evaluation. This practitioner peered into my sister-in-law's eyes (iridology, I presume) and informed her that there was a blockage in her colon (Oh, my, how did the practitioner know that?!) and that a series of enemas would clear it away in a matter of weeks. As one might have guessed, my gullible sister-in-law has decided to put off surgery until she's given the enema therapy a fair chance to cure her.

My brother's wife, a stupid, stupid woman (okay, ignorant then), thinks that masses that persist in the colon can be washed away. She is the target market for fraudulent colon-cleansing regimens that promise weight loss and health restoration by removal of pounds and pounds of uneliminated wastes. Real doctors know this is foolishness, but the charlatans make a nice living from it. In this case, the intestinal mass is going to be given a few more weeks to grow while a worthless nostrum is applied.

My sister-in-law is merely running true to form. Last year she warned my mother that flu shots are bad for you, whereupon my elderly mother decided not to have one. Who is stupider? The idiot giving uninformed advice or the dupe who takes it? My mother got gravely ill during flu season and this year she got her shot. Nevertheless, my mother is the one who defended her daughter-in-law's decision today by saying, “A lot of people say very good things about this woman She looks in your eyes and can tell what's wrong with you.” I nearly screamed at my mother over the phone, but my exhortations were a waste of breath.

My brother, a dutiful husband who is used to his wife's idiosyncrasies, is keeping his own counsel for the time being. My father is raging at his daughter-in-law's idiocy (so for once the old man and I agree on something).

I hope she's not killing herself. The brainless airhead.

Last skeptical will and doubtful testament

It's the new Skeptics' Circle!

While I was away on my Thanksgiving peregrinations, Jim Anderson at decorabilia published the 48th installment in the never-ending saga of Skeptics' Circle. Halfway There is twice named among the beneficiaries of Anderson's largesse. One citation is for Science envy, which presents the pseudoscientific maunderings of Hynek, Dembski, Pons & Fleischmann, and Gish. The other is for a commentary on a news item profiling a redoubtable dowser (whose explanation for dowsing does not invoke the usual mumbo-jumbo about electromagnetic fields—like an IDist, he just thinks God does it).

I presume that Anderson will now rest in peace after his laborious compilation of his terminal testament, but that doesn't mean that you should. Go check it all out!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Bush the Lesser

Cognomens and epithets

Many devout Catholics have adopted the epithet “Great” when referring to the late John Paul II. The reliably wacky Peggy Noonan is one, having titled a recent book John Paul the Great. Somewhat more respectable types have also weighed in, such as the founders of John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego.

Epithets and cognomens are found mostly in the pages of history books these days. We all have our personal favorites, such as Ethelred the Unready or Louis the Fat, but the one that always struck me most strongly was encountered in my catechism classes: James the Lesser. It seemed a particularly unkind designation.

James was unlucky enough to be numbered among a group of Christ's disciples—the twelve apostles—that included a more prominent James: the brother of the famously “beloved disciple” John. James and John were sons of Zebedee and the noisy pair was called the “sons of thunder.” Since there was obviously a James the Greater ranked among the apostles, it fell to the other James to end up as James the Lesser. Unlucky bastard. (Sometimes he is identified with James the Just, which is certainly a nicer title, but others believe that the two epithets describe different men.)

There are two main reasons to bestow epithets on individuals. There is the merely utilitarian purpose of distinguishing between those who might otherwise be confused with each other. Then there is the desire to give someone a mark of distinction. Of course, these motivations need not be disjoint. I think an obvious opportunity has arisen to revive the practice of referring to people by their epithets.

The current president is occasionally called “Bush 43” to distinguish him from his father, “Bush 41,” by virtue of their positions in the roster of American presidents. While we await the arrival of 42, which must occur by January 2009, we need to deal with the return to prominence of the elder Bush. Bush the Younger has blotted his copybook (the blotches have labels like Iraq, corruption, and unconstitutional) and George the Elder has gathered up his most trusted advisors and come to the rescue of his incompetent son. (It probably won't help since the petulant boy is unlikely to listen.)

In all likelihood, George W. Bush will be known in history as the man who made George H. W. Bush's administration look good. The senior Bush was widely viewed as a failure at the time he left office after a single term of stumbling about; his stratospheric approval ratings after the successful conclusion of the first Gulf War were followed by a long, dreary, and unbroken decline. However, with the double whammy of his son's two feckless terms still floundering its way toward an ignominious conclusion, George the Elder is starting to look pretty good. It's becoming clear that our 41st president is now George the Greater while the current White House resident is George the Lesser. Or Bush the Better and Bush the Worse (Bush the Worst?). History is often graded on the curve, you know.

And now that I come to think of it, the man who served two terms between the Bushes is in the running to be remembered as Bill the Great.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Farm boy

It's not your father's dairy

The following essay was originally written a few years ago when I was in an ethnography class in graduate school.

Last week’s presentation on Angus Wright’s The Death of Ramón González prompts me to share some observations with my classmates and teachers. Although I am not a scholar of the “corporatization” of agriculture in California’s San Joaquin Valley, I am an eyewitness. Many key events occurred while I was growing up in the Central Valley during the 1950s and 1960s, although I had no idea at the time of their significance. My comments are based on memory rather than research and my recall is not perfect. Even so, I have limited myself to those impressions that are clearest in my mind and ring true within the patterns of my experiences.

My recollections were initially prompted by the striking photograph reproduced on the cover of Wright’s book: the flag man serving as a marker for the crop-dusting airplane. I was probably about 10 years old (which would mean it was the early 1960s) when some cousins and I wandered from the family dairy to watch the spectacle of the crop-dusting biplane that had been hired to spray the adjacent cotton field. No one was worried too much about being exposed to the dust (or mist; I don’t recall which) that the pilot was laying down over the field, but we definitely kept out of the plane’s way. One boy who didn’t have a choice in the matter was the pilot’s son, who was pulling flag duty at the far end of the field. He was perhaps barely into his teens. Every time his father flew over him and doubled back for the return pass, the boy would pace off a prescribed distance to mark the point toward which his father should fly next time around. It may be difficult for people today to imagine this, but none of us thought of the boy’s job as anything other but exciting; we certainly did not think it was a blatant example of child abuse or endangerment. After all, the spray was an herbicide (for weeds) or pesticide (for bugs). It wasn’t of that much concern for people, right?

This casual approach extended to the seed corn that my cousins and I all saw loaded into the planting machines. While the corn itself was the expected yellow, the kernels were all dusted with a dark red powder, a pesticide. When the bags of corn were poured out, the dust formed pink clouds in the air. It stayed on your fingers if you ran your hands through the corn. It was a commonplace of farming and no one thought much of it. Our fathers would tell us to stay away from the corn mostly because we would get in the way or spill it on the ground through our carelessness. It wasn’t because we were worried about poisons that much. Don’t chew on the corn, okay? That was caution enough.

In those days, my grandfather and his two sons could be successful with 200 milk cattle and a couple of hundred acres of crop land that produced either fodder (hay or corn) or cash crops (cotton). The dairy farm supported my grandparents, my father, my uncle, their spouses, and half a dozen offspring. Today, the family dairy farm is being operated by my younger brother. He needs more than 600 cattle and several hundred acres (both owned and rented) to support his wife and daughters. Even with this dramatic expansion of the operation, he relies on cooperative associations like the Western United Dairymen. Without the clout of such formal alliances, my brother would be swallowed up by a corporate farm organization.

Corporate farming began to be visible to me in the early 1960s. The first clues were nice looking white signs with crisp black lettering. The signs each bore the name of a local farmer, but the sign also carried the name “Roberts Farms, Inc.” The farmer no longer owned his own farm (if indeed he ever had; some of the names were of people brought in to operate the purchased farm). It was initially a low-impact invasion. The farms looked pretty much as they had always looked, but a corporation owned them now. In retrospect, I don’t recall feeling any concern about the fact that an increasing number of such signs were visible during the four years that I rode a school bus into town to attend high school (late 1960s). I suspect that my father and uncle were somewhat more concerned about being encircled.

A very peculiar aspect of the corporate incursion into San Joaquin agriculture is the degree to which its victim, the family farmer, rolled over and played dead—or actively cooperated in his destruction. The Central Valley requires irrigation water to grow its crops. Federal rules created a special water subsidy for family farms no larger than 160 acres. (One square mile is 640 acres.) The limit was routinely circumvented by farm corporations, which would artificially break up their huge holdings into 160-acre parcels and thus qualify each portion separately for subsidized water from the Central Valley Project. Were the real family farmers outraged by this? Maybe some were, but I clearly recall how my father responded every time an attempt was made to enforce the limit. The corporations would send out direct mail and pay for newspaper ads that would warn that the Feds were trying to interfere with farmers. For many small farmers, the corporations had the clout they lacked when it came to fighting with the Feds. Since 160 acres was an impractically low limit even in the 1960s and 1970s, family farmers made an unholy alliance to undercut enforcement of the limitation. That enabled the corporations to save millions upon millions of dollars that they then used to buy out more independent farmers. (In 1982, the irrigation limit was finally lifted to 960 acres.)

Today the transformation is nearly complete. The surviving independent farmers are in strategic alliances and have adopted corporate aspects as protective coloration. My brother, for example, is no longer simply a family farmer. He is a corporation, using a business name to comprise all of his operations— farming, milking, harvesting, hauling, etc. In reality, though, the corporation is simply my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nieces. In order to fend off the corporations, my brother had to become one. He declined to be assimilated.

A cultural side note

My ancestors were subsistence farmers when they lived in the Azores, certainly not the dairymen their descendants became. The biggest industry in these Atlantic islands is fishing, together with many small family farms, some of which have a cow or two. However, like many other Portuguese immigrants, my grandfather’s first job in California was on a dairy farm owned by a relative. By whatever fluke, early Portuguese immigrants started out on dairy farms and they brought over additional family members to work with them. A tradition was established. A few years ago my brother invited me to attend a Western United Dairymen’s banquet in Sacramento, where the organization was holding a conference. While all the speeches were in English, the language I heard at most of the tables in the dining room was Portuguese. Perhaps one of the unifying threads that tie many of the independent dairymen together is a common heritage. I suspect this cultural component, shared by probably a majority of California’s dairy farmers, has given them the cohesion and resilience to survive all these decades in the face of the nearly universal triumph of corporate agriculture.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

O. J. Simpson and the path not taken

Running back as running mate?

Words fail. In a total triumph of tastelessness, O. J. Simpson is pretending to pretend that he killed his ex-wife. He's hawking a book titled If I Did It and giving an interview to the Fox Broadcasting Company. I guess he needs the money in order to continue his pursuit of “the real killers.”

At least Fox is the right venue for this pseudo-mock confession, continuing the wonderful tradition of such offerings as Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? and Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? I look forward to the future broadcast of Misunderstood Genius: The Presidency of George W. Bush.

Most of us don't bother to think about Simpson much these days. Of course, if we see him in a rerun of one of the Naked Gun movies, there is an extra appreciation of the woes that befall him in the role of the hapless Officer Nordberg, punishments that now seem curiously apt rather than comically cruel. In the early days of his fame, as a college football star at USC, Simpson's name came up in a political context. It's a little known story, recounted by reporter Lou Cannon in Ronnie & Jesse, a dual biography of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, and his rival Jesse Unruh, speaker of the California assembly. As Cannon tells the tale, it was 1969 and Reagan was puzzling over the best way to fill a political vacancy:
When Bob Finch joined the Nixon cabinet and left the lieutenant governorship vacant, Reagan was besieged by various factions in the Republican Party, by Nancy and the Millionaire Backers to name this or that politician to the vacancy. Reagan kept his own counsel and arrived home from the capitol one day to be confronted by Skipper [Ron Reagan], his usually quiet ten-year-old. “You ought to choose O. J. Simpson,” the boy suggested. “He would definitely make the best lieutenant governor.” Ronald Reagan's face, according to a friend, “lit up with sheer pleasure and sincere delight” and he agreed with his son that the then-USC football star would make an excellent lieutenant governor.
As charmed as he was by his son's suggestion, we all know that Reagan did not take the boy's advice.

What if he had?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Pelosi Project

Ha, ha! What did I tell you?

KSFO's Melanie Morgan has clambered from the fetid swamp that is her morning talk show and taken her anti-Pelosi campaign to the big time—Hannity & Colmes. I'm sure she felt right at home. Last week she ranted on the air about the “dirt” that would keep Pelosi from ever becoming Speaker of the House. (You can see my original post on Morgan's threat immediately below; I wasn't too far off in predicting what Morgan would do.) The loonies at Free Republic are trying to push the story into the mainstream media:
KSFO's Melanie Morgan says illegal aliens are working in Nancy Pelosi's vineyard
Hannity and Colmes ^ | 11-13-06 | dfu

Posted on 11/13/2006 7:53:56 PM PST by doug from upland

NOTE: if anyone saw the show, please report


I don't know if it is on the FOXNEWS site yet, but something potentially very important occured on Hannity and Colmes tonight.

KSFO's Melanie Morgan was a guest and exposed Nancy Pelosi, speaker in waiting, as employing illegal aliens to work on her wine vineyard in the Napa Valley.

If the charges are proven, how can the House possibly allow Pelosi to become speaker? Draining the swamp, will mean draining her.

As you might recall, Linda Chavez had to withdraw her nomination as Labor Secretary after it was revealed that she had hired an illegal alien in the 1990s.

FReepers, make the mainstream media cover this.

Oh, dear! Am I helping the Free Republic wackos and Melanie Morgan distribute a smear about Speaker-presumptive Pelosi? Yeah, right. Like a posting here constitutes major publicity. No, I'm merely pointing out how lame their efforts are. So very sad.

(The following was originally posted on November 10.)

Another right-wing delusion

I agree that it is unseemly for the victors in a hard-fought contest to gloat over the fate of their defeated opponents. Therefore I was pleased that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were gracious in their acknowledgments of the Democrats' success in taking over both houses of the U.S. Congress. I, on the other hand, can gloat all I want.

The day after the election, I radio-surfed among the various talk-radio stations (AM dial, of course) in northern California. Depending on location and time of day, I can usually pick up the Air America affiliate in Sacramento (KCTC, AM 1320) and the regional outlet for the Stephanie Miller Show and other Jones Radio progressive programs (KSAC, AM 1240). That's right—California's state capital has two liberal talk-radio stations. Bouncing back and forth between the two stations on November 8 gave me a heady dose of unreserved celebration and gloating. Yay! Take that, right-wing suckers!

Speaking of right-wing suckers, I can also pick up the highest profile regional source for reactionary rant radio, KSFO AM 560. Stuck in the belly of the beast in the Bay Area, struggling desperately to remain afloat in a region awash with dreaded “San Francisco values,” the conservative talkers on KSFO are led by local luminaries Lee Rodgers and Melanie Morgan. Since a gloat-fest can only benefit from a dash of Schadenfreude (not that I was feeling much Schade about my unrestrained Freude), I included KSFO in my post-election radio surfing.

Rodgers and Morgan were already trying out the now-official right-wing excuse for the Democratic romp (“The Democrats didn't really win—the Republicans lost; conservatives actually won a moral victory while the GOP took a tumble”). Morgan, however, was also her usual combative and aggressive self. Instead of lying back and acquiescing in the rout of her political allies, Morgan was already planning a counterattack:

She thinks Pelosi can be denied the House speakership.

“I have a lot of dirt on her,” said Morgan, “and I'm not afraid to use it. Nancy Pelosi will never be speaker.” (I'm quoting from memory since KSFO does not archive its broadcasts, but this is an accurate reconstruction of the content of her on-air remarks.)

I grinned at yet another example of Morgan's hubris. The week before she and her political group, Move America Forward, had taken their own shot at creating a “November surprise.” By all indications, Morgan really thought it would have an impact on the election. Now she was sharing another delusion of grandeur.

Using my own gigantic brain, I can speculate on Morgan's brilliant plans to head off a Pelosi speakership. Some aspects of this pipe dream have already been passed around in the redder portions of the blogosphere, although the size of the Democratic victory has muted their voices. The theory has been that several members of the Democratic caucus (particularly those newly elected in recently Republican districts) might be uncomfortable—or even balk—at voting for a dreaded San Francisco liberal as their leader. Here's an apposite quote from Free Republic:
Wouldn't it be sweet if those “Conservative” dems wake up tomorrow and see the light and defect over to the Republicans???

Yeah, that's going to happen.

First of all, Pelosi is a very smart woman who understands the two roles that she plays. She is the liberal representative of a liberal congressional district. That's an important role that she fills very well, giving her constituents a voice and a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is also the leader of the Democratic caucus in the House. As the leader of the Democrats, Pelosi's role is to keep the caucus together and to see that it prospers (as indeed it has under her leadership). She therefore works pragmatically with people who do not fully mirror her district or her political philosophy. Even the Democrats from the reddest districts know how much Pelosi contributed to their victories by keeping the troops focused on the key issues. They will unhesitatingly vote to make her Speaker.

Morgan and others will try to resurrect the failed “San Francisco values” attack on Pelosi, no doubt with the addition of the old whispering campaign against the Speaker-presumptive. For example, did you know she's wealthy? That's supposed to expose her as a hypocrite because wealth is obviously a Republican family value. And did you know that the Pelosi family owns a vineyard whose workers aren't unionized? This supposedly makes her a union-buster, contrary to her avowed support of the labor movement. Since no evidence of anti-union activities has ever been offered (and you can be sure the Republicans would serve it up if it existed), the absence of a union at the vineyard probably means the workers are well compensated and have never seen the need to organize. That's a far cry from being a union-busting hypocrite.

That's the sort of “dirt” the right-wing thinks it has on Nancy Pelosi.

We can expect to hear more big talk from Morgan before the Democratic caucus makes it official and confirms Pelosi as their leader and future Speaker of the House. And whatever Morgan says, I'm sure she'll be shooting blanks.

As usual.

Monday, November 13, 2006

We supported our troops

By voting against Bush, that is

An e-mail from a former student popped into my in-box today. He's an officer in the U.S. Army and he's finally made it stateside after a frustrating hitch in Iraq. As noted in an earlier post, he and his troops spent their time babysitting overpaid civilian contractors. Here's the first paragraph of his message:
I have to say I was pleased, a changing of the guard at the national level. Now we just have to see if the Democrats can unscrew what W and the Republicans have done. So far the best thing that has come out of the election was Rummy quitting, or getting fired (whichever it is).
There are voices on the political right who lament that we somehow “betrayed” our men and women in uniform by voting the Democrats into power. They can moan all they want. I prefer to listen to an actual soldier.

Welcome home, kid! I hope your comrades will be joining you soon.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Science envy

My reputation is bigger than your reputation!

Are you the best at what you do? Probably not. By definition, the concept of “best” is a rarely accurate accolade. Most of us must content ourselves with being “good.” There is, however, a convenient way to become “better.”

It all depends on context. For example, if I were so bold as to style myself a mathematician, I immediately fall to one of the lower rungs of the profession's ladder. I neither hold a Ph.D. (in math, that is) nor do I publish. My one original piece of research was my master's thesis, the result of which someone else independently discovered and published. So much for my standing in the mathematical meritocracy.

I'm a math teacher. On that scale I do believe that I am more successful than some of the university math professors of my acquaintance. In my niche as a community college faculty member I rank—dare I say?—fairly high. With a little exaggeration, I can even be the “best.” For example, I can confidently say, “I am the best early morning calculus teacher at my school.” (I am the only early morning calculus teacher at my school.) Yes, context is everything.

It's obvious how this game is played and there's no need to belabor the point. I want, however, to talk about more realistic ranking systems. Pecking orders, if you will. Some of us do grow tired of our meager scratchings and look to better ourselves in interesting ways. It doesn't always go well.

In the peer-reviewed meritocracy of scientific research it can be particularly difficult to ascend to the uppermost ranks. I present here a sad roster of people who strove for excellence in science—and achieved only a backward sort of fame. Each one, perhaps pricked by the fame and fortune of others, fled the morass of mediocrity and plunged headlong into ... nonsense. They traveled the darkening path that leads from science to pseudoscience.

The Galileo of UFOs

J.Allen Hynek may have been largely forgotten in the years since his death twenty years ago, but he was a famous figure during the height of the UFO phenomenon. Flying saucers have faded in popularity in recent years, perhaps because the ubiquity of minicams and camera phones has made it increasingly obvious that there aren't any shiny alien spacecraft flitting about us. (The place of UFOs in popular mythology is now mostly filled by tales of night terrors and supposed alien abductions—much more conveniently ambiguous.)

Hynek was a lead investigator for the United States Air Force in its studies of unidentified flying objects. The best known of these projects was Project Blue Book, which ended in 1969. Although disdained by UFO enthusiasts, these projects were extremely successful in attributing the vast majority of flying saucer sighting to mundane phenomena. Some people complained that the USAF was too eager to accept any naturalistic explanation (“swamp gas,” “the planet Venus”) and questioned the honesty of the investigations. Although he was one of the Air Force's chief architects of the explanations, Hynek began to question the insistence on dismissing all UFO sightings as misinterpreted everyday phenomena.

Hynek decided to focus on the handful of unexplained cases. These, he decided, had to be “real”—that is, actual evidence of remarkable occurrences rather than delusions. Although he was doubtful the UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft, Hynek thought the unexplained cases deserved serious continued study. He established the Center for UFO Studies in 1973 and began the final phase of his career: the most famous credentialed scientist who “believed” in UFOs (whatever they might eventually turn out to be).

His efforts were never crowned with success. CUFOS never adduced sufficient evidence to establish that UFOs were either extraterrestrial or extradimensional—or anything else interesting. Hynek slipped further and further into occult speculation, linking UFOs with various psychic phenomena (such as poltergeists), but never producing a coherent theory for that possibility either. (Of course, how could Hynek be expected to produce a coherent theory uniting two imaginary phenomena? I readily confess that I don't take psychic phenomena any more seriously than I do UFOs.)

How did a once-reputable scientist with a Ph.D. in astrophysics end up wandering so far into the fringe regions of scientific endeavor? The anti-UFO polemicist Philip J. Klass offered his theory in UFOs: The Public Deceived, in which he wrote
My own—admittedly limited—study of scientists who have become victims of “pathological sciences” suggests that those who are the most vulnerable are persons who are approaching the end of their careers without having achieved great prominence and younger scientists whose achievements have fallen short of their ambitions....

It is much more alluring to hope to become the “Galilieo of UFOlogy,” or its Albert Einstein, than to opt for the simple, Occam's Razor alternative—that roughly 98 percent of all UFO reports are simply misidentifications of prosaic, if sometimes unfamiliar objects by basically honest observers. And that the balance, roughly 2 percent, are self-delusions or hoaxes by persons who like to spin tall tales and become instant celebrities. There is no prospect of a Nobel Prize, or long-lasting scientific fame, for anyone who proposes prosaic explanations entirely within the framework of existing scientific knowledge, only harsh criticism from those eager to promote UFOs.
Yes, I think Klass might well be right. The sad conclusion is that if Hynek will be remembered for anything, it is likely to be his invention of the “close encounters” classification system and his brief cameo in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the credulous UFO movie of 1977.

The Isaac Newton of Information Theory

William Dembski is another person with genuine scientific training who has lost his way. He earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, no mean feat, and later added a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. There aren't a whole lot of people who hold two earned doctorates.

In Dembski's view of the world, his mathematical training is to be put at the service of his religious promptings. He uses unnecessarily abstruse mathematical notation to obscure the vacuity of his writings in the theory of intelligent design creationism. He is today one of the most notable figures in the intelligent design movement and it has garnered him recognition and accolades from other creationists. His special focus is on a variant of complexity theory (he calls it specified complexity). Dembski attempts to undermine evolution by demonstrating that natural phenomena are insufficient to produce the existing complexity of life on earth. Since life is information based (for example, the coding in DNA), one way to attack evolution is to assert that evolution violates entropy by increasing the amount of information in the world.

Most other mathematicians do not give Dembski's take on complexity much credit and computer scientists like Mark Chu-Carroll have punctured Dembski's pretensions to being an information science theoretician. Nevertheless, Dembski's admirers have even called him “the Isaac Newton of information theory.” Sorry, folks, that accolade belong to Claude Shannon. No one who knows anything about information theory would argue otherwise. Dembski is like the one-eyed man who is king in the land of the blind.

But I think he keeps that one eye closed most of the time.

Tempest in a teapot

Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann were respected researchers in their field of electrochemistry until they became media rock stars in 1989. At a specially called press conference (a most unusual venue for the announcement of a scientific breakthrough), Pons and Fleischmann reported their discovery of cold fusion. They claimed they could generate energy by means of a room-temperature fusion reaction. It was an astonishing claim.

The world went nuts over cold fusion. If true, it promised the end of all of our energy-shortage problems. What's more, it scored a major point for chemists in their never-ending grudge match with physicists, who tend to regard chemistry as a dirty-hands younger sibling to the older and wiser physics. An element of professional envy was in it.

A fever pitch was reached at the 1989 annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, stoked by its president, Clayton Callis, in an address to the assembled multitudes. The occasion was recounted by John R. Huizenga in Cold fusion: The scientific fiasco of the century:
He excited the seven thousand chemists, gathered in a large arena at the Dallas Convention Center, to an extremely high pitch by his introductory remarks, in which he hailed the tremendous potential of cold fusion as an energy source, and claimed that it might be the discovery of the century. He then went on to detail the many problems physicists were having in achieving controlled nuclear fusion. “Now it appears that chemists may have come to the rescue,” he said, and the thousands of chemists in the arena broke into loud applause and laughter.
The physicists were more than willing to counteract. The main sticking point was the absence of certain byproducts of the reported fusion reaction. In brief, Pons and Fleischmann should have been killed by the success of their experiment. As Huizenga put it, “Early critics recognized that on the basis of the reported heat, Fleischmann and Pons would have to had been exposed to massive, lethal doses of nuclear radiation.” Their evident good health was the first clue that something was wrong with their theorized reactions.

The first rush of enthusiasm over cold fusion quickly began to fade. Although there was an initial spate of apparently confirming experiments, these were increasingly outweighed by carefully controlled investigations that came up negative. A real body blow to cold fusion was delivered by a multidisciplinary Caltech team. They didn't find the excess energy that was supposedly generated and they didn't find the nuclear byproducts that were supposed to be formed. Various government agencies and research universities began to turn away from further research into cold fusion. There are still open questions regarding what Pons and Fleischmann observed, but “anomalous energy” research has become a backwater as far as most chemists (and virtually all physicists) are concerned.

As recently as 2004 the Department of Energy commissioned a review of fifteen years' worth of cold fusion research. The dispiriting conclusion of the DOE report was that there was insufficient evidence to warrant expenditure of federal research funds on cold fusion.

Pons and Fleischmann are scarcely anywhere to be found these days, as they labor on in renewed obscurity.

Face to face with Darwin

The perfect example of pseudoscientific hubris is provided by Duane Gish, the biologist who has never ceased to struggle against biology's evolutionary foundations. A tireless practitioner of art of babbling past the opposition, Gish prefers the debate platform to the science lab when it comes to promoting creationism. While the deft turn of phrase or debate-trick gambit carries no weight in peer-reviewed research, such devices can sweep all rational thought aside in front of an appreciative crowd. Gish has his favored sound-bites, his polished counterexamples to evolution (all of them long since explained away, but still favored by the man who nevertheless repeats them anew to audiences who don't know any better).

Martin Gardner could have been thinking of Duane Gish when he quoted Shaw in Fads and Fallacies:
George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. “Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him”; writes Shaw, “and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable.”
Gish fancies that his platform skills have made him into a great spokesman for “creation science.” In that he is almost certainly correct, but that does not make him into any kind of scientist. It is a measure of his self-importance that he can depict himself on the cover of Creation Scientists Answer Their Critics as standing on an equal footing with Charles Darwin himself. There they are, face to face and nose to nose, Charles and Duane. This is really the final word in science envy.