Intellectual incest

Natural selection tends to avoid incest. Incest—more properly, inbreeding—allows recessive genetic traits to accumulate, often to the detriment of affected individuals. If a child gets a bad gene (doesn’t make a needed protein) from one parent, it’s best if the other parent doesn’t also contribute the bad gene.

Popular literature suggests wild populations, such as wolves, seek mates from outside their own packs. Also, primitive peoples may raid neighboring clans for wives, and friendly exchanges of eligible women between ruling European families provided genetic diversity while maintaining royal status.

Cultural and intellectual incest is a problem of a slightly different nature. Lack of cultural diversity can deprive a nation of the benefits of innovation and can also result in the development and retention of perverse cultural traits. Open societies are the fix. Honor killings within some European societies have lost fashion as a result of the cultural dilution that resulted from advances in communications and exchange of populations in the twentieth century.

Science deflects intellectual incest through a well-considered program of peer review. A small group of scientists working in isolation can develop wrong-headed theories through self-deception or an undeserved sense of self worth. Banging unworkable theories against contrary opinions and knowledge will often bring light and a better understanding of the true nature of things.

Cold fusion is one area where this process did not work well. The original developers of the idea shortly isolated themselves from scientific interchange and scrutiny and remained locked into a dead-end path to the ends of their careers.

Then there is Intelligent Design

If ever there was a “theory” that was self-named, it is Intelligent Design. That is because Intelligent Design was intelligently designed.

Intelligent Design grew from a special need. The need was to keep alive the idea that supernatural forces control the world we live in. Especially, the idea that the existence of people—our species—is the result of a thought process. The founder of this thought process cannot, for political reasons, be identified by proponents. However, the thought process, itself, is likened to the thought process enjoyed by people, ourselves.

Young-Earth creationism (YEC) initially filled the need for supernatural explanations. YEC was and still is promoted heavily in many religious organizations. When modern science falsified YEC absolutely, it still found refuge in churches. Not so much so in the public schools.

Once it lost any factual credibility, YEC became unwelcome in publicly-financed education. A short phrase in the first constitutional amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” Since teaching YEC is strictly religious, with no other reason for being, the courts eventually abolished it from all education that obtained financing through the power of the American government.

The religious-minded scientists and scholars who founded the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC) do not necessarily espouse YEC, but they do have a problem with the rejection by modern science of a supernatural basis. Especially, they object to the teaching in public schools the Darwinian theory of evolution, which holds that the development of modern life forms is the result of a purely natural process. In particular, they object to public institutions teaching young children about a science that does not involve God.

The CSC resurrected the old idea of Intelligent Design in order to provide a plausible vehicle for the supernatural. By supernatural the predisposed student was expected to infer God. And not just any god, but Yahweh, the god of Abraham. The CSC fellows likely had the idea that even students who were not predisposed would catch on to the idea, and so much the worse for those who did not catch on. They would by their actions be singled out.

Law professor Phillip Johnson published Darwin on Trial to get the idea going—not specifically Intelligent Design, but that something was wrong with purely natural explanations. Johnson’s inspiration quickly coalesced like thinkers, and thus began the formulation of Intelligent Design as a substitute for science.

The problem manifested early on was the nasty matter of peer review. What peer review there was of Intelligent Design was, itself, nasty.

Scientist Stephen J. Gould wrote a stinging review of Darwin on Trial for Scientific American. The rest of the scientific community for the most part ignored it.1

But the movement was growing, and other books followed.

Professor of biochemistry Michael Behe wrote Darwin’s Black Box, explaining that certain life processes were irreducibly complex and could not have developed by random mutation and natural selection. They must have been designed.

Jonathan Wells does not do any science, but he does have a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology. He wrote Icons of Evolution, in which he attempted to shoot down what he perceived were ten icons representing the science associated with the theory of evolution.

William Dembski has a Ph.D. in mathematics, but he does not appear to do any scientific research. Dembski has put forward the idea that science can detect the presence of design in nature by observing specified complexity. Dembski uses his expertise in mathematical statistics to bolster his claims.

Through all of this there persists the problem of peer review, or lack of it. The CSC fellows have put forward their ideas about Intelligent Design, but they have not published them in any legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The word legitimate is highlighted in the above, because, strictly speaking, some papers promoting Intelligent Design have been published. You only have to ask.

I went to the page on the CSC’s Web site that discusses peer review related to Intelligent Design. The content is enlightening.2

There is a long list of “peer reviewed” publications, some of which are already familiar.

In 2004, from all appearances, CSC founder Stephen C. Meyer engaged CSC fellow Richard Sternberg to publish his paper “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of which Sternberg was editor. Sternberg allowed publication of the paper after bypassing regular review by other editors of the journal. The standard process does not reveal the names of those who review a paper, so it is not possible to determine whether peer review included CSC fellows. Having like-minded creationists perform the peer review would make this a classic case of intellectual incest.

Regardless of who performed the peer review, the Meyer paper does not present any scientific research into Intelligent Design. This has not kept the CSC from claiming a goal in the game of peer review soccer.3

I looked down the list of publications claiming peer review and found this one. Tracking it down revealed some details:

Jonathan Wells published “Do Centrioles Generate a Polar Ejection Force?” in Rivista di Biologia. Sidestepping the peculiar nature of the publication venue, the reader should skip down to the Conclusions section of the paper. Typically this section will summarize what the paper purports to show. This section is significant for what it does not say. It does not make any claim for Intelligent Design or for a supernatural cause of any kind. After 18 pages of elaborate explanation of some very nice biological processes, Wells concludes by summarizing:4

The polar ejection force that plays an important role in dividing animal cells could be generated by centrioles. In the hypothesis presented here, these organelles are literally tiny turbines that pump fluid through their triplet microtubule blades with a dynein-powered Archimedes’ screw located in their proximal lumens. A mother centriole would rotate about its long axis within a bearing of subdistal appendages, held in place by a flange of distal appendages. A daughter centriole, projecting at a right angle from the mother, would not rotate about its own axis but would revolve around the latter inside the capsule formed by the centromatrix. The daughter would also function as a turbine, however, generating a torque that introduces an eccentricity or “wobble” into the revolutions of the mother-daughter pair.

Another writer familiar with the matter has this to say:5

First, the journal, Rivista di Biologia, is utterly insignificant, and is prone to publishing articles that are clearly on the edge of scientific respectability. Its editor is (reportedly) a creationist and is affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Second, the paper is not a primary research report. It outlines a hypothesis, accompanied by a literature review, but describes no new experiments and reports no new findings.

Intellectual incest can take multiple forms, and publishing under a reviewer sympathetic to Intelligent Design, as in this case, would be one of them. Most odd of all is why Wells didn’t take this opportunity to publish something favorable to Intelligent Design.

Odder still is the CSC’s continued insistence that Darwin’s Black Box was peer-reviewed. It’s odd in the first instance, because a popular book like DBB doesn’t need to be peer-reviewed. You just write the book, find a publisher, and collect the royalties. And what kind of peer review did DBB receive?

In his book about the Kitzmiller trial, Edward Humes describes the cross examination of author Michael Behe. Behe had claimed the DBB was peer-reviewed. On cross examination attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe about reviewer Michael Atchison. Then Rothschild recounted the story behind Atchison’s review of DBB.

The book’s editor told his wife about the book. The wife was a student of Atchison’s, and she suggested that Atchison talk to the editor. Atchison had a ten-minute phone conversation with the editor and got a description of the book. Atchison suggested the book would be good reading. And that was the peer review.6

It is not as though peer review will do any good for Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design gets lots of peer review, and all of it is bad. Not surprising, peer review of Intelligent Design does not have the effect of correcting the problems with Intelligent Design.

Under cross examination at the Kitzmiller trial, Behe was confronted with a stack of peer-reviewed research and published books dealing with the very science Behe used to promote irreducible complexity in DBB. This was material Behe had claimed did not exist. He made these claims in DBB and afterwards, and he continued to make these claims after they were refuted during Kitzmiller.

Apparently the matter of peer review has scraped a nerve at the CSC. The CSC has set up the Biologic Institute to conduct scientific research related to Intelligent Design.7

Biologic Institute brings together scientists with diverse expertise, unified by the realization that a revolution in biology—with far reaching implications—is well under way. Like many revolutionary ideas, this one is powerful in its simplicity:

The more we learn about the organization of life, the more clearly it reveals design.

That’s good enough for an Intelligent Design research center. But there is still the matter of peer review. For every problem there is a solution. The CSC’s solution is its own journal:8

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

With this, the CSC has neatly tied up the problem of peer-reviewed publication. Peer review, perhaps, but not the problem of intellectual incest.

Therein is the real core of Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design cannot exist except in isolation. It needs to be supported by a determined cadre of rogue scientists and scholars, who cite each others’ research and tell themselves what they want to hear. CSC fellows say they are doing breakthrough research, and that research will lead the way toward an understanding of life’s origins. Reality is somewhat different.

I do a little writing, and I find my style becomes stale after a while. Some say it’s after a short while. Reading the works of good writers keeps me from getting into a terminal rut.

I also do some photography. Pulling out a National Geographic or even a Science magazine cover reminds me of what good photography looks like.

The CSC will never do this, and their incestuous intellectual environment is not likely to ever produce any novel or useful thinking. In my way of thinking that was never their intent.




3 You can read the Meyer paper on the CSC Web site or here.



6 Edward Humes, Monkey Girl. pp 302-303. Harper, 2007.




My Sincerest Apologies

I’m not completely out of the loop. For example, I happened on this news item on TV and looked up the particulars on the Internet.

Kim Jong Il’s era comes to an end with grand memorial service in North Korea

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) — Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new leader, stood on a balcony above Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square named for his grandfather, where tens of thousands of people gathered to hear eulogies that ended a period of national mourning for his father.

“Well,” I thought, “So much for that.” One wacko, delusional dictator out, another one in to take his place. For some reason I thought of “As the World Turns.”

Then I sat upright. There was something like a soft wind blowing in my ear, a cool hand on my heart.

I had forgotten to send a card, much less flowers. To say nothing of neglecting to hustle over to that Worker’s Paradise to attend the ceremonies.

The consequences were dire, I realized. The face on TV reminded me that the entire country of South Korea had failed to send an official delegation. Only 18 civilians made the trip north to have the last laugh at Kim’s passing. The North responded to this hostile act by threatening wholesale retaliation. Memories of 1950 were resurrected.

So, I was thinking, what kind of chance do I stand? The U.S. has 30,000 troops facing north at the 38th parallel, plus there are several hundred South Korean troops in place. South Korea could possibly stand a chance in case Kim’s youngest son (aka, The Great Leader) wakes up with a bad hangover. I, on the other hand, don’t even own a gun. Forget about a concealed carry permit. The Commies are going to come at me with T-72 tanks.

So, that’s it for me. No card, no flowers, not even a friendly Tweet (“Deepest regrets to learn of the untimely passing of your supreme, exalted father figure”). I am so screwed. So, there’s nothing left for me to do. As I always (sometimes) say, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

So here’s to you Kim Jong Un, if that’s your real name. Up your nose with a rubber hose. And the same goes for your sorry excuse of a carbon life form, your sawed-off, over-weight, size-one hat, barely male parent. He managed to consume many metric tons in excess of the Earth’s precious oxygen that was due him.

And don’t expect a card from me next Christmas.

OK, I feel better now.

Kreuz Market

Good excuse as any to go to Lockhart, Texas. I had not been to Kreuz Market in over 40 years, so I figured it was time to make a return trip. I took Barbara Jean along for the experience.

It’s amazing what has changed in four decades. Kreuz Market is no longer a minor family business. Fame and reputation (one of the top barbecue places in Texas) have forced it to expand to a awesome stand-alone edifice with parking for hundreds of cars. One thing that has not changed is the barbecue and the lack of utensils. Knife only to cut the meat, no forks. And no sauce (covers the taste of the meat). Order meat by the pound, served on several sheets of brown kraft paper. Eat on a wooden table, but now varnished and with no butcher knife fixed to the table with a length of cord.

The historic Caldwell County court house is also a treasure to behold.

Explaining Life

Thread of Life: The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution
Roger Lewin
Smithsonian Books, 1982
256 pages including index and picture credits

There are three million species of living things in the world, at least as of 1982, when Roger Lewin published Thread of Life. Lewin is an anthropologist and author of 20 books, many of which relate to evolution, including human evolution. I first encountered Lewin’s name from creationists who have frequently quoted something he has written, often out of context. The creationists want to convince people that somebody with scientific prestige is saying something bad about evolution.

At his lectures creationist Don Patton often hands out quotes from serious scientist to give the impression there is disarray amongst the evolutionists’ ranks. Here is one from a page bearing the copyright of the Northside Church of Christ.


BASIS OF “FAMILY TREE”. ROGER LEWIN, Editor, Research News, Science, “The key issue is the ability correctly to infer a genetic relationship between two species on the basis of a similarity in appearance, at gross and detailed levels of anatomy. Sometimes this approach….can be deceptive, partly because similarity does not necessarily imply an identical genetic heritage: a shark (which is a fish) and a porpoise (which is a mammal) look similar…, BONES OF CONTENTION, 1987, p. 123

A quick check of Bones of Contention provides the full context.

For a scientist brought up in a tradition in which the lumps and bumps on a fossil are considered the only key to the past, this was a dramatic statement, and it goes to the heart of the battle that was fought over Ramapithecus. “Morphology seemed more logical than molecules,”47 says Adrienne Zihlman. “Morphology is what we ‘see’ in the sizes and shapes of bones and teeth…and it has always been given more weight. Paleontologists have always assumed that chimpanzees and gorillas were more closely related to each other than to humans, because they look so much alike.” The key issue is the ability correctly to infer a genetic relationship between two species on the basis of a similarity in appearance, at gross and detailed levels of anatomy. Sometimes this approach works, but sometimes it can be deceptive, partly because similarity of structure does not necessarily imply an identical genetic heritage: a shark (which is a fish) and a porpoise (which is a mammal) look similar because they have become adapted to the same environment, not because they are close cousins.

Lewin notes that basing kinship on similarity is unreliable (and maybe unwarranted). Patton takes the meaning a step further and asserts that relationships are impossible to prove.

When you adopt a high profile in science for the general public like Roger Lewin has you can expect this kind of attention from the creationists.

In Thread of Life Lewin takes the reader from the putative origin of life in the ocean to the flowering of human civilization. Along the way there are many indictments of the creationists’ distortions of modern science. The history of mass extinctions evident in the fossil record is tied to findings of modern geology. The new science of plate tectonics, coupled with exhaustive geological research give powerful clues to the forces that have shaped the present biological world.

The development of the mammalian ear is seen to be the driving force behind the development of the mammalian jaw from its ancestral reptilian jaw. The fossil evidence for this puts the lie to creationists’ (including Phillip Johnson) contention that stepwise development of complex body plans is never revealed in the fossil record.

Lewin deals beautifully with the sweep of biological history, from its beginnings in the sea, the emergence of divergent body forms in the Cambrian to the development of fishes and their amphibian descendents and reptiles. Plants preceded animals on the land, and the proliferation of insect forms helped drive the divergence of plant life in a relationship that is sometimes adversarial and sometimes symbiotic. Mammals derived from an early reptilian form and missed out on the dinosaur boom and bust. These stories and more will delight the interested reader.

Hardly a page does not carry a stunning photograph or illustration. The book displays human scientists easing back the curtain of uncertainty to reveal the underlying truth. A skeptic of the creationists’ claims will appreciate the glaring comparison with the intellectually barren work of this anti-science faction of our society.

A 1992 paperback edition of Thread of Life is available through Amazon. The hardcover edition is best if it’s a coffee table copy you want. See the links.


Thread of Life is available from Amazon.

Bones of Contention is available from Amazon

The referenced page of Don Patton quotes is on-line here.

You can review Bones of Contention through Google Books.

Real Science

Real science

This item first appeared in the August 2009 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

The Beak of the Finch

Jonathan Weiner
The Beak of the Finch
1995, Vintage Books, 303 pages

I discussed Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells back in 2002. In the book Wells posits ten of what he calls icons-signature points upon which Darwinian evolution is supposed to hinge.1

Wells’ ten icons are:

Miller-Urey experiment
Darwin’s tree of life
Homology in vertebrate limbs
Haeckel’s embryos
Peppered moth
Darwin’s finches
Four-winged fruit flies
Fossil horses
Hominid evolution

In the case of the peppered moth, Wells significantly points out photos of peppered moths resting on tree trunks or tree bark. The point is this: Published research reported on the effect of industrial activity on moth populations. There were moths of a peppery light color and moths with a peppery dark color. When our industry produced a lot of soot in the air, tree trunks (and everything else) acquired a dark grey coating. Moths of a lighter color stood out for all birds to see, and the moth population shifted to the dark end of the scale. When industry stopped pumping soot into the air, trees returned to their natural, lighter color, and dark moths lost their advantage. Researchers posted this as an example of natural selection in action.

In his book, Wells took great offense with these photos and disclosed the awful truth-the photos were staged. Dead moths were stuck on the trees and photographed to fool students into believing in Darwinism.

In this instance, the magnificent brain of Jonathan Wells, Ph.D., showed its power. I had completely missed this point when I viewed the photos in an earlier life. I had naively assumed a photographer was given the assignment to show students how moths of different colors looked when posted on bark of different colors. So the photographer got some moths, killed them, stuck them on some bark, and took the photos. It never occurred to me this was all a scheme to fool innocent students.

Wells is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture. The CSC is the major propagandist for Intelligent Design, a modern variation of creationism. Intelligent Design, they assert, is well supported by science and should be seriously considered as an alternative to purely natural mechanisms, such as Darwinian evolution. It would appear there is a thunderous clash of scientific viewpoints brewing.

Not quite.

Twenty years examining the Intelligent Design movement shows zero scientific activity. There have been symposia, public debates, slick video productions, and also books. Besides Icons we have Darwin’s Black Box, The Edge of Evolution, Mere Creation, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, The Privileged Planet, and a number of others that presume to provide scientific support for Intelligent Design or against Evolution. The CSC also claims two papers published in real, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

For example, a few years back CSC director Stephen Meyer arranged with Intelligent Design sympathizer Richard Steinberg to publish a review article in a journal for which Steinberg was editor. Steinberg side-stepped the normal review process and published “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” (Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 117 (2004): 213-239). It’s what it takes to publish pseudoscience these days.

Videos include Icons of Evolution, Unlocking the Mystery of Life, The Privileged Planet, and also Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed. The later title may not have a CSC connection, but it shows TV personality Ben Stein connecting Darwinism with Nazism and the Holocaust.

Isn’t doing science wonderful? It’s an idyllic armchair world of publication, and presentation. And no sweat.

Not quite. The Beak of the Finch presents the world of real science.

For over 30 years beginning in 1973 Peter and Rosemary Grant worked studying the finches on the Galapagos Islands. One hundred and seventy years ago the Galapagos finches gave Charles Darwin inspiration during the development of his theory of evolution. Finches (dead) he brought back from the voyage of the Beagle turned out to be variations with a common ancestry. They were different species of finches that developed only on the Galapagos. Darwin’s finches represent one of Jonathan Wells’ icons of evolution.

Spending six months out of every year for years on end in the Galapagos, the Grants and others on their team carefully cataloged every finch on a small island and observed as populations hatched and died. They caught the birds and measured their beaks and noted their individual songs. Did I mention they measured the beaks to a fraction of a millimeter?

There were no armchairs in their camp, to say nothing of running water and air conditioning. The equator runs right through the small Galapagos cluster, and there is often no rain for months. The sun is blazing hot. The Grants raised two daughters in this environment, alternating with stays back at Princeton University to lecture and to publish.

And Wells sees fit to critique the Grants’ work.

The Grants, observed Wells, did not observe any speciation. Nor did they see any net evolution within a finch species. When extended dry spells forced the finches to crack harder and scarcer seeds, the population shifted to birds with thicker and tougher beaks. When the rains returned, and the variety of food increased, the tough-beaked birds gave way to ones with more adroit beaks. No net change, Wells observed.

Wells did not mention other research covered in The Beak of the Finch, which is not to imply he based Icons on Weiner’s book.

The Beak of the Finch covers more than beaks. In the streams of Venezuela, Margarita Island, Trinidad, and Tobago guppies are in their natural environment. They swim about the quiet ponds, but always close to the bottom, because they have enemies in the form of several species of fish and a freshwater prawn. The stream beds are often carpeted with multi-colored gravel, just as in your aquarium, and guppies that look like the speckled bottom of the stream live to spawn another day.

About the time the Grants were studying finches in the Galapagos, John Endler was doing a similar study of the guppies. He noted that in the head waters of a stream there might be few predator fish, but as a stream neared the sea after traversing a number of water falls, the guppies’ enemies grew in number and variety. The predators that were downstream could not get up the water falls, so upstream guppies enjoyed less predation.

Endler noticed that as predation increased downstream, so did the pressure of natural selection. Where predators came in numbers guppies that did not well match the stream bottom became quite rare. In regions where the streams don’t have colored gravel bottoms, the guppies have a problem.

Bold spots may show off male guppies to potential mates, but the boldest males get seen and eaten before they can spawn. Spotless males can avoid getting eaten, but they also avoid getting spotted by female guppies on the prowl. Endler observed that successful guppies were ones that struck a careful balance. Their spots were quite small and escaped the view of predators several inches away. However from the distance of a couple of centimeters they showed up on a female’s radar and remained in the gene pool.

Endler took the experiment a step further and constructed ten artificial guppy ponds at Princeton University. He seeded the ponds with guppies and let nature take its course. The guppy populations took off, and Endler introduced the guppy predators into the experiment, selectively. Some ponds did not get predators. Also, Endler provided different gravel bottoms for the ponds and studied the results. Natural selection took place.

Populations under the pressure of predation conformed to the requirements of survival, matching the gravel bottom and cautiously displaying spots for the female sex. Populations free of predation developed gaudy spotting in a race with sexual selection.

There’s much more. Jamie Smith conducted research with sparrows on the island of Mandarte in British Columbia. British Columbia does not suffer the drought and the equatorial heat of the Galapagos, but it does have seasons of severe wind, snow, and cold. This research again revealed clear population response to the pressure of natural selection.

If the book illustrates one thing it is this: Contrary to what some creationists assert there is on-going and fruitful research into Darwinian evolution. Real scientists are working in the real world and doing real research with little opportunity to enjoy an armchair. The contrast with the lack of activity by the creationists is breath taking.

For the record, despite what Jonathan Wells had to say about the peppered moths, in the case of the finches he agrees that natural selection does work. Additionally, published research does not claim the finch studies offer proof of speciation or net evolutionary development. One wonders, then, what was all the fuss with Icons of Evolution.

On a final note, if the Grants did not observe any net evolution of the finches during their research, they must have observed the remarkable evolution of technology during this time. When they started in 1973 there were no personal computers, and the book details their later work as they archived their data on large numbers of floppy disks. The Grants are now emeritus professors, and it’s fairly certain each of their personal computers will be connected to terabyte hard drives sitting on their desk tops. Readers who have observed the evolution of computers will have to appreciate the irony.

Jonathan Weiner received the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Beak of the Finch. He has also written The Next One Hundred Years and Planet Earth.



Stupid And Deadly

This first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

Consider, for a moment, that Darwin could have been right all along.

OK, forget Darwin. Consider for a moment that there is a species on this planet so incompetent it deserves to go extinct right now.

That would be us.

Recent developments bear this out. I will elaborate. I made a joke a few years back about dowsing for land mines, but I should have been more circumspect.1 The truth turns out to be ludicrous beyond belief.

In a recent blog post, Bob Park alerted us to a scam that just will not go away. In the UK a company known as ATSC has for several years marketed their ADE 651, a device for detecting dangerous explosives, including bombs carried by enemy agents. The technology would be undeniably beneficial, if only it worked. In reality, the device is little more than a dressed up water dowser. Its evolution is akin to the genesis of Intelligent Design from young-Earth creationism.

We should have been warned, because ADE 651 has an antecedent dating back more than ten years. In his post from 12 January 1996 Bob Park highlighted the remarkable Quadro Tracker.2

What’s cuckoo: high-tech dowsing rod locates timid laboratory.

The Quadro Corporation, which markets the QRS 250G Detector, a dowsing rod with an antenna that outperforms old fashioned willow branches, says the device can locate anything from weapons to buried treasure–well worth the price of $995 each. But a Sandia National Labs scientist thought it might be a good idea to test one. It failed to locate anything; dissection found just plastic! Sandia sources tell WN that management directed scientists to remain silent in the face of a threat of legal action by Quadro.

An entry in Wikipedia notes that between 1993 and 1996 “[a]round 1,000 were sold to police departments and school districts around the United States on the basis that it could detect hidden drugs, explosives, weapons and lost golf balls.”3

Developments unfolded, and the FBI obtained a permanent injunction to keep the device from being marketed in the United States. Principles of Quadro Corp. of Harleyville, South Carolina, were brought to trial for fraud but were acquitted on all charges.

Move forward and across the pond.

In the UK ATSC Limited has the following product description on their Web site:4

ADE651® is the latest generation of long-range detector products offered by ATSC. As with other ADE™ substance detectors, it incorporates long-range electromagnetic attraction to enable the effective identification of even the most difficult substances including explosive and narcotic materials. Unlike other trace detectors, that are limited by the need to have actual physical contact with the item sampled, the ADE651® is able to detect programmed substances at long distances safely and without the need to have actual physical contact with the substance. As such, the ADE651® continues to set standards for the detection of substances.

As with Quadro, ATSC seems to have sailed right past the consciousness of all concerned—then somebody woke up. The Independent reported on 23 January this year:5

Hundreds of people have been killed in horrific bombings in Iraq after a British company supplied “bogus” equipment which failed to detect explosive devices.

The head of the company, which has made tens of millions of pounds from the sale of the detectors, has now been arrested and the British Government has announced a ban on their export to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Accounts of the ADE 651 indicate it works through the user’s expectations, much like the traditional “water witch” dowsing rod. The ADE 651, like all such devices, requires physical contact with the operator, and this allows subtle, usually subconscious, operator actions to affect the device and to influence indications of detection. In what may be an oversimplification: The operator expects there is no bomb, the device confirms his expectation—reality notwithstanding.

What is so bizarre about the Quadro-ADE 651 is how easy it should have been to falsify its claims. Put some explosive in a vehicle, or not. Don’t tell the operator. Is the device correct significantly better than chance?

In about twenty minutes a conscientious appraiser would have rejected these devices and sent their purveyors packing. Instead, numerous government agencies, representing budgets of billions of dollars annually, saw only the glitter and the promise of an easy fix. And they pulled out, not theirs but the taxpayer’s, checkbook.

The legion of the duped is impressive. An item on Wikipedia reports the following purchasers/users of the ADE 651. Some of these reports derive from ATSC promotional materials and not from actual observation:6

Iraqi Police Service and Iraqi Army: The Interior Ministry purchased 800 items in 2008 for $32 million and 700 in 2009 for $53 million. Top price was $60,000 per unit.

Mexican state of Colima: One was purchased for $60,000.

  • Lebanese Army
  • Chinese Police
  • Royal Thai Police
  • Interior Ministry of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan
  • Hotels in Jordan: Required by the government
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Indian police
  • Police in the Belgian municipal region of Geel-Laakdal-Meerhout (Used to detect drugs)
  • A Belgian drug squad
  • A Hong Kong correctional facility
  • Chittagong Navy (Bangladesh)
  • Pakistan’s Airport Security force: To detect bombs at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi

It does not warm the heart to learn that superstitious nonsense is not the exclusive purview of uneducated yokels from the outback. Sit down at a conference table to discuss project planning at a high-tech concern in this country or elsewhere, and it is possible the person sitting next to you is ready to buy into the Quadro Tracker, the ADE 651 or the next baseless gimmick to follow. The fictional Jed Clampett would have been able to hold his own with this crowd.

People ask me, and other skeptics, why we take such a passion for the truth. What’s the harm, they say, if people have their little myths, their little fantasies? Sometimes I shrug off these annoying complaints with a glib remark. Such as, “Because people can die.”


Bachmann Brings Holiday Joy

When you’re down and out.
Throw off your gloom and doubt.
Lift up your head and shout.
“You bloody idiot!”

A good belly laugh lifts the spirit and rejuvenates the soul. Which brings me to Michele Bachmann.

I needed to pull up only a single recent news item to get an evening’s worth of mirth. This is courtesy of the Worthington, Minnesota, Daily Globe. Bachmann has started a multi-day blitz through Iowa in a run-up to the first primary caucus of the 2012 election cycle. Her comments are sure to bring merriment to all within voice range. Where to start?

“Iowa chose Barack Obama, now Iowa has to choose Barack Obama’s replacement,” Bachmann told the crowd in the restaurant.

This was starting to get interesting. Let’s see what else she had to say.

Bachmann then went on to list various issues she had challenged the president on, from cap and trade to illegal immigration.
“I can’t wait to stand on the stage with him during the debate and completely deflate everything he’s said about our economy,” Bachmann said.

She began to detail what was wrong with the country and what she would, given the chance, do about it.

Bachmann also discussed gas prices, saying when Obama took office, gas prices went up.

“I want to bring gas prices back to $1.79 a gallon,” Bachmann said. “And we can because the United States is the number one energy resource bridge in the world. The problem is the federal government has locked up all the oil and natural gas and coal, and said, ‘Forget it, we’re not going use it anymore.’ Not me — I’m going to legalize it.”

That’s interesting and very amusing. I can tell I am going to have an enjoyable evening. Let’s see the story behind this. I went to and pulled down their price history chart.

Regular gasoline price index for 48 months in dollars per gallon

The chart shows prices peaking in early July 2008 when George W. Bush was president. I was in North Hollywood, California, about this time, and for me the price for regular peaked at $4.46 per gallon about 18 July. The chart shows a precipitous plunge as the economy tanked, most likely Obama’s fault, but we can’t prove it.

As the shock wore off, and people came to their senses, people started spending again and driving again, and the price began to rise. The price of gasoline is driven largely by demand, and the price drop was due to a drop in driving, and the subsequent increase in price has been largely due to an increase in driving, not completely due to an upturn in economic output, which has not picked up all that much since 2008.  The lowest I paid for regular gasoline recently was $1.25 per gallon at a Kroger store in the north Dallas. That was in early 2009.

The price of regular gasoline has since spiked again, in May of 2011, not quite as high as it was in July 2008, but enough to get some notice and enough to make Bachmann think she could get some traction. The price is currently back down to what it was right before Obama was elected in 2008. If Bachmann can get it down to $1.79, more power to her. How many people are going to stop driving when she becomes president?

Bachmann also spoke of immigration, saying if she was elected she would put up a wall in the southwest area of the U.S.

That sounds like a wonderful idea. A great barrier wall will keep out all those undesirable people from south of the border. But wait! I have a better idea. If we stop paying illegal aliens to come here, they will stop coming.

Only kidding, folks. Of course we are not going to stop paying them. That’s what makes this country so great. We make it illegal for people without the proper papers to come here to work, so when they do come they can’t complain about low wages, no Social Security, no worker’s compensation, no pay for overtime worked, unsafe working conditions. Employers get this gorgeously cheap labor, and when somebody gets sick or hurt on the job the taxpayers in the community pick up the costs, not the employers.

It is against the law to hire somebody who is here illegally and who does not have the proper work visa. You are invited to get elected to public office and start pushing to enforce this law. You will find your corporate campaign contributions start to dry up like a cow patty on a Texas summer day. While you are at it, please ask every elected official (Republican and Democrat) who has ever hired illegal domestic help to send me a dollar. I need to retire next year.

“I’m going to make English the official language,” Bachmann said. “We will end welfare subsidies for illegal aliens, and I’m going to end the practice of anchor babies — where illegal aliens come into the United States and have a baby, and that baby is given American citizenship and immediate access to welfare benefits”

I have been hearing this “English the official language” crap for years now, and it does not make a lot of sense. This appears to be a solution in search of a problem. Reality belies the idea that the English language is in danger in this country.

I lived a few months on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, California, and my friend Greg and I were the only people living in the apartment complex who could not speak Spanish. However, English was never in danger, even there. This was brought home to me one day as I was walking by the pool where some grade school kids were playing. One little girl became disgusted with a certain little boy, and she told him what he could do with himself in English I have not heard since I served on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic.

I once attended a business conference in Spain, where they speak Spanish, of course. Of course Spanish is not the language of this region of Spain, which supports three Spanish-like languages. Using my best Spanish I asked a sales clerk if she spoke Spanish. She replied “un poco.” The conference was hosted by the Telefonica, the Spanish telephone company and was attended by people from nearly all European countries plus Japan, China, etc. The conference was conducted in English. At the time I worked for a French company with headquarters near the Champs Elysees in Paris. The language spoken at this place is English.

I live in San Antonio, Texas, one of the most Spanish-speaking cities in the United States. You will hear some Spanish spoken on the street and in the stores, but the English is excellent. Of course, the people building the house across the street from me seem to speak only Spanish.

I am not going to dig too much into this “anchor baby” farce except to remind Bachmann that an amendment to the Constitution gives citizenship to everybody born in the U.S. And, these “anchor babies” are not going to take anybody’s job. These children are U.S. citizens with all rights of citizenship. They will be educated in the public schools and receive the same bad education as everybody else’s kids and will have a tough time finding a job, because employers will want to hire illegal aliens who will work for low wages, off the clock, without insurance and worker’s compensation.

“The fact is, we need the most conservative candidate we can get,” Bachmann said.

I hope that does not mean we need the most idiotic candidate we can get. If that’s what we need, then Bachmann is our guy.

One State, Under Duress

Just finished watching Don Lemon interview Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network along with (apparently) Jonathan Saenz of the Liberty Institute. The issue was the new specialty license plate that posts the motto “ONE STATE UNDER GOD” and depicts the  Calvary Hill three crosses motif representing the Crucifixion.

The Texas DMV board recently approved the design by a 4-3 vote, and it is, like all specialty plates, available by special request.

Saenz asserted that Miller’s objections go against our tradition of religious freedom. Also, he noted that other designs depicting college affiliation had been found to be unobjectionable. He noted that drivers have the freedom to express their religious preference on their cars and elsewhere.

Miller stated the problem was not with expression of religious preference but with that preference being appended to a Texas State instrument, the license plate. She asked, in vain, whether Texas should be allowed a specialty plate objecting to religion.

The problem is, Miller mis-argued her case. She ignored Saenz’s continued reiteration that the motif and the slogan were very popular in Texas and represented Texas mainstream values. Saenz had also pointed out that the Texas legislature had approved the “under God” slogan by a wide vote margin with both Democrats and Republicans voting in favor.

What Miller should have stressed is that popularity does not matter, and legislative and DMV board action action does not matter.  Saenz is very comfortable with the assurance that no contrary motif and no motto objecting to God would ever be approved. The legal problem is this is exactly the action covered by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Establishment Clause has the wording “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The Fourteenth Amendment extended this prohibition to state and local governments. What the Texas legislature has done and what the DMV board has done is to make a law respecting an establishment of religion.

The Texas DMV can remedy its action by providing specialty plates to address all sentiments regarding religion, effectively nullifying its action of granting favor to one specific religion. Forestalling a flood of comments to this blog informing me that this would be completely impracticable to implement I state now that this would be completely impracticable to implement due to the problem of economies of scale. The non-recurring cost of providing a specialty plate for Christians would be amortized over several thousand plates, while the cost of setting up a plate with the motto “ONE STATE UNDER DURESS” would be shared by two Texas drivers. And that would only be if I can persuade my lovely wife to order a plate for her car.

Saenz is gong to argue that much the same holds for the college affiliate plates. However, the Texas DMV is not going to approve a specialty plate for the University of Paluxy, which  cost would be amortized over at most one or two Paluxy residents who enjoy a good joke as much as I do. Saenz is comfortable in the knowledge that the non-Christian minority, diverse as it is, could never be seen as deserving of a specialty plate. For him, in numbers there is right.


The Bill of Rights was put in place exactly to protect those who do not have the numbers to  vote their protection against government action. The Texas DMV action is exactly the government saying “Our religion is the right one, and you can just go to you know where.”

People, we get the government we deserve. Shame on us.

Deconstructing Phillip Johnson

I have completely updated this post with changes in language and additional text. 23 December 2011.


The Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture (CSC) is the principle organization in this country dedicated to the promotion of creationism in the form of Intelligent Design. An item on their Evolution News blog directed me to a video featuring noted creationist Phillip Johnson. This particular post is by Jonathan M. and is titled “Maligning Phil Johnson, with Lots of Rhetoric but Little Substance.” Apparently biochemist Larry Moran and mathematician Jeffrey Shallit have taken time out to critique the video, and Jonathan M. is distressed at their lack of civility.

Phillip Johnson is a retired professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, and prior to that he was a lawyer of some significance. In one capacity he was law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. More recently Johnson became critical of science’s infatuation with natural processes and evolution in particular. Johnson is distressed at the reliance mainstream science places on natural process to the exclusion of supernatural processes, particularly supernatural processes that align with Johnson’s religious beliefs. For the remainder of this post the term “evolution” will be used to mean biological evolution by only natural processes.

The Johnson video is about 58 minutes long, and readers are encouraged to watch it all the way through. I did, and I was impressed by its lack of candor and no small amount of flummery. I will itemize a few points and leave to the reader the task of dissecting the remainder.

The video has the title “Focus on Origins” with the subtitle “Darwinism” and was produced by the University of California, apparently in 1993. The date is significant, because this was soon after Johnson published Darwin on Trial, his critique of evolution, and this was the year following the symposium Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?, which was held on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The date is also prior to the formation of the CSC and the unauthorized release on the Internet of the so-called Wedge Document, which outlined the CSC’s roadmap for vanquishing naturalism.

You would like to think the video is going to involve somebody interviewing Johnson, asking his take on Darwinism and such. The interviewer would have a list of questions to ask, and Johnson would respond to the best of his ability. The appearance, however, is that some people got together and decided to make a video arguing against evolution and for a religious view of the world. The interviewer has a set of loaded questions, and Johnson has his prepared responses. The narrative proceeds in a question-response sequence with an apparent goal in mind.

It starts innocently enough. The interviewer asks:

How does a lawyer’s perspective help in evaluating scientific theories? Aren’t you a bit out of your element?

Johnson agrees readily that he is an outsider with regard to biology and evolution, but he argues that even Darwin was not trained in evolution before developing the theory of natural selection. He notes that Charles Lyell, the founder of modern geology, was himself a lawyer. Johnson contends that nobody specializes in a science called evolution, and then he goes a bit further with a statement that will raise some eyebrows. “Molecular biologists, for example, are relying on fossil experts, paleontologists and vice versa.”

This should get the attention of scientists working in the field. Ask a molecular biologist whether he routinely wanders over to the Paleontology Department and asks the researchers there to confirm his findings of common inheritance. I am just another outsider, but everything I read convinces me that molecular biologists are quite satisfied with their work and would knock heads with any paleontologist who disagrees with their findings. How did Johnson come by his bizarre conclusion? I am going to guess he pulled it out of the same place from which he pulls a large portion of his ideas about how science works. If you ever questioned Johnson’s claim that he is an outsider regarding science, his opening lines in the video will put your concerns to rest.

Johnson goes on to say that his role is to apply a lawyer’s perspective and to examine the underlying assumptions (presumably to assure us these assumptions are false). What follows sets the tone.

Johnson talks about things people take for granted and never question.

One of those things is the creative power of natural selection. If you ask these people, “How do you know that mutation and selection in the Darwinian mechanisms have the power to create complex organs?” The answer they give will be some variation on, “Well, everybody knows that. That’s common knowledge. We settled that long ago.”

We wonder who Johnson has been talking to. His implication is that nobody has given this any thought, and nobody in mainstream science is concerned with this issue. While Johnson may be correct in saying, by implication, that scientists have not demonstrated the production of complex organs by natural selection, the thrust of his statement is pure propaganda.

Contrary to what Johnson may think, scientists have demonstrated principle aspects of evolution and natural selection, including the following:

1. Natural selection can produce marked changes in populations, as demonstrated by the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in their study of finches on the Galapagos Islands. See The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s an excellent treatise on how science is done, and it won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

2. The fossil record shows multiple examples of the stepwise development of complex organs as exemplified by the development of the mammalian ear from the reptile ear.

When Johnson addresses his concerns about the underlying assumptions of evolution, the chief one seems to be the exclusion of supernatural processes. In other parts of the video Johnson bears down not so much on the development of complex organs (and organisms) as on science’s reliance on purely natural processes, such as natural selection.

Here are comments on some additional question-answer exchanges. The reader should follow up by reading the analyses by Moran and Shallit.

Doesn’t the natural history of life through time demonstrate the fact of evolution?

Typical of Johnson’s explanations, his response to this is far from matter-of-fact. He hedges a bit but he seems to say, “No.” Here is a short quote from his response:

One can’t even talk about the fact of evolution, because it’s such an ill-defined thing. What is it?

This comment is completely disingenuous. The fact of evolution, that is the core of the theory, is well-established. Either Johnson is unaware of this, or else he wants you to believe something that is not true. He continues:

But any event, some creatures become extinct, some species become extinct, and others come into existence somehow, no one knows how. They are more or less related to what went before, in that they have common features with the things that went before, and so it’s reasonable to speculate that there was some possibility of development that produced them, but everything said beyond that is just rank speculation and really fiction.

In a rambling, oblique way Johnson seems to be saying he does not believe the basic fact of evolution-that current life forms share a common ancestry.

What is so puzzling about this is that just a few months prior to the interview Johnson was saying something else.

At the SMU symposium in March 1992 I had the opportunity to find Johnson in conversation with Jon Buell. Jon Buell heads up the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, the organization that produced the Pandas and People creationist text that was central to the Kitzmiller v. Board of Education trial in 2005. The FTE was also a co-sponsor of the symposium.

I put to Johnson my two burning questions: Do you believe the Earth is billions of years old and that current life forms share a common ancestry? Johnson blinked a couple of times and stated flatly yes to both parts. Amazingly, Buell answered affirmatively, as well.

I discussed this topic again with Johnson in subsequent correspondence, and he never used the occasion to repudiate that position. Watching his response in the interview you will not get the idea that Johnson believes in common ancestry.

What can be taught legally in the science classroom?

Johnson’s response details what, in his mind, is a vast conspiracy to suppress any scientific explanations in science classes that would encompass religious ideas. What he is referring to but does not state is that the courts have ruled that for public schools the introduction of religious explanations that have no basis in fact amounts to proselytizing at public expense and is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Elsewhere in the interview he hints broadly of an antipathy toward religion in higher academics.

What Johnson chooses to ignore is that the First Amendment only applies to instruction supported by public funds. He does not seem to notice that prestigious, church-supported colleges and universities teach only natural explanations in science classes even though they are not required to by law. A short list would include Baylor University, Brigham Young University, Notre Dame, Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University. These places are hardly hotbeds of anti-religious sentiment.

Is it illegal to teach Pasteur’s Law of Biogenesis that life does not arise spontaneously?

This, too, is odd, because Johnson does not answer the question that was asked. Louis Pasteur ran some experiments similar to ones that had been performed earlier. These experiments showed, for example, that maggots did not appear in meat that was kept isolated from egg-laying flies. He then concluded that life could derive only from other life.

In his response Johnson makes no reference to Pasteur but leaps immediately to a discussion of whether courts would take issue with an instructor who proclaims that life cannot ultimately originate by natural processes.

The reality is that no science course has any problem with Pasteur’s experiments or with his conclusion that maggots cannot be produced from untainted meat.

Despite what Johnson may want you to think, a science teacher in a public school could, with no problem, tell students that no experiments have ever produced life from non-living matter. There might be a problem if the teacher relied upon religious explanations for this result, but only in public schools.

This is ultimately going to be a problem for the creationists. It is now 2011, and the scientific study of the origins of species (and life) has been going on for less than 152 years. At some time in the future the text in bold type face above will become obsolete. We wonder what the creationists’ fall-back position will be then.

It is evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Are there natural processes which prevent evolutionary change?

This is a queer sort of “question.” The first part is not a question at all. It’s a purported statement of fact that Johnson is expected to assume when answering the second part.

The first objection to this is that the statement is false. It is not evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Contrarily, the fossil record does record changes in major body plans. The previously-mentioned record of the development of the mammalian ear from the reptilian ear is an easy example that comes to mind. The development of the mammalian ear is considered to be a driving force for the development of the mammalian jaw from the reptilian jaw.

I recently completed reading Roger Lewin’s excellently illustrated book Thread of Life. The subtitle is The Smithsonian Looks at Evolution, and it follows what was, at the time of its publication in 1982, the scientific understanding of biological evolution for the 3.8 billion years that life has been on this planet. The date is significant, because it’s eleven years prior to the Johnson video. The material presented in this book does not consist of arcane research results published in obscure journals. This is stuff that was generally known in the scientific community at the time and was readily available to Johnson, if he would care to indulge. It would appear that he does not.

Page 186 illustrates the scientific findings related to the evolution of the mammalian ear.

Evolution of mammalian jaw and ear were linked. Beginning with lobe-finned fish, bottom, and progressing through primitive amphibian to mammal-like reptile and modern mammal, colors in diagram show shifts in size and function of bones.

  • Hyomandibular became stapes in ear
  • Quadrate became incus in ear.
  • Articular became malleus in ear
  • Angular became middle ear housing, or auditory bulla.

If Johnson wants to dispute that fundamental body plans undergo major evolutionary change, he needs to directly address specific points like this rather than make vague and unsubstantiated assertions. What Johnson does say is this, answering the question part:

Yes, one of them is called natural selection. You see in fact, natural selection is what prevents gradual step by step change from occurring. It’s a conservative force that promotes the stasis that you actually see in the fossil record and in the evidence. And the reason for that is that if you try to change one kind of thing into something basically different by tiny step by tiny step you are going through intermediate space where the thing isn’t viable.

You can imagine this in the sense that — suppose that you got a set of mutations which in themselves might be capable of turning a mouse into a whale. That’s essentially what is deemed to have happened according to the Darwinian theory. Not literally because it’s not literally a mouse, but something like that, a tiny four-legged creature must have changed step by tiny step into a whale. But if you imagine that starting to happen it’s counterfactual because you have to imagine the mutations coming and there’s no evidence that they exist. You can see that somewhere there the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail and gear for breathing underwater it would become awfully unsatisfactory as a mouse and helpless and it would get eaten or would be unable to survive. But natural selection would weed it out.

This quote is interesting in so many ways.

First, Johnson began the entire dialog indicating he did not pretend to be a scientist but was qualified to analyze the state of modern science from a lawyer’s perspective. He would demonstrate bald assumptions and would show where the claims do not follow from the evidence.

In order to demonstrate this latter part he discovers the need to pass judgment on the scientific evidence, and to do this he has to step into the role of a scientist. Here is where Johnson has historically gotten into trouble and why he has caught so much grief from scientists. He often demonstrates he has gotten his scientific facts wrong, he has not deeply studied the subject matter he is willing to discuss, and he completely misunderstands much of the material he has studied.

Johnson has made an unfortunate choice in picking the evolution of the “mouse” to a whale, because that is one area of evolutionary development that has yielded significantly to scientific study and analysis in recent years. Johnson can be forgiven for not knowing of this fairly recent work, because, as he has assured us, he is not a scientist. I will also forgive him for not knowing that whales cannot breathe under water.

What Johnson missed in his quest for fault in modern biological science is something that has been spelled out in Carl Zimmer’s book At the Water’s Edge. Zimmer relates the research into the progression of life from its place of origin in water to dry land and the subsequent return of mammalian life to the water in the form of whales and porpoises. He explains what Johnson failed to understand, how “the mouse started to develop flippers and a big tail.” What Zimmer does not explain is how mammals learned to breathe under water. This may forever remain unexplained.

Johnson’s puzzlement regarding how the “mouse” managed to survive without becoming eaten while morphing into a water animal is itself puzzlement. I am not a biologist, but in my naive analysis I think first of a bear. A close relative of the bear is the badger, which more closely resembles an otter than an otter resembles a bear. The otter spends a lot of time in the water and has feet and a tail that assist in swimming in the water. The sea otter spends almost all of its existence in the water and in that way is much like a sea lion, which is much like a seal, only the seal spends very little time out of water. Another ocean-going mammal is the whale, which never comes ashore except by accident.

So there is a rough progression of mammalian life from the bear to the whale, and all of these intermediate forms seem to be doing all right without being eaten to extinction. Keep in mind I have not just described a line of descent from bears to whales. The whale lineage has long gone extinct, and we have only fossil evidence of the whale’s ancestors.

Of course, Johnson can still assert that morphing an otter-like animal into a sea lion-like animal will involve some intermediate forms that are not viable. This is a common practice of creationists, and I invite him to give it a shot.

About ten years back I debated creationist Don Patton, and whale evolution looked like a good source to make my point for evolution. I pointed out the following:

For example, the anatomy of the foot of Basilosaurus allies whales with artiodactyls (Gingerich and others 1990). The axis of foot symmetry in these fossil whales falls between the 3rd and 4th digits. This arrangement is called paraxonic and is characteristic of the artiodactyls, whales, and condylarths, and is rarely found in other groups (Wyss 1990).

Patton’s response was that the fossil foot bones were not attached to the remainder of the skeleton and were not used for feet but to anchor some muscles. I think my reply to this was something like, “Then why do they look like feet?”

We have other biological evidence of the whale’s ancestry, as well. Biologists are currently sorting out whale molecular phylogeny, which currently indicates a common descent with artiodactyls-hoofed land mammals with an even number of toes.

I have covered only a few examples from the interview, but they exemplify Johnson’s pronouncements and writings on science.

The driver of this discussion was the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Darwin on Trial. The CSC has recently been celebrating this great milestone, and the Evolution News blog has carried a number of items about Johnson and his role in the promotion of the Intelligent Design movement. Real scientists have been pushing back, and one aspect of this reaction has been some rude commentary.

CSC blogger Jonathan M. has taken offense at this rudeness, and we are supposed to be outraged. My own outrage has yet to see the light of day, because I have endured twenty years of the kind of obfuscation and tomfoolery dribbled out by Johnson and other fellows of the CSC. It is difficult to be civil to these people in the face of their rude treatment of the truth.

Of course, the Johnson interview is seriously out-dated. Intelligent Design has accumulated nearly two decades of history since then, and Johnson may have changed his position on some points. However, the core claims remain the same:

1. Science should not be bound to natural processes.

2. Naturalistic science is antithetical to religion and to religious freedom.

3. Evolution is a dogmatic, secular religion and is not based on sound science.

4. The facts of evolution are false. Life could not have originated by purely natural means, and the life forms we see on the Earth today required a supernatural intelligence to guide their formation.

The Wedge Document previously mentioned was apparently drafted in 1998 and is considered to be an outgrowth of Johnson’s thinking. It states two main goals of the CSC:

“To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies”

“To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”

Recent outpourings of the CSC through their Evolution News blog indicate that not much has changed in the twenty years since publication of Darwin on Trial.


Jonathan M.’s blog posting is here.

Larry Moran’s and Jeffrey Shallit’s comments are here.

The Phillip Johnson interview can be seen here.

For more on Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference? follow this link.

Wikipedia has a comprehensive commentary on the Wedge strategy.

For a review of The Beak of the Finch follow this link.

Roger Lewin’s Thread of Life is available on

I previously discussed At the Water’s Edge in The North Texas Skeptic.

Some of the narrative from the Don Patton debate is on the NTS Web site.

Wikipedia discusses whale evolution.

For the interested viewer, here are the interview questions and program notes, along with the time marks:

[Start] How does a lawyer’s perspective help in evaluating scientific theories? Aren’t you a bit out of your element?

[3:59] Why are you convinced that Darwinism is more philosophy than science?

[6:06] Have any of your critics acknowledged that Darwinism is something akin to a secular religion?

[8:32] You describe yourself as a creationist. What do you mean by that term?

[10:08] What is meant by the term evolutionist?

[12:03] Do you consider theistic evolution to be a contradiction in terms?

[15:02] Do you believe that natural processes

1. Are sufficient to account for major evolutionary change,

2. Are insufficient, or

3. Prevent major evolutionary change from occurring?

[16:37] Doesn’t the natural history of life through time demonstrate the fact of evolution?

[17:56] What do you consider to be the best evidence for evolution?

[20:43] What do you consider to be the major problems with Darwinian theory?

[25:50] Darwinian theory predicts that the accumulating diversity of species should precede the disparity of the higher taxa. Isn’t geological succession in systematically reverse order to Darwinian predictions?

[28:00] Do you reject the concept of descent with modification?

[30:09] It is evident from the fossil record that fundamental body plans do not undergo major evolutionary change. Are there natural processes which prevent evolutionary change?

[32:05] If Darwinian theory is such a poor theory why don’t more scientists reject it?

[33:49] Why don’t scientists consider creation to be an alternative explanation of origins?

[35:38] If science is limited to naturalism what possible alternatives could exist to evolutionism?

[37:35]Do you have any alternative research program for scientists?

[40:39] Darwin’s extrapolations seem more metaphysical than empirical. Shouldn’t scientists return to more empirical science?

[42:00] Do scientists need a better understanding of nature’s ordinary rules of stability and stasis before they can develop better theories of change?

[43:26] Could scientists come to the conclusion that natural processes prevent major evolutionary change?

[44:51] Does the California Science Framework allow criticism of Darwinian theory in the classroom?

[46:54] What can be taught legally in the science classroom?

[49:25] Is it illegal to teach Pasteur’s Law of Biogenesis that life does not arise spontaneously?

[50:43] Doesn’t the uncritical teaching of Darwinism undermine support for public education?

[53:46] Introducing Michael Behe

[53:59] Introducing Michael Denton

[53:59] Introducing Dean Kenyon

[54:04] Introducing Charles Thaxton and Walter Bradley

[54:13] From IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY The Biochemical Challenge to Darwinian Theory (Michael Behe, courtesy Access Research network

By Design

This item first appeared in the October 2011 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

The word has been out for some time now. Intelligent design is not creationism. Also, it is about science, not religion. All this we were told as early as six years ago when parents of school children sued the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board. The trial is referred to as Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education.

Board members William Buckingham and Alan Bonsell kicked off the process after discovering that the school’s biology program ignored religious truths and taught evolution as fact. Initially they were less circumspect in voicing their motives. The Topeka Capital-Journal carried the Associated Press story:

Board members have been less guarded, and their comments go well beyond intelligent design theory. William Buckingham, the board’s curriculum chairman, explained at a meeting last June that Jesus died on the cross and “someone has to take a stand” for him. Other board members say they believe that God created Earth and mankind sometime in the past ten thousand years or so.

The board’s initial contact with the Discovery Institute was encouraging, and they may have thought they would receive DI support. But that is another story. In any event, the DI advised its fellows not to offer their testimony at the trial, and three, including Stephen C. Meyer and William Dembski did withdraw their early offer to speak for Intelligent Design.

The creationists lost big time in the Kitzmiller decision, but the DI escaped the exposure of a public humiliation. After dodging the bullet the DI came back and attempted to reap some glory. They now want to hold up Kitzmiller as an exemplary for official suppression of science. Following the judge’s decision the DI’s Evolution News Web site carried this item:

“The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won’t work,” said Dr. John West, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading think tank researching the scientific theory known as intelligent design. “He has conflated Discovery Institute’s position with that of the Dover school board, and he totally misrepresents intelligent design and the motivations of the scientists who research it.”

This, and similar advertisements since 2005 have sought to reassure outsiders that the DI has only real science at heart. For a distinctly creationist organization this would seem to be a sound strategy. Heartfelt Christians do not need any coaxing, but public officials sworn to uphold the law will be reluctant to promote any pseudo science based on religion. Judge John E. Jones has now ruled this is against the law.

When given the opportunity these new age creationists disdain any comparison of Intelligent Design with biblical literalism and young Earth creationism. The effect has been that we see others reciting the “true science” mantra when given the public ear. To maintain this image the new age creationists have continued their campaign of truth management toward some success. If only they had started much earlier.

Spiritual they may be, but the new creationists are not psychic. The future was not theirs to see. In those early times the consequences of their actions somehow escaped them. If only they had known. If only they had not written The Book.

The problem with The Book begins with The Title: Mere Creation. I have wondered since whether they would have chosen something different if only they had known.

Mere Creation sprang out of a conference in 1996 at Biola University in Los Angeles. The conference was sponsored by the Christian Leadership Ministries and was attended by two hundred academics who had issues with natural causes in general and Darwinian evolution in particular. Editor Henry F. Schaefer assures readers that almost none of the attendees advocated a literal interpretation of Genesis and were certainly not creationists of the young Earth sort.

Schaefer wrote the forward to Mere Creation, and his diagnosis of its fertilization does little to dissuade the reader that legitimate science is the primary goal. It is difficult to read several paragraphs without getting the idea that Christian religiosity is a common thread. From page 10:

To unite on a common ground. The Christian world is badly riven over the “creation-evolution” issue. Yet a surprising amount o common ground unites many (if not all) of the feuding parties. The conferees should seek a way of approaching the origins issue that will unify Christians. The conferees should provide a means to discover shared principles and ideas by letting disputants spend time together amicably in a private setting where reputations are not on the line. The conference would also seek to formulate a general position statement on origins (“Mere Creation”) that could be widely endorsed by Christians. (To preserve freedom of inquiry, conference participants decided against formulating such a position statement. William Dembski’s introductory chapter in this volume is the closest thing to such a statement.)

From the book it is as though every time the DI issues a public proclamation that Intelligent Design is not a religious concept, the rank and file plus the leadership of the Intelligent Design movement say, “Not so fast, there.”

Searching out a contributor having few bones with the religious position of Intelligent Design, I settled on the piece by contributor Del Ratzsch. Here is Ratzsch’s portfolio from the book on page 463:

Del Ratzsch, Ph.D. (philosophy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst), professor of philosophy at Calvin College, author of Philosophy of Science and The Battle of Beginnings (both InterVarsity Press). Much of Ratzsch’s work over the last seventeen years at Calvin College has sought to relate science and religion (and more recently creation and evolution) in a way that is philosophically informed, scientifically defensible and theologically meaningful. Although Ratsch is optimistic that design theory can avoid past mistakes in the creation-evolution controversy, he stresses that fundamental clarifying work remains to be done in this area.

If I were inclined to find religious undertones to Ratzsch’s work, I would pick up on his various references to religion, theology and creation in the above. What is more significant are references within Ratzsch’s contribution, Design, Chance & Theistic Evolution at page 289.

While some contributors to Mere Creation are circumspect with respect to who is the designer behind Intelligent Design, Ratzsch is clear on this point. The intelligent designer is God. On page 292:

Implications: Relations

Although the preceding points are all closely linked, they are distinct and for the most part are not coextensive. Most important for the moment is that neither counterflow, artifactuality nor intervention entails nomic discontinuity. Consider this sort of case: Suppose that emergence of a specific innovation in some organism requires a subtle alteration at a particular gene site. Spontaneous decay of a specific atom at that site would, via purely natural processes, trigger the desired alteration. Spontaneous decay of that atom is completely within the bounds governing natural law, and there is a specifiable probability of its doing so. However, suppose that if left to itself it will not decay. God, being omniscient, knows that, so he intervenes, decreeing the decay. All then proceeds as indicated. (This approach to biological history may be called quantum progressive creation, although some persons who call themselves theistic evolutionists fit here. Some discussion of this general idea is in Ratzsch 1996a, 186-88.)

God receives little attention in Ratzsch’s narrative up to this point, but here it seems impossible for him to avoid the topic. If an atom is to decay when it was not supposed to, then God is the only cause that comes to mind.

Ratzsch falls into a trap that even some physicists are unable to avoid. When he speaks of an atom decaying, Ratzsch is implying an atom of some radioactive isotope. It is well understood that such atoms have a certain probability of undergoing spontaneous decay within a given time interval. For example, an atom of a given radioactive isotope will decay within the next two weeks with a fixed probability. This property is often expressed as the half-life of the isotope. Specifically, carbon 14 is radioactive and has a half-life of 5730 years. If you were to isolate a single atom of carbon 14 and then lay bets on whether it would still be there 5730 years from now, you would win half the time. Another result is that if you have a pound of carbon 14 in a container and looked in on it 5730 years later you would have only one half pound of the stuff. The other half pound would have decayed to nitrogen 14.

What is critical in all this is that there is nothing that can be said of exactly when or if a specific atom will spontaneously decay. You cannot examine an atom by any means and say, “This atom will decay at 9:15 p.m.” Ratzsch’s idea that an atom was not supposed to decay at a specific time to enable a genetic change, but was enabled to do so by God, is completely off track. Spontaneous radioactive decay is completely spontaneous and is also a prime exhibitor of the definition of the term spontaneity. It is also a good place to hide an intelligent designer, be it God or some other interested person. Natural spontaneity is a fabulous magician’s hat. The magician can pull out if it any desired object.

More on Design, Chance & Theistic Evolution. Page 304:

Subjunctive governance. Now it may well be that there are counterfactuals of nature that are not only true but known by God. Here is a simple example. Given the fundamentally indeterministic character of the basic natural laws, there would be no way (remaining within the context of those laws) to create some radioactive atom that would be causally guaranteed to decay exactly at 2 p.m. Yet it is possible that that atom, so created, would in fact spontaneously decay at precisely the moment. Of course it might very well not. But suppose that the truth of the matter was that it would do so. Were it going to do that in fact, God would know that fact. Thus, although its creation plus complete specification of relevant conditions plus the relevant laws would not entail that it would decay at that moment, it is nonetheless true that

(2) Were God to create that atom in the specified state and in the specified conditions, it would in fact decay at that precise moment.

Here Ratzsch has taken on a big load and has passed it on to God. If I desired, I could read the preceding in the following way:

1. It is not within that natural world that an atom can be engineered to decay at a certain time.

2. However, God knows a way around the rules.

3. If an atom is about to decay spontaneously, God will know this (he is, after all, God).

4. Regardless of all that, if God wanted to, he could create an atom to decay at a precise moment to facilitate the creation of a beneficial genetic trait.

5. God, who has his hands (?) full managing all the thousands of atoms in the universe, is unable to aid an innocent child dying of hunger and in great pain. This is because God so loves us all, that he takes great care to mete out punishment to the innocent in order to keep erstwhile sinners in line.

I added item 5 out of some meanness that exists within me. It is meant to show where Ratzsch’s argument naturally leads, and it also illustrates why sincerely religious and caring people cannot stomach the perversion of the Christian faith practiced by these people who will hold on to ancient myths at any cost.

Of course, Ratzsch is not alone in letting slip the agenda behind Intelligent Design. Phillip Johnson is considered to be the godfather of the Intelligent Design, but he has never disguised his disdain for what he calls materialism, and what scientists call the real world. Johnson’s contribution is an afterward titled A Call to Separate Materialistic Philosophy from empirical Science. That seems to really be the subtitle to “How to Sink a Battleship.” Johnson highlights three events of recent time for their impact on public thinking. Some are of interest, but not for the reason Johnson intended. He summarizes on page 446:

These three events symbolized a tremendous change in the ruling philosophy in the United States. Science now teaches us that a purposeless material process of evolution created us; the artists, poets and actors teach us that biblical morality is oppressive and hateful; and the courts teach us that the very notion of god is divisive and so must be kept out of public life. The pledge of allegiance may say that we are “one nation, under god,” but we have become instead a nation that has declared its independence from God.

Reading this it is hard to escape the idea that what matters most to Johnson is God or at the least morality. Johnson, like many Christians and even Jews and Muslims, find it impossible to disconnect God from morality. Anything that obsoletes God will undermine morality and must be rejected at any cost. That cost seems to include a large number of scientific truths.

I had promised myself I would not dwell on Johnson’s three recent events, but I cannot pass by his attention to the stage play and motion picture Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee. Johnson and other creationists like to attack the story as a perversion of the 1925 Scopes trial. Johnson and others portray Inherit the Wind as an attack on Christianity and a propaganda piece for evolution. In fact, Lawrence and Lee wrote the play in 1955 as a statement on government oppression, such oppression being manifest at the time as attacks on free speech and free association by members of Congress and by a number of laws passed during the time. The Scopes trial was an example in recent history of the government’s attempt to dictate scientific truth or at least the public dissemination of such. The writers never intended their play to represent the real story of the trial, and they did what all authors do in such a case. No names of actual people were used, and even the play’s story line does not track the actual events. You will not hear this from the creationists. They have their own story to press.

William Dembski has been called by his associates “the Isaac Newton of information theory.” While Dembski may or may not take this attribution to heart, he seems not to have denied the honor. I have previously referred to Dembski as Intelligent Design’s brain trust. Out of all the crackpot ideas and defenses of Intelligent Design, Dembski’s argument from information theory seems to be the best supported by logical explanation. This is unfortunate for the Intelligent Design movement.

If Dembski could leave his case at the information theory argument, he could do more to defend Intelligent Design from accusations of religious proselytizing. Dembski appears to be a deeply religious man, and it also appears to be beyond his powers to escape the religious argument. If he and others, writing nine years prior to the Kitzmiller decision, could have foreseen the consequences of this failure, they would have treaded more carefully on this hallowed ground.

Dembski’s position, exposed in Mere Creation, may be coming back to haunt him and the Intelligent Design movement. Page 13:

Why should Christians bother with “mere creation” when they already have a full-fledged doctrine of creation? Sadly, no such doctrine is in place. Instead we have a multiplicity of views on creation, many of which conflict and none of which commands anywhere near universal assent. As a result the Christian world is badly riven about creation. True, Christians are united about God being the ultimate source of the world, and thus they are united in opposing naturalism, the view that nature is self-sufficient. But this is where the agreement ends.

I and other readers may wonder if Dembski meant to put a comma between “True” and “Christian” in the above. I have noticed references by other creationists, including the new age Intelligent Design creationists, that Christians, who accept purely materialistic processes, including Darwinian evolution, are not true Christians. I repeat the phrase “at any cost.”

Page 14:

Within Western culture, naturalism has become the default position for all serious inquiry. From biblical studies to law to education to science to the arts, inquiry is allowed to proceed only under the supposition that nature is self-contained. To be sure, this is not to require that we explicitly deny god’s existence. God could, after all, have created the world to be self-contained. Nonetheless, for the sake of inquiry we are required to pretend that God does not exist and proceed accordingly. Naturalism affirms not so much that God does not exist as that God need not exist. It is not that God is dead so much as that God is absent. And because God is absent, intellectual honesty demands that we get about our work without invoking him (except, of course, when we need to pacify our religious impulses). This is the received wisdom, and it is pure poison.

As a defense for the case that Intelligent Design does not represent a religious agenda, this is right up there with “the dog ate my homework.” I have wondered whether Dembski and the others would have been more cautious in laying out their argument for Intelligent Design in this book if they had known how this kind of thing would play later in the courts.

Despite their prior proclamations of faith, the DI fellows continue to deny the equivalence of Intelligent Design and creationism. David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the DI Center for Science and Culture, the main proponent of Intelligent Design in the United States. He blogs regularly for the Evolution New and Views Web site. Here is what the DI has to say about Klinghoffer, among other things:

He is the author most recently of How Would God Vote?: Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative (Random House, 2008.) His previous books are Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday, 2005), The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism (Doubleday, 2003) and the spiritual memoir The Lord Will Gather Me In (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 1998), a National Jewish Book Award finalist. His forthcoming book is Shattered Tablets: What the Ten Commandments Reveal about American Culture and Its Discontents (Doubleday, 2006). A former literary editor of National Review magazine, Klinghoffer has written articles and reviews for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications.

This list of Klinghoffer’s publications pays special tribute to his devotion to real science and the absence of a religious agenda.

Searching for an example of the conflict between the DI’s claimed denials of religious intent and their actions, I had to spend 30 of the few seconds remaining in my life to find this Klinghoffer posting:

Garry Trudeau Joins a Special Club with an Unfortunately Large Membership

David Klinghoffer September 28, 2011 11:49 AM

It’s the club of those scientists, journalists and other “thinkers” who feel entitled to condemn and mock intelligent design without having first bothered to do even a little homework on their own and learn what ID actually says. The revered “Doonesbury” cartoonist comes out today with a strip where fictional reporter Rick Redfern asks real-life Texas governor Rick Perry, “You’ve dismissed evolution as ‘Just a theory that’s out there.'”

Perry replies: “Yes, I believe in intelligent design.”

Redfern: “But that’s just creation renamed to get into the classroom. Evolution is the foundation of all life sciences. Without it, whole fields — from biology to genetics to ecology — can’t exist.”

The strip goes on from there and doesn’t get any funnier than that. It reminds us of how grateful we are for every honest and informed critic of ID who, no matter how harsh he may be in his dismissal, has at least taken the trouble of first getting minimally acquainted with ID and then straightforwardly describes the idea before attacking it. To equate intelligent design with creationism is to reveal, without shame, that you’re too lazy to invest that modest effort — either that, or you’re too dishonest. [emphasis added]

A point to note is that when the new age creationists argue that Intelligent Design is not creationism, what they really mean is that Intelligent Design is not the same as the story of creation given in Genesis, which is, in fact, the case. Having made a strictly true statement, they let it drop at that. They do not proceed to complete the statement with, “However Intelligent Design encompasses the creation of the world and all life forms by some supernatural being [we call God].” The supernatural creation of the world and all life forms is what is universally (except within the public proclamations of the new age creationists) accepted as the definition of creationism. Maybe what I should have said is Mere Creation.

I advise all interested readers to read some or all of Mere Creation. It’s a wonderful book to illustrate the double talk of the new age creationists. I bought my copy some years ago, but Goggle has a searchable scan of the entire volume online. See the link below.


The Discovery Institute gave their assessment of the Kitzmiller decision on their Web site:

The Topeka Capital-Journal had the AP story here:

See Mere Creation on line at:

Daily Video For 13 December 2011

For the record, the school buses in these videos are from the San Antonio Northside Independent School District. Enough said about that.

Some kindhearted people have suggested I find more productive use of my time. And I will, in time. For the moment, however, I find these sequences amusing, and amusement is what I seek.

I am not being judgmental. I make no comment as to whether anybody is doing anything wrong. The video sequences speak for themselves.

So, why school buses? Why not, say, private autos, UPS trucks, mail trucks? The answer is school buses are big and yellow and run on a schedule. And I own them, partially.

There is another matter, as well. What is not apparent is that the school buses are the most diligent about stopping (or almost stopping) at the stop sign. Nobody, but nobody, else even comes close to stopping.

Take a look at the first video. While the bus driver makes a good pretense of coming to a stop, the car following the bus does not even bother. Let’s all hear it for our valiant bus drivers.

First Video

Second Video

Three cheers! The afternoon driver came to a complete stop.

Third Video

This Has Got to Stop

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Saudi authorities have executed a woman convicted of practicing magic and sorcery.

The sorcery, that is. Who do they think they are, these sorcerers? Don’t they know they are violating fundamental principles of physics? What are they thinking?

Thank God the Saudis have the religious police to put a stop to this. How come we don’t have religious police in the U.S.? Never mind. Wait until after the elections next year. Hopefully under the new administration the religious police will work to end violations of natural law here.


I had the book for many years before getting around to reading it. Rhodes is an excellent writer, and the story is insightful and compelling.

This review was initially published in the March 2011 issue of The North Texas Skeptic

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

By Richard Rhodes
Simon and Schuster
886 Pages including a comprehensive index and bibliography

If you ever rented a video you probably wondered where the name came from. In World War II the Brits were bombing German cities, and they developed very large bombs that were capable of taking out a city block of buildings and houses. They were called blockbusters among other terms. Then things got worse.

Richard Rhodes told the story in his 1986 book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The book tells of the development of modern nuclear physics and of the coming involvement of science in the world of politics and war. The book won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.

The German word thal (tal) means valley, and Sankt Joachimsthal in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic was the site of a great mineral wealth. Silver came from the region and later uranium ore. The silver was struck into coins that became known as Joachimsthallers, and the thaller became the English dollar and the unit of currency for a new nation on the North American continent.

The uranium was the source from which Nobel chemists Marie and Pierre Curie extracted radium. Their discovery also revealed the enormous amount of energy released from nuclear reactions. Einstein had it right. His demonstration of the equivalence of matter and energy showed that a small quantity of matter represents millions of times the energy that can be extracted by chemical processes.

The ruling Magyar nobility of Hungary kept 33 percent of the population illiterate until the early twentieth century. They apparently overlooked the Jews, who comprised only 5 percent of the population, and the Jews profited from this slight by gaining professional ascendency when prosperity came to Hungary. This gain brought with it envy and persecution. As a result, a small collection of highly-developed Jewish minds fled Hungary and wound up mostly in the United States in time to help develop the atomic bomb.

Leo Szilard was one of these Jews, and his insight came as he was crossing a London street in 1933. If the absorption of a neutron by an atomic nucleus caused that nucleus to fragment and also to release two more neutrons, then the cascading chain reaction could quickly result in the disintegration of a mass of the affected material with the instant release of a tremendous amount of energy. By the time Szilard reached the opposite curb he had foreseen the end of humanity.

European and particularly German persecution of Jews split the European science community. Nobel laureate physicists Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Wolfgang Pauli stayed on, and some worked on an atomic bomb program for Germany during the war. German-born Jew Albert Einstein was hounded into leaving, eventually coming to the United States. The pacifist who established the basis for nuclear energy never worked on the atomic bomb project, but early on he lent his name to a letter that went to Franklin Roosevelt recommending its development.

Italian physicist Enrico Fermi won the Nobel Prize just in time to use the cash to extract himself and his Jewish wife from his Fascist homeland. In Chicago his team produced the first sustained nuclear chain reaction within a huge stack (pile) of uranium and highly-purified graphite blocks. This process was ultimately used to produce the new element plutonium for construction of atomic bombs.

Danish physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr was the grand old man of atomic physics, having early in the century proposed the modern model of the atom. Denmark was invaded by the Nazis in 1940, and the Danes were fiercely resistant to the German occupation. Theirs was a quiet and stubborn resistance, one of strict non-collaboration. Bohr’s ancestry was partly Jewish, and he was a major champion of this resistance. The Nazis tolerated the resistance at first because they considered Danes to be almost German. However, when the Danes persisted in refusing to give up Jews for deportation, the Nazis clamped down, and Bohr fled the country, going at night in a small boat across the narrow strait between Denmark and Sweden. His trip from neutral Sweden to England was in the bomb bay of a Mosquito aircraft, wearing a parachute and carrying emergency flares. In case the Mosquito was shot down the plan was to drop the old man into the North Sea and hope for the best.

On a wintry day in Sweden Otto Frisch and his aunt, Lise Meitner, stopped on a snowy hiking trail and worked out the energy production from the fission of unstable nuclei. Marie Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot won the Nobel Prize for work in the transmutation of elements. As war approached they stopped publishing their work, but stayed in Europe and locked their papers in a secret vault.

In the United States Ernest Lawrence developed the cyclotron and used this device for separating the usable 235 isotope of uranium from the mostly 238 mass of the metal. American chemist Glenn Seaborg worked out the means to separate plutonium from uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in Fermi’s pile. From 300 pounds of uranyl nitrate hexahydrate his team produced a microgram of plutonium.

The stage was set. We knew how to get the materials to make the bomb. All that was necessary was to scale up the process.

Army Corps of Engineers General Leslie Groves was a man of big projects. After completing the construction of the Pentagon Building he was tapped for the new Manhattan Project. With a blank check, almost unlimited power and little detailed planning he built in a few months the largest industrial concern in the world at the time. The Manhattan project encompassed wholly new research laboratories and huge industrial plants erected on newly-purchased land. An observer noted later that the United States essentially duplicated its entire automobile industry to build the bomb.

The motivation was two parts. It was known that Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan had the foundations for developing the bomb. To face these adversaries naked in a nuclear world would be unthinkable. The other motivation was expediency.

Since the days of the Great War there had been the dream of having weapons so powerful that an adversary would capitulate before economic and human costs became ruinous. The machine gun proved incapable of providing this benefit, even after the British saw around 19,000 killed in one day. Neither did poison gas provide such a benefit.

Here, also, saw the advent of the warrior-scientist, as German scientists contributed to the development of gas warfare. Otto Hahn was a Nobel Prize chemist, as was Fritz Haber. Together they developed gas agents for battle and even participated in battlefield logistics. Later Hahn fiercely opposed Hitler’s program of Jewish persecution and extermination, and he learned in horror of the Hiroshima bombing while in British captivity following the defeat of Germany in World War II.

The early twentieth century also witnessed a numbing of the senses toward civilian casualties. Modern weapons were less discriminating. Not only soldiers, but the infrastructure that supported the soldiers’ war became a target. A factory that built guns was bombed, along with the civilian workers inside. Later it became permissible in our minds to also bomb the workers’ homes so they would not be able to perform their factory jobs. Ultimately we saw fit to lay waste to large residential areas in futile attempts to force our adversaries to capitulate.

The Germans got the idea early on. Poland was the first to suffer, with Warsaw being pounded to rubble before it surrendered. The German bombing of Rotterdam convinced the Dutch to quickly give up the fight before other cities suffered the same fate. When England refused to make peace following their defeat at Dunkirk, the German air force sought to suppress the RAF in preparation for an invasion. When German bombers hit the city of London by mistake, the Brits replied in kind and bombed Berlin. The Germans then turned their attention to British cities, and thousands of civilians were killed while the RAF recovered its strength and proceeded to defeat the Germans in the air.

The British and the Americans went on to beat the Germans at their own game and gave that country ten times over its own measure. On a hot night allied bombers set great fires in Hamburg and followed up the next day. Thousands died within a few hours. Other cities followed with Dresden being the most notable with tens of thousands killed over two days of bombing.

On the Pacific side the war against civilians took an even uglier turn. The atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese army and the fanatical determination of Japanese to fight to the death convinced the Americans that threat of defeat would not force the Japanese to surrender. How much it took to harden the heart of General Curtis LeMay may not be known, but he took on the job of bombing the Japanese Empire into ashes. Raids on Japanese cities resulted in the deaths of 100,000 or more in Tokyo and other large cities. On the last day of the war, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been nearly obliterated, LeMay’s bombers continued their attacks on Osaka.

Hans Bethe, who determined the source of energy from the sun and won a Nobel Prize, was the instrumental designer of the bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, who grew up as a pampered Jewish intellectual, became the driving force behind the scientific effort. His surprising administrative skills and enormous scientific talent held the project together and ensured success beyond original expectations. Oppenheimer had vacationed in New Mexico as a sickly youth, and came to know the region around the mesa of Los Alamos. Groves purchased the site on the mesa of a boys school, and the best scientific minds of the early twentieth century came there to work.

In the beginning it was not certain the principle envisioned by Szilard in 1933 could be made to work in a bomb. Uranium 235 turned out to be the only isotope of the metal that had the properties to produce a chain reaction. A small sample would not sustain a chain reaction, because it would lose neutrons before they could induce additional fission. A large enough mass would go in a microsecond without additional help. Somewhere in between the self-produced neutron flux of the metal would multiply until the metal became hot enough to vaporize. The trick was to go from a sub-critical mass to a critical mass in a very short time, before the reaction had time to vaporize the remainder of the metal. There was also the problem of external neutrons. What was a subcritical mass at sea level could become critical at higher altitudes, where neutrons from cosmic rays were more abundant.

The solution for uranium was to shoot a plug of uranium at high velocity into a sub-critical mass, producing a super-critical mass. This method was so sure and so well worked out in advance that it was not even tested before use. The first atomic bomb used in warfare was a uranium bomb.

Plutonium was another matter. Plutonium 238 has a much shorter half-life than U235, and spontaneous neutrons abound. Assembling a critical mass would be more difficult for plutonium.

The solution for plutonium was to use high explosives to compress a sphere of the metal. The plutonium mass would be about the size of an orange, only with a hollow core. In the initial test on 16 July 1945 about two tons of high explosive, carefully molded and machined into the correct shape to produce a focused pressure wave, was detonated around this core.

The pressure wave collapsed the hollow plutonium sphere. Within the hollow of the sphere was a trigger of polonium, which gave off ample alpha particles, and also beryllium, which produced neutrons in abundance when bombarded with alpha particles. The pressure wave compressed the plutonium metal to twice its density, but could not hold it there. During one brief instant the neutron surge from the beryllium was necessary to ensure there were some neutrons to get the reaction going before the plutonium expanded back to its natural density.

The test was a complete success, producing a blinding flash of light and a fire ball that fused the sand of the New Mexico desert. Standing some distance away, Enrico Fermi measured the yield of the explosion by dropping bits of paper into the surge from the blast. He reckoned approximately 10,000 tons of TNT equivalence. About a gram of matter had been converted into energy.

Three weeks later a uranium bomb exploded over Hiroshima. The physical effects were the same, except a human element was involved. In the order of 100,000 people, mostly civilians, died as a direct result. The lucky ones were those vaporized by the flash. Others, farther away, had their skin instantly burned off by the intense heat.

The bomb released energy in the order of 10,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT, but the effects were not the same as a chemical explosion. The Hiroshima bomb produced temperatures and thermal radiation many times the intensity of a chemical explosion. Additionally, the ionizing radiation from the bomb produced the predicted result of a slow and painful death to many who would otherwise have survived.

At this point the Japanese government was still unsure how to respond. Devastation at Hiroshima was so complete that it took a day to comprehend what had happened. Three days after Hiroshima, a B-29 unleashed a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki. Finally the leaders of the Empire began to realize that in short order the Japanese race would disappear from the face of the Earth unless they could get the Americans to cease and desist. Surrender was still an ugly word among the Japanese leadership, and a minor revolt in the upper ranks attempted to forestall the inevitable. Still the Japanese rulers bargained for retention of the Emperor, and when the allies agreed, the military government conceded, and the bombing stopped—with LeMay’s last mission over Osaka.

One of the Jewish refugees from Hungary was Edward Teller. He was prominently involved in the atomic bomb project, and it quickly became apparent to him and to others that the temperatures and pressures of a fission bomb detonation would induce the fusion of hydrogen, especially heavy hydrogen. Since hydrogen 1 and hydrogen 2 are not radioactive, any amount of the material could be clustered next to the fission bomb trigger, and very large hydrogen bombs could be produced. The first hydrogen bomb was detonated at ground level and produced a crater half a mile deep.

The world has not been the same since. Nation states, a fairly recent concept, have come to recognize that nuclear weapons can be the tool of their imminent demise and have started to act accordingly. One result has been the lack of any wide-spread wars since 1945. Douglas McArthur wanted to use the atomic bomb in the Korean conflict, and President Truman nixed the idea. The prospect of a nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea’s patron, the Soviet Union, was obviously on Truman’s mind.

Richard Rhodes tells the story with a clarity and with an attention to detail seldom matched. The book is extremely well researched with sources drawn from public records, private notes and declassified files. As much a tale of the construction of a horrible weapon, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a history of science and a revelation of how serious science is done.

It’s about people who have already won a Nobel Prize getting dirty and carrying blocks of sooty graphite and packages of uranium compound into the lab. It’s (future Nobel winner) Luis Alvarez first learning of induced fission while reading the San Francisco Chronicle in a barber’s chair and rushing off to his lab, with an unfinished hair cut. It’s General Groves putting a tail on Robert Oppenheimer and learning that the married directory of the Manhattan Project science team spent the night with an ex-girlfriend, who was an avowed communist.

Rhodes brought the science and the sacrifice down to human terms. Reading this classic we can come to know of these scientists as people and to appreciate the personal sacrifices they wrestled with to pull off this tremendous accomplishment in a time of national urgency.

The book also emphasizes a critical lesson. Science shows us the world is how it is, not how we wish it to be. The scientists could not keep the principles of nuclear energy a secret from society, even had they wished to. The facts had always been there for them or for anybody who came after to reveal. The genie had not been trapped within a bottle, because the bottle never had a lid on it.

I Am So Sorry

Recently I was reminded of the humorous story about the little boy who prayed for a bicycle. He prayed to God but to no avail. No bicycle came his way. So he stole a bicycle and then prayed for forgiveness.

I found the story so humorous and so heartwarming.  What a wondrous religious belief it is that provides the ultimate plea deal. Forget about the distress of the person who has been wronged. Ask for forgiveness, and all will be forgotten. No restitution will be required, and no punishment will be assigned. It is the best kind of scot-free.

There is one proviso, however, You cannot ask forgiveness from just anybody. You have to ask one special person. No other will do. Ask forgiveness from the wrong source, and there will be no absolution. You will still be in deep doo-doo. Your tough luck.

So I thought about this wise and thoughtful child and his wonderful gift of insight.

And for some reason I thought about Newt Gingrich.

Where Santorum Really Shines

Supposedly over a century ago Virginia congressman John Randolph said of another person something to the extent: “Like a dead mackerel in the moonlight, he shines, and he stinks.”

Now for Rick Santorum.

I have Michael Zimmerman to thank for this. He watched the video and provided the following quote from Rick Santorum.  The Nashua Telegraph has been interviewing the candidates for the Republican nomination and last month had Senator Santorum on for about an hour. If you watch the video, the fun part starts about 52 minutes in:

There are many on the left and in the scientific community, so to speak, who are afraid of that discussion because, oh my goodness, you might mention the word, God-forbid, “God” in the classroom, or “Creator,” that there may be some things that are inexplainable by nature where there may be, where it’s actually better explained by a Creator, and of course we can’t have that discussion. It’s very interesting that you have a situation where science will only allow things in the classroom that are consistent with a non-Creator idea of how we got here, as if somehow or another that’s scientific. Well maybe the science points to the fact that maybe science doesn’t explain all these things. And if it does point to that, then why don’t you pursue that? But you can’t, because it’s not science, but if science is pointing you there, how can you say it’s not science? It’s worth the debate.

View Santorum’s entire comment on this issue and see if you do not agree with my assessment.

Santorum seems to be saying there are some things science cannot explain (or has not yet explained) and we should look to the supernatural for explanations. Furthermore, these supernatural explanations should be promoted in science classes in public schools.

Forget about private schools. Schools that do not receive public money are pretty much free to do or say anything they want. Particularly they can promote any of a number popular (or not so) religious ideas and call them science.

Public schools should, as all legitimate schools should, have a science program rooted in valid scientific research, but public schools are particularly prohibited from promoting any religious philosophy. This has been the law since the enactment of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and about 150 years ago this requirement was extended to all schools supported by tax money with the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Outside constitutional issues with Santorum’s stance, there is a key problem with this way of thinking. Santorum seems to welcome the introduction of Intelligent Design in the science classes, but he would be very uncomfortable with the remaining alternatives to natural science. Clearly Santorum is thinking that only explanations compatible with the god of Abraham would be allowed in the classroom. Other explanations, such as The Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is equally valid, would be excluded I am sure.

The sad part is that Santorum is not alone in this way of thinking. Restricting the list of like thinkers to the current panel of Republican contenders for president I can name Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

Candidates who seem not to have stepped into this king size cow patty include Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. Two of these candidates are members of one of the most conservative religious sects in the country. Specifically, Jon Huntsman has stated on more than one occasion that modern theories of evolution are valid science, and Intelligent Design is incompatible with good scholarship. It would be difficult to stick the label “godless liberal” on Huntsman or Romney.

Going further, Santorum’s characterization of those opposed to Intelligent Design and other forms of creationism as “many on the left” can hardly be reconciled with known reality. Here is a short list of respected colleges and universities that teach Darwinian evolution and make no mention of supernatural causes (such as a creator): Notre Dame, Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Baylor, Brigham Young University. These can hardly be tagged as seats of godless liberalism.

Santorum needs to rethink his position of science education, and voters need to rethink  any support for Rick Santorum. The man has a serious problem with his thought process.

Michael Zimmerman also has comments on Michele Bachmann. See the next post.

Dream Team

But, it was never to be. This post by Jeff Poor of the Daily Caller got my hopes up only to dash them from the start. Will my prince never come?

“I’m very disappointed [in] Michele Bachmann,” Trump said. “She’d come up to see me four times — four times, she’d call me, she’d ask me for advice. She said I should be her vice-presidential, you know, if she wins she’d like me to think about me for the vice presidency.”

The Donald offered a presidential (hopefuls) debate, but nobody accepted except a couple of losers, whose names I cannot remember right now.  Bachmann was one of the brilliant host that turned down the kind offer.