Australian sentenced to 500 lashes in Saudi Arabia

I could not pass this up. Whatever happened to just washing people’s mouths out with soap?

The 45-year-old man, identified by family members as Mansor Almaribe of southern Victoria state, was detained in the holy city of Medina last month while making the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj. Family members told Australian media that Saudi officials accused him of insulting the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, a violation of Saudi Arabia’s strict blasphemy laws.

He also was sentenced to a year in jail. This is a reduced sentence from the original two years. The Saudis are such forgiving people. The Australian government objected to the lashing. They are opposed to corporal punishment. The year in the pokey is OK?

In the Company of Clowns

Over the last few years I spent a lot of time making fun of the Texas Board of Education (BOE). So did some others.  Presently I picked up on a note by a columnist who cited a Board member chaffing at all this ridicule. The Board person was blaming the press and others for representing the BOE as a bunch of clowns. The columnist rightly responded with something like, “Really?”

Of course I stole the idea, and Prasad and I did the cartoon.  Here is the cartoon for the December issue of The North Texas Skeptic:

The Age of Faith

The age of faith is upon us. The next few weeks are chock full of days with religious significance. But all is not peace and harmony. There are many who differ, as Adam Hadhazy writes in Life’s Extremes: Atheists vs. Believers.

Religion, it goes without further saying, is a very popular phenomenon. In the U.S., as in much of the world, a majority of people claim to practice some form of it. According to recent surveys, around 80 percent of American adults say they belong to an organized religion.

A minority of that population takes its religion very seriously. These individuals’ behaviors and attitudes are largely influenced by what is perceived to conform to their faiths’ dogmas. On the opposite end, another, smaller percentage of the population thinks that religion is absolute hooey.

The hooey bunch comprises about 15% of the U.S. population. Of these, 0.7% or 1.5%, depending on whether you go by the recent ARIS or Pew polls, respectively, are anti religious. That is to say, they are atheists, literally without religion.

Surveys have shown, however, that about a fifth of Americans describe themselves as extremely religious…

Observing family life and religion one could get the idea that religion, or lack thereof, is inherited. It’s really more likely that environment rather than heredity determines a person’s stand on religion. This lines up with atheist Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes.

Dawkins coined the word meme (the behavioral equivalent of a gene) to describe how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins

Dawkins went further to liken religion to a virus. Religion does not spread itself. It infects a host, much as a virus does, and that host produces more copies of the virus by proselytizing the religion to others.

Beyond regional influences, brain conditioning may also move an individual out of the mainstream of mild and moderate religiosity into atheism or zealotry.

Newberg and other researchers have seen changes, for example, in the brains of those who meditate or pray frequently. Imaging studies have revealed that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are activated during prayer, increase in activity and thickness in people. The thalamus, a key relay that integrates sensory information, also showed changes in people who prayed for as little as 12 minutes a day for two months, Newberg explained.

“There’s this saying, ‘the neurons that fire together wire together,'” said Newberg. “The more you believe in it, the more that belief becomes your reality.”

Now, that’s a scary thought. One thinks of the Taliban, who suborn reverence for human life to absolute adherence to blind faith. We have seen small flickers of this in recent Western society with the Jim Jones People’s Temple, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite tragedies.

Now, go enjoy your Christmas dinner.

The Embarrassment of Herman Cain

Why did it take so long?
Let’s start with “999.” Herman Cain’s solution to the government’s revenue process was to boil it down to a catch phrase. As Cain explained it, there would be 9% of this, 9% of that and 9% of something else. I will not elaborate, because my guess is it was never intended to fly.
When asked to elaborate, Cain’s response was typically that the interviewer just did not understand. Let me give my interpretation: “You are too stupid to comprehend my great plan.” Also, when pressed, Cain responded frequently with an inane come back such as, “You are comparing apples to oranges.” Cain’s elaboration of an over simplified concept was another absurd simplification that did not explain anything.
And here is what is so perplexing, so disturbing. There is a body of people who find great appeal in this over simplification. At one time Herman Cain was at the top of the polls in the run for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. Keep in mind this is not the Know Nothing party of a previous century. This is the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. People were donating millions of dollars to a campaign that comprised little more than vague simplifications of some serious public issues.
In my mind I imagined the American public holding its collective breath, waiting for this empty shirt to collapse. So obvious it was that there was an enormous vacuum behind this bland façade. At any moment this vaudeville show was going to run its course and fold like an empty sack.
And, much later than sooner, the charade did unravel, but absurdly for all the wrong reasons.
It started early in October when women began to come forward with allegations of Cain’s inappropriate behavior. There were tales of lewd propositions, crude groping and hints at sexual quid pro quo.
Surprise, surprise! Although Cain’s poll numbers did begin to slip, donations to his campaign surged immediately. Obviously Cain was the victim of 1) the left wing press, 2) the Democrats, 3) Texas governor Rick Perry. You pick your favorite. Cain and his supporters cast out one or the other of these possibilities at various times, and contributors came to his defense.
His core support could not hold off the inevitable after Cain had to admit to a 13-year very close friendship with yet another woman. He has now “suspended” his campaign but not his collection of funds.
So, what do I think of Cain? I would like to think he is unduly stupid on these points:

  • He overly simplifies inherently difficult and complex issues.
  • He is unable (or unwilling) to explain any details of his political agenda.
  • He denies the basic science behind global warming and biological evolution and supports the pseudo science of Intelligent Design—exhibiting a mind ruled by ideas and not facts.

However, his technical background includes a B.S. in mathematics and an M.S. in computer science (who else can I think of who has one of these) indicating a capable mind at one time. Even more, he wisely got out of engineering and into management where the real money is, and he went to the top of his new profession, becoming CEO of major concerns.
No, Cain is not my concern. It’s the people who flocked to him. If people did not demand simple and nonsensical answers, politicians would not offer them, or else the politicians who did would quickly come to grips with reality. The reality, however, is that there is a large section of our population for whom the truth is a sometime thing. For these people whatever is said long enough and loudly enough becomes reality. These people obtain the government they ask for.

Good, Bad and Ugly

Science, Good, Bad and Bogus
Martin Gardner
Prometheus Books 1989, 412 pages including index (paperback)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a film starring Clint Eastwood, and I can’t help but believe somebody had this in mind when naming the book. Gardner died this past May, even while I was reading again his entertaining collection of essays on fraud, pseudo science and various other mental lapses.

Gardner had previously written Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. In Science, Good, Bad and Bogus (GBB) he continues the narrative. He does not set out to explain good, bad and bogus science in story form. Instead, the book comprises a selection of essays, separately written.

The writings derive from a number of popular sources, including Science (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), Scientific American, Yale Review, Stranger than Fact and Technology Review. The collection also includes an excerpt from Gardner’s own Logic Machines and Diagrams, a copy of which I happily own, having purchased it as a teenager. But largely the essays come from the New York Review of Books (NYR), to which he was a prodigious contributor.

Regarding the latter, it would seem that every time the NYR editors came across a choice piece of mental dead meat they would nod their collective heads. “We need to give this one to Gardner.”

Gardner must have shortly in his life become stunned and appalled at the intellectual vacuum that pervades modern society. In an age of enormous scientific advancements from relativity and quantum mechanics to exploration of the Solar System, there remains an undercurrent of crass stupidity that assails the sensibilities of thinking people. He shows no compassion for writers and speakers who blather nonsense in the face of hard facts. Reactions to his scathing reviews are like the squeals of rodents caught in the beam of a spotlight.

Charles Tart was a “parapsychologist” doing research at the University of California at Davis. He used a machine called a “Ten-Choice Trainer” (TCT) to help people with psychic ability improve their scores on tests for same. The test worked like this:

A sender in one room viewed a panel with ten playing cards, ace through ten. A randomizing mechanism would select one of the ten cards and would activate a light next to the card. The sender would then push a button, causing a signal to be sent to the receiver. This told the receiver that the sender was now looking at the selected card. The receiver would then turn a dial to select the correct card. The dial position was fed back to the sender in real time, allowing the sender to mentally direct the receiver to the correct card. Finally the receiver would select a card by pushing a button next to the card. If the receiver’s choice was correct, a chime would sound. This would provide positive reinforcement and would help the receiver to learn and to sharpen his extrasensory perception (ESP) skills.

Tart wrote a book describing his work, Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception, published by Chicago Press in 1976. In the book he claimed scores considerably better than could be expected by chance. He heralded his results a “breakthrough” in ESP research.

Came time for Gardner to review the book in 1977 for NYR, and he, as was his practice, went beyond checking for spelling and grammar. As Gardner reports, three of Tart’s colleagues at UC Davis wrote a critique of Tart’s experimental method. They had read Tart’s book and asked to see the raw data. Reviewing the data they realized, for one, the randomizer was not exactly random. They likened Tart’s protocol to a chemist using a dirty test tube and obtaining anomalous results, and they suggested that Tart repeat his experiments after fixing the problem of the non-random random number device.

Gardner saw an additional flaw in Tart’s technique. If the sender, subconsciously or deliberately, delayed sending his signal to the receiver, the receiver might pick up on this idiosyncrasy, and this could become a signaling path from the sender to the receiver. The receiver could pick cards depending on the amount of delay and could improve his score above chance.

Gardner also points out a finding by the mathematicians who examined the data. There is an unexplained absence of doublets. Not so many 2, 2 and 7, 7 sequences, for example, as one should expect. The TCT recorded only the receiver’s score, not the entire sequence of random numbers. This led to the possibility that the sender was hitting the send button a second time whenever the new number was the same as the previous number. The receiver could significantly increase his score by never choosing the same card twice in a row.

Wait, there’s more. The sender and receiver were in nearby office cubicles, and one sender, Gaines Thomas, revealed he would sometimes orally coax his own display of the receiver’s actions as he monitored them on his display. He would curse when the sender appeared about to stop on the wrong card. Whether the receiver was ever cued by these sounds coming from the sender’s cube is not known.

In response to the criticism, Tart revised his technique and repeated his experiments. He published his results as “Effects of Immediate Feedback on ESP Performance: A Second Study” in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.1 Gardner tellingly quotes a significant statement in the paper: “There is no evidence that more percipients scored significantly above chance than would be expected if no ESP were operating.”

Rather than admit the initial results were due to his own faulty technique, Tart, as Gardner reports, attempted to explain away this lack of success. Principally, there was a lack of ESP talent for the follow-up experiment. “In the last year or two, students have become more serious, more competitive, more achievement-oriented than they were at the time of the first experiment.” And more.

Tart asserted the results of the first experiment were so significant they could not be ignored. As Gardner comments, Tart could not reconcile that the first experiment demonstrated his failure as a scientist. Rather, his earlier results put the results of the second experiment into doubt. Gardner, and the reader, are dumfounded at the audacity. Not speaking for Gardner, I would add I am not in the least surprised by Tart’s reasoning.

Tart responded to Gardner’s critique in 1981. His approach is telling:2

I see that Martin Gardner is again using this popular literary journal as a vehicle to attack my scientific research that was reported in my Learning to Use Extrasensory Perception (University of Chicago Press, 1976) [NYR, May 15]. As a working scientist, I am committed to reporting and dealing with all of the facts in my studies, whether they agree with my cherished beliefs or not. Data is primary. Gardner, by contrast, apparently knows what’s true and false in some absolute way, so when inconvenient facts run counter to his beliefs he suppresses them or rationalizes them away. He knows that ESP is impossible, so when he is presented with evidence for it, he imagines some way in which the experimenters are fools, frauds, or both. Mr. Gardner doesn’t need actual evidence for this, his suspicions are sufficient. Most people would consider his casual and unsupported accusation of fraud against one of my more successful experimenters, Gaines Thomas (now a professional psychologist), as malicious libel, but I suppose Mr. Gardner believes he’s just protecting us gullible people from ourselves.

Without belaboring the deficiencies of Tart’s response, a small highlight will illustrate. Tart mentions “accusations of fraud” and “malicious libel” with respect to experimenter Gaines Thomas. In his review, Gardner did not accuse Thomas of fraud. He merely pointed out a source of possible failure of the test protocol (swearing audibly when the receiver was straying from the correct choice). Lacking a basis for rebuttal, Tart elevated these comments beyond any reasonable interpretation in an attempted misdirection of the reader.

GBB is replete with such examples. Gardner reviews a lame or outlandish piece of work and provides the reader with an exhaustive background against which to view it. And he is merciless in his lack of praise, especially when dealing with a writer who has little appreciation for the truth. Reading the review is fun enough, but the subsequent exchange between Gardner and the subject is often more telling. It’s a comical aspect of human nature that a groundless proponent will only dig a deeper hole when dealing with exposure.

The book would have been entertaining enough if Gardner had stuck to failed pseudo science such as Tart’s ESP escapades. However, in GBB the reader’s cup does run over. Gardner leads us through the full spectrum of pseudo science, fools and quackery. His topics include “Hermit Scientists,” “The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle,” “Geller, Gulls, and Nitinol,” Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Two books on Talking Apes.” Thirty-eight episodes flesh out this excursion into modern, and not so, silliness.

Gardner’s review of The Preachers by James Morris (1974) gives us an insight into the excesses of religious fervor. Gardner is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, also the home of Oral Roberts’ high octane ministry and also the “one-man denomination” of Billy James Hargis.

Roberts discovered the power of godly healing when a deacon of his Georgia church suffered an accident involving his foot and a heavy motor. More miracles followed. Also more money. Subsequently his Tulsa-based Healing Waters, Inc., employed 287 workers, mostly “to open envelopes and count the cash.” Morris reports an estimated annual take of fifteen million dollars (approximately the year 1973).

There were minor problems. Roberts healed a woman with diabetes. She stopped taking her medication and died. He healed a woman with cancer. She gave testimony about her miraculous cure shortly before she died.

Hargis did not do any healing, but he did fight communism. And no wonder. I am certain the communists would have cast a baleful eye on Hargis’ half million-dollar mansion in Tulsa. That mansion with ninety phone outlets. This was about 1974, a few years before the advent of cell phones.

Billy Graham escapes the scorn heaped on others by holding to the line of the true faith. A minor embarrassment was his close association with Richard Nixon. Graham was particularly shocked by the red-blooded language that emanated from the now-famous tape recordings.

Near the end of GBB is an item titled “Broca’s Brain.” Carl Sagan published this collection of his own essays in 1979, and Gardner’s review is an insight into Sagan’s survey of intellectual foolishness. The reader will be recommended on this title, as well.3

The unfortunate thing about GBB is that many of the subjects of his review are now dated. Where is Uri Geller now? And whatever happened to Oral Roberts? GBB touches on Lyall Watson without reference to Lifetide, which introduced us to the Hundredth Monkey Syndrome. Apparently NYR never picked up on the title.

The good thing about GBB is that you can take many of his subjects, exchange anachronistic names for more pertinent ones, and the story will read about the same. If one thing has changed since the publication of GBB that thing has not been the failure of human sensibility.

By our good fortune, the New York Review of Books has seen fit to publish its archives on line. You should be able to pick up many of Gardner’s fascinating pieces, including humorous exchanges with his review subjects on their Web site.4

Readers of Martin Gardner often assumed he held advanced degrees in mathematics and science. In fact he had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and a deep understanding of these topics gained through tireless research for his writing. Gardner fans could do well reading only GBB. They can do even better by also looking into any other of his 50 or so works. Our Web site lists links to some of the available titles. When you purchase from Amazon through our link the NTS earns a commission.5

References
1 Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (1979, 73, 151-165)
2 See the full response here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1981/feb/19/claims-for-esp/
3 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0345336895/thenorthtexasske
4 Start here to search or to find archives by date: http://www.nybooks.com/
5 http://www.ntskeptics.org/books/gardner.htm

Evolution Writ Large

This was previously published in the September 2010 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

At the Water’s Edge
Carl Zimmer
The Free Press, 1998, 290 pages, including index

At The Water's Edge by Carl Zimmer

Animal life began in the sea, and the story of how it came onto the land is also the story of the science behind the evolution of animal life. A popular creationist mantra is that micro evolution by Darwinian processes is feasible, but not macro evolution. By Darwinian processes the creationists mean evolution by natural means involving random mutations coupled with natural selection. By micro evolution they mean small changes that can be accomplished by one or two random mutations in a genome. This would be a change in eye color, for example. By macro evolution they mean the origin of a species, likely involving the fortuitous mutation of multiple genes.

Additionally, embryonic development plays a significant role. A genome is not a blueprint. A blueprint will say, “Drill a hole right here of this size.” A genome is a recipe that says, “Make this protein, then make this one, then this one depending on something else.” Embryonic development involves how the zygotic cells interact with each other, sometimes traveling to other parts of the embryo and affecting the development of other cells. On a larger scale the environment within the egg shapes the final organism. A bird’s shin has a ridge on the front, but this ridge will not form unless the chick threshes about within the egg.

Carl Zimmer wrote At the Water’s Edge twelve years ago, pulling together a vast body of science behind the evolution of fish to mammals. The book also covers the reverse process that involved the development of whales from a hoofed artiodactyl, whose fossils were discovered in Pakistan within the previous twenty years.

Multiple, contributing gene mutations are rare, because each single mutation is rare, and the simultaneous occurrence of several has the probability of the product of the separate probabilities. Multiple, contributing mutations are feasible under the Darwinian mechanism if they occur in progression and each stage in the progression is persistent in the population. An exaptation is a trait that persists in the population because it is beneficial and is still around when it becomes useful for another function, thus allowing Darwinian processes to build on it. Such was the case with fish limbs that were useful in water and required little modification to become useful for moving on land.

Early paleontologists wondered at such creatures as the lungfish. Here was a creature which appeared to be a transition between a fish and a land animal. British paleontologist Richard Owen found Darwin’s ideas about evolution thoroughly repugnant, and the lungfish gave him considerable heartburn.

Lungfish seemed to signal a transition between breathing in water and breathing air, but there were other hurdles. Walking has already been mentioned, but there was also the problem of eggs that needed to thrive outside the water environment. In conjunction with all of this, methods of interpreting sound evolved as reptilian jaws morphed into mammalian jaws, and leftover bones morphed into the bones in our inner ears. Creationists’ statements to the contrary, the transitional fossils linking reptiles to mammals are extraordinarily ample to demonstrate the process.

Mammals existed alongside dinosaurs for millions of years before the dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago. There followed an explosion of mammalian life, and by 40 million years ago some had migrated back into the water to become the ancestors of modern whales.

The ancient Tethys Sea once stretched from Spain to Indonesia, but the movement of Africa and the Indian subcontinent choked it off until all that is left today is the Mediterranean. On the eastern end of the Tethys, in what is now Pakistan, lived an animal with hoofs that ate meat and learned to feed in the inlets of this sea. Paleontologist Phillip Gingerich identified its first fossils and named it Pakicetus, the whale from Pakistan. It marks the transition from land animals to whales.

Becoming a whale involves more than just swimming and feeding in the ocean. Adaptations must also accommodate the need to hear and to see under water. There is also the matter of diving thousands of feet below the surface and enduring the crushing pressures. The evolution toward the modern whale is amply demonstrated by a progressive lineage that includes:

Pakicetus
Ambulocetus
Dalanistes
Rodhocetus
Takracetus
Gaviocetus
Basilosaurus
Dorudon

and finally Mysticetes, the baleen whales, and Odontocetes, the toothed whales. It’s enough to make a creationist cringe.

Zimmer’s book is a tour de force of modern paleontology, geology, embryology and genetics. Since the publication of At the Water’s Edge science has gone forward, generally confirming the conclusions of those twentieth century scientists and sometimes making corrections and extending their conclusions.

The book is a must for anybody who debates Young-Earth Creationists, and I have used its material for just this purpose. Advocates of Intelligent Design will not be amused. They are willing to accept the facts of evolution but will continue to insist a supernatural process is at work. To defeat them other work will be necessary.

The book is still available on Amazon. Use the following link to get your copy:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0684856239/thenorthtexasske

Day Old Bread

I originally published this in The North Texas Skeptic in August 2006. Here is a link to the original: http://www.ntskeptics.org/2006/2006august/august2006.htm#bread

Ann Coulter writes things designed to bring distress to liberals. Her comments typically contain enough truth to make liberals squirm but not enough to make them change their evil ways.

Coulter’s latest book, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, hit the New York Times Best Seller List at number one on June 25th this year. If liberals are no longer squirming as much it could be because Godless takes an unfortunate detour into the real world and steps on some land mines that should be on everybody’s maps by now. It’s also a bunch of day-old bread.

I am not one of those who believe all conservatives are like Coulter and are willing to drop off their intellect at day care while they pursue an ideology. To be sure, many conservatives were not comfortable with Coulter to begin with, and they will not be storming out to buy this book. So, why did I? We shall see.

Robert Savillo has written a nice critique of Godless, and I am going to draw shameless on it for the following.1

Two chapters of Godless take on the matter of evolution, or, rather, not evolution. Chapter 8 is “The Creation Myth: On The Sixth Day, God Created Fruit Flies.” It begins:

Liberals’ creation myth is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology for scientific rigor.2

This sets the tone and at the same time showcases classic Coulter: Evolution is a myth (gets evolutionists hopping), and Scientology lacks scientific rigor (inescapable). The conscientious reader implicitly signs off on the first part in order to accept the second part.

Nobody expects a political writer to be science savvy, and Coulter did get expert scientific advice for this book:

I couldn’t have written about evolution without the generous tutoring of Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and William Dembski, all of whom are fabulous at translating complex ideas, unlike liberal arts types, who constantly force me to the dictionary to relearn the meaning of quotidian.3

I guess we see the problem right here.

Behe, Berlinski, and Dembski are all fellows of the Discovery Institute, the kind of creationism Coulter seeks to appreciate. The scientific inadequacies promoted in Godless can usually be palmed off on the Discovery Institute’s own brand of truth management. Particularly, Coulter seems to have studied under creationist Jonathan Wells. Wells laid out Coulter’s agenda in his book Icons of Evolution. Coulter takes the icons at face value.

Archaeopteryx

We can start with Archaeopteryx:

For over a hundred years, evolutionists proudly pointed to their same sad birdlike animal, Archaeopteryx, as their lone transitional fossil linking dinosaurs and birds.4

Coulter points out that Archaeopteryx seems to have been a failed bird that, by design, could not fly well. She concludes it “is no relation of modern birds.”

Archaeopteryx is no relation to modern birds in much the same sense Australopithecus africanus is no relation to modern humans. While Archaeopteryx may not be (or may be) in the direct line of descent to modern birds, it certainly has characteristics of both reptiles and birds and thus represents a transition between the two. Coulter does not attempt to explain the existence of Archaeopteryx, because doing so would require dipping into evolution or else magic as an alternative.

Peppered moth

Dark versions of the peppered moth came to predominate industrial regions of England when soot from factory chimneys darkened tree trunks. When the factories cleaned up their stacks, tree bark in those regions lightened up, and the lighter moths came to the fore again. Evolutionists point to this as an example of a changing environment skewing the gene pool.

Coulter notes:

Ted Sargent and others pointed out that peppered moths do not rest on tree trunks, but on the undersides of the high branches. Not only that, but the peppered moth sleeps during the day, coming out to fly only at night when the birds are asleep.5

This pretty much parrots what Wells says in Icons. The problem is Wells and Coulter skip over some inconvenient truths. Particularly, they do not expose their readers to contradictory information. Now for some day-old bread. We have already printed the following in The North Texas Skeptic:

For example, Michael Majerus has published the details of a study in his book Melanism: Evolution in Action:[11]

Resting positions of moths found in the wild in studies between 1964 and 1996

Exposed trunk: 6

Unexposed trunk: 6

Trunk/branch joint: 20

Branches: 15

Summary: 32 of 47 moths (68%) were found on tree trunks

Resting positions of moths found in the vicinity of traps between 1965 and 1996

Exposed trunk: 48

Unexposed trunk: 22

Trunk/branch joint: 66

Branches: 20

Foliage: 22

Man-made surfaces: 25

Summary: 136 of 203 moths (67%) were found on tree trunks.

What is curious is that in Icons Wells quotes from the Majerus book to make his point. Majerus called attention to the “artificiality” of much of the earlier moth studies and included the statement “peppered moths do not naturally rest in exposed positions on tree trunks.”[12] Wells seems to have picked up on that statement and has ignored the data. Also, he does not particularly emphasize the fact that Majerus and others support the peppered moth evidence of natural selection.6

Jonathan Wells treats the study of the peppered moth as a case of scientific malfeasance.

What the textbooks don’t explain, however, is that biologists have known since the 1980s that the classical story has some serious flaws. The most serious is that peppered moths in the wild don’t even rest on tree trunks. The textbook photographs, it turns out, have been staged.7

Coulter writes:

But what about those photos? The famous photos of the peppered moths were staged, often by literally gluing dead moths to tree trunks.8

We have written:

Yes, the photos being used in textbooks are faked – faked! The photos showing two moths side by side on a tree trunk, one light and one dark, are staged-using dead moths stuck there by the photographer. Wells and the creationists would like you to believe this is evidence of scientific fraud perpetrated to support evolution.

Neither Wells nor Coulter seems to have picked up on the obvious–that the purpose of the photos was to make the point that dark moths will be more visible on light-colored bark, and pale moths will be more visible on dark-colored bark. Moths don’t tend to park themselves in front of a camera to have their picture taken, and the obvious solution to the photographer’s dilemma is to kill the moths and stick them on the bark. Life seems to be cheap for little moths. Sort of like the truth for some writers.

Haeckel’s embryos

Ernst Haeckel developed a theory popularly verbalized as “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” It means that embryonic development rehashes prior phylogeny-evolutionary development. He produced some famous drawings of various embryos, from fish to human. He fudged the drawings to reinforce his view.

That was over a hundred years ago, and the scientific community soon disavowed Haeckel’s theory and his drawings. Still, the drawings continued to pop up in biology texts until recently.

To give you a sense of the mountains and mountains of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, until Haeckel’s drawings turned out to be frauds, his crackpot theory constituted one of the main pieces of evidence in support of evolution. Charles Darwin himself said the “facts” in embryology were “second to none in importance” and “by far the strongest single class of facts” supporting his theory.9

Coulter’s Darwin quotes could be taken as strong evidence that Darwin relied on Haeckel’s work to support his theory. Could be, that is, if Haeckel had done his work before Darwin wrote those words. As it is, the first quote is, according to Coulter, from Icons, quoting Darwin from Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. The second quote is again from Icons, this time quoting a letter to Asa Gray in 1860. Haeckel came up with his theory about 1866 and the drawings about 1874.

Coulter next goes on to take down Haeckel, Darwin, and the whole rotten scientific establishment:

And then, in the 1990s, British embryologist Michael Richardson was looking at vertebrate embryos through a microscope and noticed that they look nothing at all like Haeckel’s drawings. Richardson and this team of researchers examined vertebrate embryos and published actual photos of the embryos in the August 1997 issue of the journal Anatomy & Embryology. It turned out that Haeckel had used the same wood cuts for some of the embryos and doctored others to make sure the embryos looked alike. “It looks like,” Richardson said, “it’s turning out to be one of the most famous fakes in biology”-which, in a field crowded with other evolutionary “proofs,” was quite a claim.10

These are Coulter’s words, but the obvious inspiration is Icons. See Icons page 92. Wells, and subsequently Coulter, apparently took liberties in their reading of Richardson. He had this to say about Wells’ interpretation of his work:

A recent study coauthored by several of us and discussed by Elizabeth Pennisi (Science, 5 Sept. 1997, p. 1435) examined inaccuracies in embryo drawings published last century by Ernst Haeckel. Our work has been used in a nationally televised debate to attack evolutionary theory and to suggest that evolution cannot explain embryology . We strongly disagree with this viewpoint. Data from embryology are fully consistent with Darwinian evolution…. the mixture of similarities and differences among vertebrate embryos reflects evolutionary change in developmental mechanisms inherited from a common ancestor… Haeckel’s inaccuracies damage his credibility, but they do not invalidate the mass of published evidence for Darwinian evolution. Ironically, had Haeckel drawn the embryos accurately, his first two valid points in favor of evolution would have been better demonstrated.11

There is no room to recapitulate all of Savillo’s critique here. Readers of creationist literature will find a familiar pattern. Please pursue Savillo’s piece at Media Matters and follow the links for a complete read. You can also borrow my copy of Godless. There is a waiting list.

One observation is interesting. Coulter calls evolution a creation myth and labors through many pages and much sarcasm to pull it down. However, she never offers an alternative explanation. It may be she believes in the six-day creation myth, but she never signs up to it. And she never denounces it either. In this respect she completely understands her reading audience.

We are left to wonder what Coulter really thinks about the issues. Take the speaking engagements and the book sales off the table, and what would she be saying about evolution? If she does not subscribe to the six days of creation, then all those ancient life forms she discusses in Godless really existed, and they had parents, and those parents had parents, and so on. When and how did we go from no mammals to mammals, and when and how did we go from no humans to humans? Is this something never discussed in her world?

In the mean time, Coulter needs to do more of her own research and to quit leaning on those jokers from Discovery institute. She runs the risk of making right-wing, neo-fascist, scum sucking political pundits look foolish. See what I mean? Now she’s got me doing it.

References

1 Ann Coulter’s “Flatulent Raccoon Theory,” Media Matters for America, June 2006

http://mediamatters.org/items/200607070010

http://www.ntskeptics.org/news/news2006-07-19.htm#coulter

2 Page 199.

3 Acknowledgements following page 301

4 Page 219

5 Pages 236-237

6 The North Texas Skeptic, August 2003.

7 Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution. Regenery Publishing, Inc., Washington, p.138, 2000.

8 Page 237

9 Page 239

10 Page 239

11 Michael K. Richardson, et al., “Haeckel, Embryos, and Evolution,” Science (Letters), Vol. 280 ( May 15, 1998), pp. 983-985. (quoted from http://www.nmsr.org/jonwells.htm)

Conservapedia

Editor’s note: I first became aware of this through Robert Park’s blog and other postings on the Internet. The original was published in The North Texas Skeptic, on-line at http://www.ntskeptics.org/2010/2010october/october2010.htm#conservapedia.

It might be wiki, but it’s not Wikipedia. It may not even be a pedia. It’s Conservapedia.

Suppose you have a science book, and you can never work the problems at the end of the chapter. Suppose, again, that you are a book publisher. The temptation is great. You have power.

You can write your own book, and you can edit the solutions in the back of the book to match your own. You can be a contender!

Now you get the idea behind Conservapedia.

I don’t know when it first came about that conservative politics and a conservative outlook on life diverged from physical reality, but Conservapedia seems designed to meet this need. Some with a conservative bent find it more convenient to bend reality rather than to deflect their world view.

You can find Conservapedia at http://www.conservapedia.com. Check it out. Here is a choice entry:1

The theory of evolution is a naturalistic theory of the history of life on earth (this refers to the theory of evolution which employs methodological naturalism and is taught in schools and universities). Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives the following definition of evolution: “a theory that the various types of animals and plants have their origin in other preexisting types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in successive generations…”[2] Currently, there are several theories of evolution. Since World War II a majority of the most prominent and vocal defenders of the evolutionary position which employs methodological naturalism have been atheists.[3] In 2007, “Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture…announced that over 700 scientists from around the world have now signed a statement expressing their skepticism about the contemporary theory of Darwinian evolution.”[4] In June of 2010, Creation Ministries International launched their “Question evolution” campaign. Creationist high school students are going to wear “Question evolution” t-shirts to their high schools and Bible believing churches are going to encourage them to do so.[5]

In all these excerpts I have left in the footnote references. The reader will need to go to Conservapedia and follow the links.

Take a look. No longer is evolution defined as the best and most reliable explanation for biological diversity. It is merely this and little more:2

Evolution (also known as biological evolution, genetic evolution and organic evolution)[1][2] is the change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms through successive generations.[3]

Here is another sample:3

Dr. Jonathan Wells is a biologist who objects to the way evolution is taught in America. His book, Icons of Evolution, criticizes ten major distortions of science which evolution advocates and especially biology textbooks use to support standard evolutionary theory.

No longer is Icons of Evolution a creationism apologetic that has been heavily debunked by mainstream scientists, and no longer is there any question about the ten icons. These icons really are “distortions of science.” Conservapedia says so.

That entry links to Wells’ book.4

Icons of Evolution is a book by Jonathan Wells which argues that “the best-known “evidences” for Darwin’s theory have been exaggerated, distorted or even faked.”[1][2][3][4]

Wells explains his title in the book’s introduction:

These examples are so frequently used as evidence for Darwin’s theory that most of them have been called “icons” of evolution. Yet all of them, in one way or another, misrepresent the truth. (p. 7)

No question about it. These examples “frequently used as evidence for Darwin’s theory” all “misrepresent the truth.” Isn’t it great to be a publisher?

Wikipedia has its own entry for Conservapedia:5

Conservapedia is an English-language wiki project written from an American conservative Christian viewpoint. It uses editorials and a wiki-based system to generate content. It was started in 2006 by home schoolteacher and attorney Andy Schlafly, son of conservative Catholic activist Phyllis Schlafly,[3][4] to counter what he called the liberal bias of Wikipedia.[5][6] The project has generally received negative reactions from the mainstream media, as well as from various figures from both ends of the political spectrum, including commentators and journalists.[7][8][9][10][11] It has been criticized for bias and inaccuracies.[10][12][13]

We have previously touched on the Sternberg affaire. Two years ago we gave Richard Sternberg a fairly rough ride on these pages, because, despite assertions to the contrary, it would appear his expulsion as depicted in the Expelled video was greatly exaggerated.6

Conservapedia serves to rehabilitate:7

Dr. Sternberg became the victim of retaliation by evolutionists after he allowed the publication as managing editor of an article by an advocate of intelligent design in a scientific publication,[2] despite the fact that Dr. Sternberg followed all the standard peer review procedures for publication in the journal, the “Proceedings of the Biological Society.”[3] Three qualified scientists, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologists teaching at well-known institutions, approved the paper. The Journal issued a statement in which it stated that “The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history”. [4]

Expelled gets a much better trip in the pages of Conservapedia than it gets anywhere in mainstream journalism or in the halls of academia:8

The film clearly shows that scientists and educators who promote intelligent design are persecuted by the scientific establishment.[7] Examples given by the film include Richard Sternberg, a biologist, journal editor, and research associate at the National Museum of Natural History, and Guillermo Gonzalez, a pro-intelligent design astrophysicist denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.[5]

There is a temptation to extrapolate on this trend by Conservapedia to treat creationism favorably. However, a quick glance through relevant pages shows little in the way of overt support for creationism outside the realm of Intelligent Design. For example, the entry related to Big Bang cosmology is fairly straight-forward, if brief. To be sure, young-Earth creationism does not receive the rough treatment in Conservapedia that it can expect almost everywhere else.

The correlation between political conservatism and anti-intellectualism has been observed before. We are not shocked when a conservative talk show host gives a free pass to some guest espousing creationism. Ann Coulter’s book Godless: The Church of Liberalism drips in scathing commentary directed at the science behind biological evolution.

The conservatism correlation is not pure, however. If we are free to separate social conservatives from fiscal conservatives, then the relationship starts to fragment. Social conservatives tend to embrace a fundamental religiosity that cannot tolerate the godless nature of modern science. Fiscal conservatives are not necessarily bound to the social conservatives’ spiritual world view, but they do tend to hold hands with the socials in those cases where scientific research points toward curtailing profitable business practices. For example, the science behind global warming would get hardly any notice from fiscal conservatives were it not for the implication that business as usual needs to change.

And since nature does not see fit to supply anybody’s needed facts, Conservapedia was created to fill the gap. We hope you will read and enjoy.

References:

1. http://www.conservapedia.com/Evolution
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution
3. http://www.conservapedia.com/Jonathan_Wells
4. http://www.conservapedia.com/Icons_of_Evolution
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservapedia
6. http://www.ntskeptics.org/2008/2008june/june2008.htm#expelled
7. http://conservapedia.com/Richard_Sternberg
8. http://conservapedia.com/Expelled

Mind Over Matter

This is from the May 2003 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

Stand back. We're doing real science here. Russell Shipp concentrates on the CD in the car, while Prasad mans the video camera. Photo by John Blanton

Russell Shipp wrote us: 1

My name is Russell Shipp. I have accepted the James Randi Challenge, and I gladly accept yours (North Texas Skeptic), as well.

My paranormal ability I’ve chosen to demonstrate is low level telekinesis.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless outside forces influence said object. I shall use my will to spin an object 5 grams (negotiable) in weight.

From a dead stop I shall put an object into motion with my mind. I require line of sight to move (spin) an object, and glass isn’t an issue.

The object(s) should be suspended by string about 6 to 12 inches in length. The room should have zero air current, at least one video camera focused on the object(s) at all times during the demonstration.

Gratefully yours,

Russell Shipp

The challenge Russell Shipp mentioned is the NTS Paranormal Challenge. For over ten years the NTS has offered a monetary prize to anybody who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled conditions. The prize is underwritten by five individuals, and its current value is $10,000.2

A standing requirement of the challenge is that before we will agree to a formal test (and possibly pay the award) we need an exact description of the paranormal ability that is claimed. We need claimants to tell us up front what it is they will demonstrate. There is good reason for this. Some extraordinary claims really are not paranormal at all. For example, a person who claims to be able to lift one end of an SUV off the ground may well be strong enough to do it. We don’t consider that a paranormal ability, and we won’t pay $10,000 to see it done.

We also insist on seeing a free demonstration. This helps us in two ways. First if the claimant has nothing to show (can’t really do what is claimed), we just say “good day,” and part company. Second, if a person does demonstrate something extraordinary (such as picking the ace of spades from a card deck while blindfolded) we want to watch a demonstration to pick up signs of chicanery (such as peeking) so we can be prepared to defeat the claimants tactics during the formal test.

Russell drove to Dallas to give an initial demonstration during our regular April meeting. Those who remained after the Saturday afternoon talk were able to observe a demonstration involving a compact disk (CD) suspended from the meeting room ceiling by a piece of sewing thread. During prior correspondence Russell had agreed a CD was one of the objects he could use.

We minimized air currents in the room by making sure the air conditioning was shut down. We also asked those remaining to remain still, because we had noticed that air currents stirred up by people walking around the room caused the CD to move.

NTS Board member Prasad Golla, who is also one of the Challenge underwriters, set up a video camera, and agreed with Russell that everything was ready.

Despite having demonstrated to himself previously that he could move a CD by mental action alone, Russell was not able to demonstrate the effect that Saturday. The agreed requirement was for the CD to rotate at least one rotation in a clockwise direction, come to a stop, then continue in the clockwise direction for at least another complete rotation. As far as we could tell, the CD seemed to move only slightly, apparently in response to air currents in the room.

Afterward, in a conference over a Guinness at the nearby Tipperary Inn, we discussed the outcome with Russell. Not wanting to rush to judgment, we agreed the short time available following the meeting and the unsupervised activities at the site would not be considered an ideal venue for a controlled demonstration. In fairness to Russell, we parted with the promise to set up another demonstration after all had a chance to review the video.

Later, after copies of the video had been distributed and viewed by the interested parties, Russell agreed that the video did not show a successful demonstration. He offered to come again to Dallas for a follow-up.

Our determination for the new demonstration was to eliminate air currents as much as possible. Russell mentioned he had previous success using the interior of a passenger car for a test venue. He said he had also successfully used a large, transparent container. In both cases, the aim was to cut off the suspended object from outside air currents while allowing him to view the object.

We set the demonstration for the first Saturday in May, and I arranged to suspend a CD inside my car, using the old close-the-sunroof-on-the-string trick. I also obtained a (nearly) clear plastic container. One CD was suspended from the ceiling of an air conditioned room. The plastic container was placed on a stand so that the CD hung inside the open container. The top opening of the container was blocked using pieces of cardboard, except for a small gap, through which the suspended thread passed.

When Russell arrived for the demonstration the two CDs were already in place and had come to rest. It was obvious air currents would not be a problem.

We decided to work with the car first. It was parked outside on what was a warm day—not an ideal situation, because differential heating inside the car can generate air currents.

Prasad set up the video camera again.

However, during the initial demonstration, the CD never made a complete rotation in any direction. We had noted that Russell expressed some dissatisfaction with his viewing position, so we next allowed him to start over from another position of his choosing. Still no success.

We discussed some problems. Side windows of the car were tinted. Front windshield was not tinted, but glare on the windshield made viewing difficult. Besides, we were at risk of sunburn if we stayed out in the parking lot much longer.

Moving inside, we again observed the CD was stationary inside its plastic protector. Again, however, no success. Inside the container in the air conditioned room the CD did not move at all.

Reasons were sought. The plastic was not as clear as glass. Also there might be some problem trying to project mentally through the plastic. Russell noted that he had previously had much better success in private using his own objects.

My own theory was, and still is, that all the time nothing has been moving the objects for Russell but air currents. In response to Russell’s objections about the plastic container I removed it. Without the protection of the container the CD began to rotate under the influence of the currents inside the room. Prasad and I pointed out that an experimenter who was not careful could convince himself he was responsible for these motions.

Finally, to demonstrate the effect of the air currents we suspended a key ring with various keys—without the plastic container. Russell was sure he would be able to mentally move the suspended keys. However, since the keys were more compact than the CD, they did not offer very much surface for the air to act on. The keys refused to move. And there was no plastic container.

We discussed the results of the demonstration with Russell, and it was apparent the light was beginning to come on. As Prasad explained, since he and I work as scientists at a research facility, we are forewarned and cautious about accepting conclusions based on our expectations. This is not to say this caution is always taken, but good work requires an experimenter to act diligently to disprove his own ideas.

I am sure Russell will continue to test his perceived abilities, and I hope he will now start to apply some of the controls we showed him.

As always, our $10,000 is quite safe.

Coming up next for the NTS Challenge—an astrologer claims he can produce “readings” for individuals unknown to him. He further states that these people will be able pick their own readings from a pile containing readings for a number of other people. What’s more, we think this astrologer just might be right. We intend to put the astrologer to the test, and we hope to have something to report in the future.

References
1 Edited.
2 A description of the challenge protocol and details of some activity related to the challenge are on the NTS Web site at:  http://www.ntskeptics.org/challenge/challenge.htm.

There Goes the Neighborhood

We moved in a year ago and saw only two homes completed that year. So far this year builder Jim Leonard of Greenboro Homes has completed and sold four and appears about to start two more.

Prince Home Builders started two new homes across the street in October, and they will be available at the end of December. The builder told us he plans three more houses across the street from us, and a new neighbor told us last night that Greenboro is getting ready to build two more on the south loop of Elizabeth Court.

Is the housing market looking up?

Home construction on Elizabeth Court

Information and Myth

Stephen C. Meyer
Signature in the Cell
2009, HarperOne, 624 pages

Having nothing better to do, I was watching this on-line video. And the guy was making some statements about matter and information and energy, and, being composed of these things and having studied them in college, I was a little amazed at what the guy was saying. Time for a Slim Pickens movie quote here.1

The speaker was creationist Stephen C. Meyer, and that was no surprise. Meyer has just published his latest creationist book, and having nothing better to do, I ordered a copy from Amazon.com. Here is what Amazon has to say about the author:

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.2

Much is promised for this book. It’s supposed to set us straight about the basis for Intelligent Design and to make the case, using the story of DNA, for Intelligent Design. Once again, I will let Amazon do the talking:

Signature in the Cell is the first book to make a comprehensive case for intelligent design based upon DNA. Meyer embarks on an odyssey of discovery as he investigates current evolutionary theories and the evidence that ultimately led him to affirm intelligent design. Clearly defining what ID is and is not, Meyer shows that the argument for intelligent design is not based on ignorance or “giving up on science,” but instead upon our growing scientific knowledge of the information stored in the cell.3

So far so good. This could prove interesting. I started with the prologue.

Oops. In the first few pages Meyer stumbles over the Sternberg affair.

Richard Sternberg was editor of the scientific journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 2004 when the journal published a peer-reviewed paper by Stephen C. Meyer. The paper is titled “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” and it reaches the following conclusion: “… purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate-and perhaps the most causally adequate-explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent.”4

The paper was a clear endorsement of Intelligent Design, and the scientific community was miffed, to say the least. Scientists have been chiding the creationists for years for peddling their wares to media outlets and school boards and avoiding peer-reviewed science. Suddenly the creationists had gotten on the scoreboard, by some means. Others on the editorial staff of PBSW charged that Sternberg bypassed the accepted review process and published Meyer’s paper without consulting them. Sternberg will not reveal who reviewed the paper, and he is not required to.

Attention immediately turned to Sternberg, an obvious creationism sympathizer. More followed, and this is what Meyer has to say about the affair:

… The editor, Richard Sternberg, lost his office and his access to scientific samples and was later transferred to a hostile supervisor. After Sternberg’s case was investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog organization and by the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, a congressional committee, other questionable actions came to light. …5

Meyer notes that senior administrators at the Smithsonian Institution questioned Sternberg’s colleagues about his religion and politics and instigated a campaign to damage his professional reputation and to get him to resign. Sternberg did not resign, but he was demoted.

Meyer gets some of that right, and that’s the unfortunate part-for Meyer. The problem is this pronouncement by Meyer reveals that Meyer’s infatuation with the truth is a sometime thing.

Rather than recapitulate the entire episode here, I will summarize and point to the rest of the story: As written, Meyer’s account leaves the casual reader thinking here was a guy getting the short end of a dirty stick. Meyer neglects to mention that Sternberg was not employed by the Smithsonian Institution. He was employed by the National Institutes of Health. Sternberg was receiving free office space at the Smithsonian to do his research, and he did have to give up his office. So did another researcher. Both had to move their offices to make room for another project that needed the space. Sternberg did not like the new office the Smithsonian offered, so he was offered another space. And there is more.

Meyer does not mention these points, and a naïve reader will be left with the wrong impression of what transpired. It’s the impression Meyer wants to leave, and that’s why the careful reader of Signature will step lightly through the remainder of the book.

Rather than keep you in suspense, the answer is yes. This book is the biggest piece of creationist propaganda to come our way in years. And we welcome it.

Others have covered the Sternberg affair in depth, and readers are invited to explore the whole story. The National Center for Science Education is a good place to start.6

So, Intelligent Design is still not being published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and Meyer defends the publication of Intelligent Design in a book. He points out that Darwin popularized evolution in The Origin of Species. Also Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Lyell used books to popularize their ideas. Meyer fails to follow through and mention these scientists had some science to popularize.

A comparison of Signature with Origin is enlightening, as well. In The Origin of Species Darwin tells the story of the progress of an idea, and he illustrates his points using observations of nature and the work of contemporary scientists. For Meyer, Signature is a personal journey, and he illustrates the journey with stories from his own life and experiences. In a process called quote mining Meyer cites selected references by famous and respected people to support his argument.

Meyer went for a Ph.D. in history of science at Cambridge after his career as a geophysicist was ended by falling oil prices. It’s not to say Meyer had an epiphany and suddenly saw Intelligent Design in a flash of light. Signature leaves no doubt Meyer was always comfortable with Intelligent Design.

So, what is Signature in the Cell all about? Let’s take a tour. About the best reading is Chapter 2, which is a long and well-researched discourse on the history of science and the search for the origins of life. Chapter 3 is a good discussion of the Watson-Crick discovery of the structure of DNA. And that’s about as good as it gets.

In summary, Meyer hinges his argument, the entire book, on a single assertion: Useful information can come only from an intelligent source. Meyer used a very simple method for making this argument. He keyed the words in from his computer. What’s more, to make sure his assertion is true he repeats it several times in the book. Here is a sample:

Intelligence is the only known cause of complex functionally integrated information-processing systems.7

Here’s the problem. While we might agree on what counts for useful information, neither Meyer nor anybody else has provided an acceptable definition of an intelligent source. Meyer’s assertion that useful information can come only from intelligence is absolutely false. I am making this statement with the same authority Meyer makes his argument. I am sitting at my computer and typing it in. Here it is.

About 60 years ago Claude Shannon developed a quantitative definition of information. Shannon was interested in the information carrying capacity of communications channels, so this was a useful enterprise. I will skip the math and give the Cliff’s Notes view.8

Information, especially information coming over a communication channel, is knowledge you did not have before. If somebody is talking to you and says “I already told you it’s raining in Cincinnati,” that person is not supplying additional information. A rough measure of the amount of information in a message or a computer file is the degree to which the missive can be compressed. The WinZIP utility you have on your computer does a good job of compressing text files. GIF images employ LZW compression to reduce the amount of space required to store them. Both of these techniques work by eliminating redundancy-duplicate information.9

Now, suppose somebody told you something that you might not presently know, but which you should have known. “You left your briefcase in my car.” This might be helpful, but it is not new information, even to you.

Suppose somebody tells you “You are on Orange Street.” You look up and see the street sign. You did not get new information from the speaker. That is, the speaker was not creating new information.

Here is a tougher one. Until the 1960s nobody on Earth knew what the back side of the moon looked like. When the Soviets sent a space craft past the moon we got our first look, but this was not new information.

Albert Einstein was a genius, and he disclosed the relationship between matter and energy (e = mc2). This was not new information. In this as in many things we can say, “The truth is out there.”

All these examples have a common thread. The best work of intelligent beings has not produced any new information. Contrast this with Meyer’s claim that useful information comes from intelligence.

What are some examples of useful information coming from intelligence? Meyer claims design comes from intelligence. Instead of the word design I will substitute invention. I do this for a simple reason. We have stupid computers that do design. Here is an example:

As a young engineer I carefully laid out the electrical leads for a circuit board design. Now computers do this automatically. Computers do not add any information when they do this. The information is already there when the board designer decides what components to put on the board and supplies some design constraints. The operation of the computer is said to be deterministic. Given the same input, the result is pre-determined by the mathematics involved. When I laid out the traces on a board I was not generating new information.

In a larger view, if the universe operated by completely deterministic process, then no new information would be created. Fortunately for us, the universe is not deterministic. One thinks first of the so-called butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is used to illustrate how small variations within a non-linear system can propagate into large differences after sufficient time. However, the butterfly effect is not an example of non-determinism at work. The butterfly effect would work even within a deterministic system.

So, are there true, non-deterministic processes? The answer is yes. A trivial example would be alpha decay of radioactive nuclei. On occasion, for no cause, an atomic nucleus will eject an alpha particle. The previous condition of the nucleus does not determine when the alpha particle will be ejected. Take special note: When Meyer talks about causes in his book, and he does this a lot, he could be talking about absolutely nothing.

So, truly novel information can be, and is, created. So there must be examples. I have never seen it happen.

I’ve done some inventing, so I have given a lot of thought to the origins of invention. When the boss said “We need a bracket to hold up this gear,” then no invention was required. There are not many novel ways to solve the problem.

But once the boss said, “We’ve had a bunch of people working on this, and nobody knows how to make it work. You give it a try.” OK, maybe this could be a real example of invention. I took this occasion to study the process in real time, and here is what I observed:

I looked at one solution and thought, “No, this has been tried, and it won’t work.” I looked at other possibilities and thought, “No, we can’t afford to do it this way. And, besides, there is not enough time.”

In college I took a course in differential equations. These are generally considered to be mental challenges for under graduates, and the professor told us this: “One way to solve a differential equation is to stare at the problem until a solution comes to mind.” In other words, the solution might just come out of the blue.

That’s where my first patented invention came from. I cleared my brain and thought about a bunch of odd stuff. And I took a bathroom break. When I returned to my desk I had the solution.

What I think really happened is this: I turned my thoughts loose. My brain escaped from the rut in which it had been confined and roamed through a random bunch of possible approaches. I seized on the first workable solution that came to mind and went with that. I contend that is where apparent creativity (intelligence) comes from.

I can’t relate this to acts of genius outside my scope. There is no way I could create something like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I have tried composing music, but my brain will not string together two notes that are pleasant to listen to. So, how did Beethoven and others create their masterpieces? I can’t answer, but my bet is these guys started out ahead of everybody else and then applied themselves.

Anyhow, that’s genius. That is creativity. Does it take a person (intelligence) to do this? It is likely Meyer will say it does. Meyer extends his claim that creation comes only from intelligence, and he takes issue with examples of creativity that employ genetic algorithms (GA).

Genetic algorithms mimic the evolutionary processes of mutation and natural selection to solve hard problems-problems that would ordinarily be relegated to human brains. The programmer supplies some rules then allows the computer to search for a solution within the confines of the established rules. The computer uses randomization algorithms (random mutation) to establish variability within the problem’s solution space, then it evaluates multiple solutions for fitness. Solutions that score well are used in the next round of trials (natural selection), and the process is repeated until a useful solution is established. Meyer cites creationist William Dembski and asserts that programmers who set up these problems load in the solution up front by setting the conditions for the problem. This leaves the computer nothing to do but run to the ultimate, inevitable solution.

Strictly speaking, Meyer is correct, but that does not help him. The success of genetic algorithms only displays that novel information is not required for mutation and natural selection to produce improved (better fit for reproduction) populations of living organisms. Here is an example:

Using genetic algorithms, Kumar Chellapilla and David B. Fogel developed a neural network for playing checkers. The constraints that were front-loaded were minimal. They were the rules of the game. The only fitness measure was winning. Bear in mind, the genetic algorithm was not use to play checkers. It was employed to develop the program that played the game. The resulting game, a computer program, was tested in play.

The best result from the 165 games was obtained when the network defeated a player rated 2173, just 27 points away from the master level, who was ranked 98th out of over 80,000 registered players.10

The reason a GA cannot develop new information is that it is deterministic. There is no real randomization in the random mutation part. The GA uses a pseudo-random number (PRN) generator that mimics randomization. The programmer starts off by feeding the generator an arbitrary number (seed). The generator starts with the seed number and churns through a convoluted sequence of operations to produce a new number. This result is employed as though it were truly random. The PRN generator also saves this result and uses it when it needs to compute a new PRN, else the programmer would have to keep providing arbitrary seed values. In this case the results would then not be so arbitrary, and they would by no means be random. The results are not truly random, anyhow, but good PRN generators produce sequences that are hard to tell from really random sequences. Another way of stating this is, “It would be very difficult to predict the next PRN by looking at previous values in the sequence.”

Meyer’s (and Dembski’s) contention that intelligence is required to produce new (and useful) information becomes a bit strained in the light of all this. To give Meyer his due, here is the best translation of what he says in the book: Random mutation and natural selection may be able to account for the variety of life forms that sprang from some original, simple cell. But these processes cannot account for the new and useful information that created the original cell from Earth’s elements.

This leads Meyer to consider whether the information represented in all current life forms was pre-packed (front-loaded) in the original cell. Here Meyer is covering ground previously explored by creationist Michael Behe. Behe took some serious ribbing at the time when his detractors made comparisons with the total information in extant life with the amount that could be packed into that first cell.

If design was thus “front-loaded” in the first simple cell, what does that imply about the capacity of cells to store information for future adaptations? And what should the structure and organization of the prokaryotic genome look like in this case?11

No matter. The universe does not use a PRN generator. Truly random processes are available to produce all new (and useful) information required for present life.

Earlier in this long harangue I made the following questionable statement, “The best work of intelligent beings (us, of course) has not produced any new information.” For those of you preparing to hang me with this, I will now amend it. When intelligent beings generate new (useful or not) information, they employ truly random processes.

And that wraps up the story. Paradoxical as that may seem, the source of new (including new and useful) information is true randomness. Meyer has written an entire book based on an incorrect assumption. And I bought the book.

I did not read the book in great detail. Many parts were repetitious, or else they covered ground that had been covered before, and I skimmed them. I did pick up a few hints that Signature is not all that well researched, but these are trivial and will likely be fixed in a future edition. For example, Meyer discusses work related to information theory and carried out by John von Neumann in the 1960s. The problem is von Neumann died in 1957. I was also puzzled by Meyer’s description of his first meeting with creationist William Dembski in the summer of 1992. I had always suspected the two met in March of that year at SMU when they presented papers at the conference on “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference.” Meyer states in the book that he actually attended the conference, but it is possible Dembski had somebody else present his paper.12

If you insist on buying the book, please follow the link in the notes below. The NTS will get a commission from Amazon.

References
1. The quote from Dr. Strangelove is near the end of the article. http://www.ntskeptics.org/2009/2009july/july2009.htm#edge
2. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0061472786/thenorthtexasske
3. Ibid.
4. http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=2177
5. Signature in the Cell, page 2.
6. NCSE supports the Expelled Exposed Web site at http://www.expelledexposed.com/index.php/the-truth/sternberg
7. Signature in the Cell, page 346. Italics are in the original.
8. Read about information theory here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_theory
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LZW
10. http://bit.csc.lsu.edu/~jianhua/GA_checkers.pdf
11. Signature in the Cell, page 480. However the best information is that Behe now disavows the preloading of genetic information in the first cell.
12. http://ebd10.ebd.csic.es/pdfs/DarwSciOrPhil.pdf Also at http://www.ntskeptics.org/creationism/DI/DarwSciOrPhil.pdf

Bachmann on Science

This is from a post on another blog.  See it here for the full story.

Alex Seitz-Wald writes:

At an education forum at the University of Northern Iowa this afternoon, GOP presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said she favored the teaching of intelligent design and creationism in schools, saying that just teaching the science of evolution would be “censorship by government.” Asked by a Catholic student why it’s not a violation of the separation of church and state for a public school to teach the religiously-tinged theories, Bachmann said evolution is just a “theory” that even “evolutionists” are not sure of:

BACHMANN: I think what you’re advocating for is censorship on the part of government. So the government would prohibit intelligent design from even the possibility of being taught in questioning the issue of evolution. And if you look at scientists there is not a unanimity of agreement on the origins of life. … Why would we forstall any particular theory? Becuase I don’t think that even evolutionists, by and large, would say that this is proven fact. They say that this is a theory, as well as intelligent design. So I think the best thing to do is to let all scientific facts on the table, and let students decide.

What is significant is the phrase “…let all scientific facts on the table, and let students decide.” Bachmann seems to think that including all the scientific facts will pick up Intelligent Design. In this regard she is seriously misinformed.

As one who has followed the Intelligent Design movement since its birth over twenty years ago, I am aware of no body of scientific fact that supports Intelligent Design. So, for Bachmann’s sake, let’s examine two possible scenarios:

1. We go to the vast body of scientific work and pull out all the real research that supports Intelligent Design, and we present that to students. By students in all of this post we mean to say students in the public schools. Students in private/religious schools are exempt, because public policy does not affect them. And what we present to these students as evidence for Intelligent Design is nothing. That is because there is no body of real science that supports Intelligent Design. This does not count as government censorship, because the government does not get involved. Nobody says “No, you can’t do that because it’s against the law.”

2. We give the creationists a break, and we present arguments, not real science, supporting  Intelligent Design. In a public forum we stack the arguments for Intelligent Design against what is known from real scientific research, and we notice that the arguments for Intelligent Design are superfluous. Real science explains biological evolution (and cosmology and the modern science of geology) without invoking any kind of supernatural cause. At this point a curious point becomes apparent. The arguments for Intelligent Design reflect the 3000-year-old story from a popular religious belief. This is the belief that the universe, the Earth and all living creatures had their origins in the mind of a mysterious and supreme being known by various names, but generally referred to as God. This is not the god Thor, and it’s not Vishnu. It’s the god of Abraham chronicled by the ancient scribes of King Solomon and passed down through Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition. Other gods need not apply.

And this last thing is something we said over 200 years ago that we would not do. On the occasion of the first amendment to the United States Constitution we said we would make no law respecting (supporting) the establishment of religion.

And that is exactly what Intelligent Design is, and that is what Bachmann wants. She wants her religious tradition promoted on your nickel. The most popular religious belief in this country, with a following of hundreds of millions and a bank account rivaling that of Bill Gates needs your tax money to remind students of its power and authority.

And while they are being reminded of these religious traditions students are somewhere along the line missing out on some possibly very significant aspects of real science. This is not a trade we need to be making.

And finally, there is the word censorship. Are we to get from this there are no topics that should be prohibited by law, whether to avoid waste of taxpayer funds or to avoid the oppression of a religious doctrine? If Bachmann would care to give the matter a moment’s thought she could (I have been wrong before) come up with any number of topics that should not be presented to students in public schools. Intelligent Design compares uncomfortably with these others.

Introducing Skeptical Analysis

I am a semi-retired engineer with a long history of writing, photography and skeptical interests. Most recently I have been Web master for The North Texas Skeptics (NTS).

I do a lot of writing for the NTS newsletter, and in this capacity I get to review divergent literature from all kinds of dubious sources. Creationist sources are a main theme of mine, and this line of study has opened for me the outpourings of many of the notable creationist authors and advocates of our time. I have also had the opportunity to meet a number of creationism advocates of both the young Earth and the Intelligent Design variety. This blog will feature posts touching on research and analysis of creationists’ writings and other forms of creationism advocacy. I will pick up on current events related to creationism advocacy and will also be posting some of the items I have previously written on the topic.

Along with several other NTS members, I underwrite the North Texas Skeptics Paranormal Challenge. We offer $12,000 to any person who can demonstrate under controlled testing some form of the paranormal or paranormal abilities, that form to be determined by agreement between the underwriters and the person making the claim.   At least once a month we receive a new contact from somebody with a claim of the paranormal, and we work with those who are interested in making a go for the prize. The proceedings are often bizarre, and usually there is a touch of humor.

Physicist Robert Park is skeptic at heart and a favorite blogger of mine. His weekly column is a constant source of inspiration for me, and I typically follow up on Bob’s lead with interesting results. The supposed cell phone link to cancer and phony bomb/drug detectors are among Bob’s popular topics, and you will be seeing reviews of some of the more interesting episodes.

The NTS is a non-political, tax-deductible organization, but this blog has no such restrictions. I am keenly interested in the current political climate, and there will be many posts on the silliness that seems to dog our elected officials and those who would like to be elected. See especially the workings of the Texas Board of Education, which recently (and often times in the past) is prone to be packed with creationism advocates and others who would like to place a political agenda ahead of the needs of students in the state’s public education system. The current cast of GOP candidates appears to be a bottomless source of punch lines, and there will be many punches thrown whenever there is an opening that cannot be ignored.

The NTS also ignores religion, but I do not. All aspects of religion exhibit points worthy of exposure and ridicule. Religion is not a big part of my knowledge base, but it’s going to receive my best efforts on this blog.

Finally, there will be occasional themes touching on photography, science, computer software, engineering and other interesting technologies. Add a link to this blog to your list of favorites and visit often. E-mail me if you have a comment you want posted.  Also, if you spot something that should be covered and that I have missed, let me know by e-mail.  If it’s something that I have time for I will get right on it.

John Blanton