Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Astonishing Animals

Unemployment is a funny thing. Wait, no it’s not. It’s a hellish time of torment and boredom and self-loathing. However, when one is unemployed for any period of time, it seems as if the brain is irresistibly attracted to finding tasks to keep you occupied. My current time-wasting crusade is to solve the puzzle of Astonishing Animals, a book by Tim Flannery and Peter Schouten from 2004. The book is an enormous catalogue of 97 obscure and wonderful animals all gorgeously illustrated by Schouten with brief (and often bemusing) descriptions by Flannery.

The catch is that one of the animals described in the book is in fact fictional; invented by the authors as a puzzle for the reader to solve. Easy enough, until you realise how unbelievably strange the majority of animals on earth really are. Take the platypus. Although familiar to us all today, the platypus was dismissed as an obvious fake by the most learned men in Europe when the first specimens were shipped over from the colonies. Early scientists who saw the animal as a living creature refused to believe aborigines who told them that it laid eggs. Evolutionary adaptation is far stranger than fiction.

After browsing past a few of the more bizarre specimens it became clear that the fake had to be really, implausibly strange. I thought I had it with the Asian giant softshell tortoise: a giant, flat testudine the size of a tractor tire with a soft leathery shell, a snout like a pig and a head and neck reminiscent of a flaccid penis. But no, the thing really exists – not only that but it apparently feeds on the occasional human corpses that ends up in the Ganges.

What about the Stoplight loosejaw? The illustration depicts a fish whose jaw is entirely detached from it’s head. The jaw is held away from the body with three bony struts – there is no connection between the jaws and the throat. I was almost certain this would have to be the one, it seemed physically preposterous for such a creature to exist. But, of course, it does. Anyway, the deep-sea hides a myriad of weird fishes, it would be almost too easy to bury the fictitious animal in this section, surely the authors have more cunning that that?

Still more of these zoological freaks presented themselves to me: a beaked whale with tusks that grow upwards at an angle from the lower jaw that effectively clamps the jaw shut? Real. An obscure representative of the kangaroo family that lives on a single tropical island which never lets the full-length of its tail touch the ground? Legit. A bird species whose males have two feathers positioned above it’s eyes that are over twice its body-length which it can hold out at a right angle to attract females? It’s bona fide.

After a back-breaking Wikipedia/Google session I finally worked it out. If anything it was a little disappointing, the authors had hidden it amongst the deep-sea fishes and it was one of the more plausible looking creatures on show. Ready for the spoiler? It is the Crested basketfish – Sagenapinna obriensis. The creature is depicted as a thin, fairly elongate fish with a prominent crest running along the body, but most noticeable are a series of ray-like fins projecting forward from behind the head. We are told that the animal uses these specialized fins as a sort of fishing net to catch its prey. Many other real deep-sea fishes use similar fishing accoutrements – the angler fishes immediately spring to mind – but apparently evolution has yet to create a fish with its own net. It’s genus name means roughly ‘drag-net of feathers’ which is mundane enough, but why ‘obriensis’ I wonder? An elaborate crypto-marketing ploy for Windscreens O’Brien? (No, that’s fairly unlikely). It’s truly a mystery for the ages.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chasing controversy.

The Chaser Boys have a beautifully symbiotic relationship with the Australian media, don’t they? Here’s how it works: The Chaser produce an unsophisticated, unfunny sketch concerning a topic that is obviously sensitive and potentially offensive. The media is scandalised and dedicate pages and pages to describing their outrage at a bunch of comedians for writing tasteless material. The end result? The newspapers use the opportunity to indulge in tabloid journalism via hysterical articles pandering to a vague sense of public outrage and The Chaser gets to walk away from the incident considering themselves the bad-boys of Australian comedy – despite not having produced anything really groundbreaking or original.
Shaun Carney’s piece in yesterday’s Age (10/6) in which he blames the offending sketch on a decrease of societal empathy was just too much. I very much doubt that the reaction to The Chaser’s sketch is anything so melodramatic as a result of changing levels of empathy in society. I doubt even that the attitude of the infamous ‘Make A Realistic Wish’ sketch is indicative of the true feelings of the Chaser writers themselves. It is simply a grab for publicity – any kind of publicity – and the media dutifully runs with it every time. Let’s face it, after watching the last couple of seasons of The Chaser, it seems unlikely that they are going to get noticed for writing funny, original comedy.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Intelligent Design essay.

I was required to write an essay as part my honours year and I chose a topic addressing the validity of Intelligent Design. Given that I spent a great deal of time and effort on this paper I figured I might as well publish it on the blog for all the world to enjoy. It's broken up into 4 sections: Part I, part II, part III and part IV.

Intelligent Design - part IV

The fundamental problem with ID is that it has no explanatory power whatsoever. Its proponents have made no attempt to specify the potential mechanisms of ID or to build a body of evidence to support the theory. Rather their strategy is to point to gaps in particular aspects of evolutionary theory, declare that this lack of knowledge means the entire modern synthesis must be thrown out, and then assume a false dichotomy which means that ID is the default theory to replace it.
The success that the movement has enjoyed can largely be attributed to widespread scientific illiteracy. To anyone familiar with biology or the natural sciences in general, the omissions and misrepresentations within ID material are apparent and easily refuted. In reality most people are not familiar with biology and the claims of ID seem at least as credible as evolution and maybe slightly more appealing ideologically.
A lot of people seem to feel that ID should be taught alongside evolution out of a sense of fairness and an obligation to tell 'both sides of the story'. Most laypeople are not aware that ID has been summarily rejected by the scientific community and that it has failed as a legitimate theory. After all, the ID movement has published many high-selling books, they have professional-looking websites – to deny them a place in mainstream science can appear elitist to those who have not been made aware of the vacuity of ID.
Intelligent Design does not prove Darwin wrong. If ID proves anything it is the importance of basic science education. A lot of scientists have tended to ignore ID as a baseless threat that is not worth taking seriously. Given the success the ID movement has had in winning over lay audiences, I feel this is a dangerous tactic. It is the responsibility of those of us within the scientific community to combat ID directly by ensuring that information about evolution is as accessible as possible and by vigilantly maintaining fundamental science education to its highest possible standard.

Baker, P. & Slevin, P. (2005) Bush Remarks On 'Intelligent Design' Theory Fuel Debate Washington Post 3rd August

Behe, M. J. & Snoke, D. W. (2004) Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues Protein Science 13: 2651-2664

Behe, M. J. (2000) Correspondence with Science Journals: Response to Critics Concerning Peer-review -

Behe, M. J. (1996) Darwin’s Black Box, The Free Press

The Centre for Science and Culture (1999) The Wedge –

Crowther, R. (2005) Discovery Institute's “Wedge Document”: How Darwinist Paranoia Fueled an Urban Legend –

Dembski, W. A. (2003) Still spinning just fine: A response to Ken Miller -

Dembski, W. A. (2002) No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield

Dembski, W. A. (2001) Is Intelligent Design a Form of Natural Theology? -

Dennet, D. C. (2005) Show Me the Science, New York Times August 28th

Dzik, J (2003) Anatomical Information Content in the Ediacaran Fossils and Their Possible Zoological Affinities, Integrative and Comparative Biology, 43(1):114-126

Fedonkin, M. A., Simonetta, A. & Ivantsov, A. Y. (2007) New Data on Kimberella, the Vendian Mollusc-like Organism (White Sea Region, Russia): Paleoecological and Evolutionary Implications, Special Publication Geological Society of London

Forrest, B & Gross P. R. (2004) Creationism’s Trojan Horse – The Wedge of Intelligent Design Oxford University Press

Gingrich, P. D., Wells N. A., Russell D. E. & Shah S. M. I. (1983) Origin of whales in epicontinental remnant seas: New evidence from the early Eocene of Pakistan, Science 220 4595:403-406

Bajpai S. & Gingrich, P. D. (1998) A new Eocene archaeocete (Mammalia, Cetacea) from India and the time of origin of whales, Proceedings of The National Academy of Science of the United States of America 95 26: 15464-15468

Jayasena, V. K. & Behe, M. J. (1991) Oligopurine · oligopyrimidine tracts do not have the same conformation as analogous polypurine · polypyrimidines, Biopolymers – Peptide Science Section 31 5:511-518

Johnson, P. E. (1991) Darwin On Trial, Inter-Varsity Press

Johnson, P. E. (1996) Witnesses for the Prosecution, World 30th November

Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District et al, Court transcript 2005

Luskin, C. (2008) Intelligent Design Has Scientific Merit in Paleontology -

Lynch, M. (2005) Simple evolutionary pathways to complex proteins, Protein Science 14: 2217-2225

Macnab R. M. (1999) The Bacterial Flagellum: Reversible Rotary Propellor and Type III Export Apparatus, Journal of Bacteriology 181:23

McMenamin, M. A. S. (2003) Spriggina is a trilobitoid ecdysozoan, Geological Society of America Abstracts With Programs 35 6:105

Meyer, S. et al (2003) Darwinism, Design and Public Education, Michigan State University Press

McMurtrie, B. (2001) Darwinism under attack, Chronicle of Higher Education 21st December

Smith, D. (2005) Intelligent design not science: experts, Sydney Morning Herald 21st October

Thewissen, J. G. M., Madar, S. I. & Hussain, S. T. (1996) Ambulocetus natans, an Eocene cetacean (Mammalia) from Pakistan, CFS Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 191:1-86

Thomas, N. A., Bardy, S. L. & Jarrell K. F. (2001) The archaeal flagellum: a different kind of prokaryotic motility structure. FEMS Microbiology Reviews 25:2 147-174

Vincent, L. (2000) Science vs. Science -

Wroe, D. (2005) 'Intelligent design' an option: Nelson, The Age 11th August

Young et al. (2005) Why Intelligent Design fails – A scientific critique of the New Creationism Rutgers University Press

Inelligent Design - part III

Does Intelligent Design explain biological concepts more effectively than mainstream science?
To really ascertain whether or not ID proves Darwin wrong it is useful to examine how each theory explains basic biological concepts. Given that the three most prolific promoters of ID consist of a lawyer, a mathematician and a biochemist, biological evidence is often misunderstood, misrepresented or just ignored. Fundamental concepts, such as biogeography, palaeontology and comparative anatomy have not even been addressed in any substantial way by the major players of ID (or have been seriously distorted). Behe (1996) totally dismisses such crucial fields of knowledge, asserting that '[a]natomy is quite simply, irrelevant to the question of whether evolution could take place on the molecular level. So is the fossil record.' The following three examples examine how well ID explains particular biological concepts and how it compares to the current understanding of them within modern evolutionary synthesis.

The Cambrian Explosion. Within rocks of the middle-Cambrian period approximately 530 million years ago there is a relatively sudden appearance of a large number of fossils of what we now recognise as discrete phyla within a geologically short time span. ID advocates (and Creationists in general) leap on this as evidence of a brief and spontaneous 'creation' of all modern animal phyla rather than the slow, gradual appearance of more complex animals from earlier precursors predicted by Darwinian evolution. For example, a chapter on the subject written by Meyer et al. (2003) in the book Darwinism, Design and Public Education suggests that “the pattern of fossil appearance in the Cambrian period contradicts the predictions or empirical expectations of neo-Darwinism and other materialistic theories of evolution”. Phillip Johnson stated in Darwin On Trial that the Cambrian explosion represents the 'single greatest problem' that the fossil record poses evolution. This is a typical charge made by ID advocates who, naturally, believe that these fossils are best explained by Intelligent Design.
As is typical of ID arguments, the whole story is not being told. ID advocates claim that modern phyla appear suddenly in the fossil record of the Cambrian without evident precursors. This is simply untrue. Diverse Pre-Cambrian faunal assemblages are known from a number of different fossil sites. New discoveries of the last few decades have fueled exciting research on the nature of these animals and their relationships to modern taxa (e.g. Dzik, 2003). Some of the earliest of these discoveries were made in South Australia in 1946 by geologist Reg Sprigg – what is now known as the Ediacaran biota. These fossils often possess strange body-plans that are hard to interpret, but there are some which suggest relationships to later metazoans such as Kimberella which is a potential precursor of molluscs (Fedonkin et al., 2007) or Spriggina which has been identified as an arthropod with trilobite affinities (McMenamin, 2003). Ediacaran fossils have now been found all over the world and suggest a diverse, though morphologically simple, fauna of metazoans that existed around 60 million years before the Cambrian explosion.
In addition to this, Pre-Cambrian metazoans were soft-bodied animals with no shells or skeletons and therefore rarely fossilised. The Cambrian explosion is more accurately described as the sudden appearance in the fossil record of animals with hard parts which are more easily fossilised. Therefore the Cambrian explosion is partially an artifact of the fossil record more so than an exact gauge of metazoan evolutionary processes.

Transitional forms. This claim of abrupt appearances of organisms without precursors is also made about the fossil record in general. It is often asserted by the ID movement that there are no transitional forms or ‘missing links’ between species found in the fossil record, as would be predicted by Darwinian evolution. Casey Luskin (2008) of the CSC states that ‘new fossil forms come into existence without clear evolutionary precursors’ and that this phenomenon is best explained by Intelligent Design theory. In Darwin On Trial Phillip Johnson dedicates a lot of time to discussing the supposed absence of transitional forms in the fossil record (in a chapter titled 'The Fossil Problem') and asserts that little progress has been made in their discovery since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859. Similar to the claim regarding the Cambrian explosion, the ID movement simply ignores supporting evidence found in the fossil record. For example, within the last few decades there has been an abundance of fossil finds of primitive whales illustrating the transition from a terrestrial to a marine environment resulting in a significant amount of research on whale evolution (Bajpai & Gingrich, 1998, Gingrich et al, 1983, Thewissen et al, 1996). An example from the early Eocene of Pakistan is Ambulocetus natans, an amphibious carnivore with paddle-like hind legs that probably swam with vertical undulatory movements of the body similar to extant swimming mammals. Fossil finds from the late Eocene have shown that whales such as Basilosaurus and Dorudon had adapted completely to a marine lifestyle, but still retain vestigial hind limbs and had not developed the melon organ used by cetaceans for echolocation. From various fossil sites around the world, a clear continuum of terrestrial to aquatic adaptations is able to be discerned within the whale family.
Johnson states, specifically in relation to whales, that although transitional forms are expected, “none of these appear in the fossil record”. Either the ID movement is ignorant of pertinent peer reviewed articles in mainstream scientific journals or they are intentionally avoiding such information because it contradicts their claims. Neither of these options seems appropriate for a movement that claims to be on the cutting edge of science.

The Flagellum. The flagellum is a tail-like organelle used for motility in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. It is an extremely complex and efficient biological machine – the only example of a rotary motor found in the natural world. Due to its intricacy, the flagellum has become the ID proponent's favourite example of what is known as irreducible complexity. The term 'irreducible complexity' (IC) was coined by Michael Behe and has become one of the intellectual flagships of the ID movement. Behe (1996) defines IC as “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.” According to Behe, an irreducibly complex system could not have evolved in a series of gradual steps from a precursor because anything less than the current system would be missing parts necessary for its requisite function. Due to the elaborate interaction of parts within the flagellum, Behe concludes that it is an irreducibly complex system. Dembski agrees with this claim and uses the flagellum as a major example in his book No Free Lunch (2002). On Dembski's personal blog (2003) he has gone so far as to characterise the supposed inability of the biological sciences to provide a Darwinian explanation for the evolution of the flagellum as a 'global disciplinary failure'.
These claims are nothing but hyperbole and pleas to ignorance; 'irreducible complexity' is a fundamentally flawed concept. A system may appear irreducibly complex simply because we don't yet understand the mechanisms of its evolutionary progression. Two hundred years ago, one could make a reasonable claim that almost every natural system was irreducibly complex. That doesn't preclude obtaining that answer in the future through study and research. In Charles Darwin's time, the vertebrate eye was lauded in similar tones as being unexplainable by natural causes but now the evolutionary pathways of its development are well known. Probably due to the huge advances of evolutionary biology over the last half a century the ID movement cites very few examples of what they consider truly IC systems. Tellingly, the majority of these are from biochemistry, a field with which laypeople have little familiarity.
So how did the flagellum evolve? Almost certainly from a modification of existing secretion organelles already present in bacteria. Across the range of bacterial motility systems there are links to secretion. For example, some bacteria employ a gliding motility – they glide along a trail of secreted material in the manner of slugs and snails (Musgrave in Young et al, 2005). In particular there are many homologies between flagellar proteins and parts of the type-III protein-secretion system (Macnab, 1999). These homologies suggest a transition from simple secretory systems to gliding motility to rotary motility.
Even within bacteria there are different kinds of flagella and varying degrees of rotary motility. A functional precursor to complex flagella may be imagined by examining the archaeobacterial flagellum. The example that is used by the ID movement is the eubacterial flagellum, which can be thought of consisting of a motor, a shaft and a propeller. Archaeobacterial flagella however consist of only a motor and a combined shaft-propeller. The two flagella are not homologous, but clearly show that there is a plausible simpler precursor to the eubacterial flagellum and that the organelle itself is able to be structurally reduced while still retaining its motility (Thomas et al, 001).
Rather than being the irreducibly complex swimming machine depicted by ID advocates the flagellum is a versatile, plastic organelle used for motility, secretion and also adhesion. It represents one end of a continuum of motility-secretory systems. If you remove any of the flagellum's structural components it will cease to function in motility. But it will retain its secretory functions. It is not irreducibly complex.

Intelligent Design - part II

Is ID science?
Accusations that ID is bad science are superseded by a more fundamental question; is ID science at all? A common charge leveled at ID is that it is merely Creationism under another name and not scientifically motivated at all. For example the judge in the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District et al trial concluded that ID isn't science and could not “uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents” (Jones, 2005). Despite the ID movement's claims to the contrary there is a large body of evidence, most of it a matter of public record, suggesting that the movement is simply an extension of old-fashioned Creationism re-named in an attempt to infiltrate public education. A telling example to support this is found in the editing of the ID biology text book Of Pandas And People. The book was drafted in 1983 under the title Creation Biology and its authors identified themselves explicitly as 'Creationists'. In 1987 however the US Supreme Court judged in the Edwards vs. Aguillard case that teaching Creationism in public schools was a violation of the Establishment clause of the US constitution – the separation of church and state. A new draft of Of Pandas And People was written soon afterwards in which all uses of the word 'Creationist' or 'Creationism' (150 in all) were systematically changed to refer to 'Intelligent Design'. 'Creationists' for example was changed to 'Design proponents'. To illustrate beyond all reasonable doubt that this is what took place, in one passage an incomplete edit reveals the word 'cdesign proponentsists' (Davis & Kenyon, 1987). This surely represents a transitional form between Creationism and Intelligent Design.

To assess whether ID qualifies as a legitimate scientific theory, a number of basic criteria must be met:
Is ID falsifiable? Any good scientific theory must be able to be falsified. Karl Popper stated that the scientific status of a theory should rest on its capacity to be falsified. One might think that any suboptimal feature of an organism might constitute a falsification of ID but according to its proponents, this is not the case. According to ID advocates, because we don’t know the identity of the intelligent designer, we are therefore unable to ascribe motives or methods to him/her. So although some biological features may seem unusually ‘designed’ this could be due to “artistic reasons, to show off, for some as-yet-undetectable practical purpose, or for some unguessable reason” (Behe, 1996). On the basis of this sort of nebulous description, ID is not falsifiable. After all, even if close study shows that an organism or feature has almost certainly evolved by natural processes, it is possible that it was intelligently designed to look as if it were evolved by natural processes.
Is ID consistent? Intelligent Design is conspicuously inconsistent. This is often due to the ID movement modifying the content of their talks and publications to suit either a religious or a secular audience. When addressing a secular audience, ID advocates are conscious of distancing themselves from Creationists, instead demanding that they are a legitimate scientific movement interested only in dispassionately investigating the evidence. However when addressing Christian groups, from whom the Discovery Institute receives the bulk of their funding, the ID movement makes it crystal clear that they are sympathetic to their beliefs. The disparity between these two stances is quite extraordinary and examples appear with almost embarrassing regularity throughout ID material (e.g. the opening quotes of this essay). Media intended for the general public, such as websites and newspaper articles stress that ID is not Creationism and is not based on the Bible. However many (if not all) ID advocates have expressly stated their religious motivation behind ID during various speeches and interviews, such as this quote from Phillip Johnson (1996): “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science…It’s about religion and philosophy.”
Although the most fundamental inconsistency of ID is its flip-flopping on religious affiliations there are other inconsistencies within its specific scientific claims. For example, Behe has never actually defined 'complexity' beyond the common usage of the term (Forrest & Gross, 2004).
Is ID useful? One of the most striking things to notice about ID as a purported scientific movement is a distinct lack of any practical applications of the theory. One would assume that if ID does a superior job of explaining natural phenomena then it should outperform evolutionary theory in the laboratory. So far, no ID advocate has demonstrated this. Although a scientific research program was planned as Phase I of The Wedge, research has been conspicuously absent from the ID agenda - instead being overtaken by the publication of popular books and other promotional activities. Despite occasional promises to back up their assertions with a research program (Dembski, 2001) ID is represented by a single peer reviewed paper (Behe & Snoke, 2004) which has subsequently been refuted (Lynch, 2005).
Indeed, even a description of what might constitute a potential research program has never been outlined by ID advocates. The attitude displayed towards this problem by the ID movement is encapsulated in the FAQ of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Centre (IDEA) website (2008) which states that even if ID “has less practical use or produces fewer avenues of research, that point is moot if it better reflects the truth of what actually happened”. So far, no attempt has been made to explain why a theory that ‘better reflects the truth of what actually happened’ has no practical applications in the real world.

Intelligent Design - part I

Does Intelligent Design prove Darwin wrong?

Is intelligent design theory the same as creationism?

No. Intelligent design takes no stance on religious texts and makes its arguments using purely scientific and empirical data.
” - Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness website.

The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.” - William Dembski (leading Intelligent Design advocate),, December 2007.

'Intelligent Design' is not so much a scientific theory as it is a cultural and political crusade to challenge the fundamental methodology of modern science. The basic premise of Intelligent Design (ID) is that the complexity of life on earth cannot be explained solely by natural causes and that life must have been designed by an intelligent entity. The Discovery Institute – a conservative think-tank whose 'Center For Science and Culture' is the ideological head-quarters of ID – describes ID as a theory that “holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” The potential identity of this designer is generally side-stepped by the high-profile ID advocates, but a quick appraisal of their literature makes it clear that the intelligent designer is always assumed to be the God of Christianity. Indeed ID can be viewed as just the latest attempt of fundamentalist Christians to get religious beliefs taught as fact in public school rooms. It has received considerable support in the U.S. via aggressive promotion of its ideas through books, conferences and websites. President George W. Bush offered support for ID to be taught in schools “so people can understand what the debate is about” (Washington Post, 3 August 2005). A number of Supreme Court cases have been fought over the teaching of ‘Creation Science’/ID in public schools (i.e. Edwards vs. Aguillard, Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District et al.) and in all cases so far the presiding judge has ruled it a violation of the United States' constitutional separation of church and state.
Although the spiritual home of the ID movement is the United States, it is spreading throughout the western world and is developing a presence in Australia. The Age (11 August 2005) reported that former Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson gave support to the theory being taught alongside evolution in schools pending parents’ approval. Some Christian schools such as Pacific Hills Christian School in NSW have already started teaching ID alongside evolution in science classes (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2005) and it is likely to be discussed in the science classrooms of many more. Clearly this is a movement that needs to be understood by anyone with a stake in the integrity of scientific education.

What is ID and where did it originate?
In responding to the statement 'Intelligent Design proves Darwin wrong' it is necessary to establish the origin of the ID movement and the methods they have chosen to use in order to further their cause. It is my contention that ID cannot be appraised as an ordinary scientific theory and further that it is not a scientific theory at all but rather a cultural and political movement aimed at getting religious ideas into public institutions.
The roots of the ID movement can be traced to former lawyer and born-again evangelical Christian Phillip E. Johnson and the publication in 1991 of his book Darwin On Trial. In it, Johnson asserts that Darwinian evolution is based on false assumptions and is supported by inadequate evidence. Foreshadowing many future ID publications, Johnson’s main criticism is of the methodological naturalism of science precluding supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. Through a number of conferences and meetings Johnson became the nucleus of what is now known as the Intelligent Design movement. Two of the most prominent members who joined Johnson in the nascent movement were William Dembski and Michael Behe.
Dembski is a mathematician whose main contention is that through his work in information theory he has shown that the complexity found within nature could not have originated without an intelligent agent. He has elaborated this concept over several books but has so far been unable to get them accepted into peer reviewed scientific journals. Dembski, one of the most vocal and well recognised proponents of ID, was described as 'God's mathematician' by George Gilder, co-founder of the Discovery Institute (Vincent, 2000).
Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Leighigh University in Pennsylvania. His book Darwin's Black Box (1996) has been commercially successful but was universally panned by the scientific community upon its release. It was Behe who coined the term 'irreducible complexity' to refer to biological structures composed of several specific, interacting parts which wouldn't function in the absence of any constituent part. Behe, like Dembski (and all other ID proponents), has been unable to get these ideas legitimised within the scientific community, though he has had other technical papers unrelated to ID published within peer reviewed scientific journals (e.g. Jayasena & Behe, 1991).
All of these men and almost every other ID proponent operate under the auspices of The Centre for Science and Culture (CSC). The motivations and goals of the ID movement were outlined in an extraordinary document leaked onto the internet that was produced by the CSC (1999). The document titled ‘The Wedge Strategy’ has been established as authentic by the research of Barbara Forrest (2004) and has subsequently been acknowledged as such by the CSC (e.g. Crowther, 2005). Largely written by Phillip Johnston, the document describes the short-term and long-term goals of the ID movement – the end result intended to ‘overthrow materialism and its cultural legacies’. The Wedge was divided into three separate phases: ‘Phase I. Scientific Research, Writing and Publicity. Phase II. Publicity & Opinion Making and Phase III. Cultural Confrontation and Renewal.’ Despite ‘Scientific Research’ being included in Phase I of The Wedge, it has been largely neglected in favour of publicity and opinion making. It is within Phase II that the ID movement has engaged in the most activity such as book publicity, conferences, apologetics seminars, newspaper and magazine articles – all bypassing the scientific community and appealing to the general public. Within the ’20 Year Goals’ of The Wedge document the authors hope ‘to see intelligent design theory become the dominant perspective in science’. Although it seems impossible for this goal to be realized, the movement has made a lot of progress in swaying the general population towards their world view.
ID proponents are not merely opposed to the theory of evolution via natural selection; rather they simply don't accept that science should exclude supernatural causes within its explanations. It is materialism that they are really opposed to, and evolutionary thinking is seen as a major symptom of this moribund philosophy (CSC, 1999). There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea in itself if it were carried out in a spirit of intellectual honesty. In practice however the output of the ID movement is typified by omissions, refuted assumptions, misrepresentation and plain bad science. ID starts with the conclusion of design and then attempts to force the evidence to conform to this while ignoring evidence to the contrary.
Advocates of ID have generally shied away from standard peer review processes for scientific publications. Critics of the movement have naturally pointed to this as an indication of a lack of scientific credibility but this argument is regularly met with conspiratorial claims of bias towards members of the ID movement due to the naturalistic orthodoxy of the scientific community (e.g. Behe, 2000). Getting material into the public sphere has been achieved with an enthusiastic book publishing program aimed at a popular rather than scientific level. Leading ID advocate William Dembski has stated that he has little interest in getting his ideas published in peer reviewed scientific journals preferring instead to publish popular books due to the material receiving wider exposure and the generation of royalties (McMurtrie, 2001).
There has been much controversy surrounding ID due to a number of recent attempts to get it taught in science classes in public schools. The first court case relating to this was in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2005 when a group of eleven parents of high school students sued the Dover Area School District for teaching ID alongside evolution in biology classes. The plaintiffs won the case, successfully arguing that ID was indistinguishable from Creationism and was therefore unconstitutional to teach in a public school. Given this significant loss and the likelihood of further court cases being similarly ruled, the ID movement has largely abandoned the idea of getting their ideas directly promoted in classrooms. They have instead adopted a policy they call 'teach the controversy', in which the supposed controversy over the legitimacy of evolution should be discussed within biology curricula. This cultivation of doubt about evolution is intended to make it easier for promotion of ID in public institutions in the future (Dennet, 2005).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Andrew Bolt argues like a Creationist.

Andrew Bolt is a generous man. If not for his journalistic output, thousands of kids across the country wouldn’t have an easy target with which to get them through their critical analysis unit for year nine English. Bolty (who is gainfully employed by a major metropolitan newspaper despite the fact that he writes like that one young-Liberal guy who occasionally contributes to the student paper) has set himself up as ‘Australia’s last climate change skeptic’ and likes to take every opportunity to parade his ignorance while carrying out this role. While reading his latest tirade in which he strikes Herald Sun gold by simultaneously bitching about Bob Brown et al and pretending like he cares about bushfire victims ('Stridently Dark Green', Herald Sun Feb 18th 2008) I couldn’t help but notice that Bolt argues exactly like a Creationist. You know what a Creationist is right? These are the people who believe a literal interpretation of the Bible and insist that, amongst other things, the Earth is ~6,000 years old, evolution is a myth and dinosaurs are explained by fossils being planted by god or fossils being planted by the devil or they were mentioned in Job or they are actually real and they haven’t gone extinct because god wouldn’t let his creatures go extinct so you know the Loch Ness Monster? Yeah, that’s a living dinosaur, etc. Creationists are very easy to refute because, in addition to having no evidence whatsoever to back up their claims, they tend to use the same arguments over and over again - the same crappy arguments that Bolt uses in his article which similarly tries to refute sound science with bland ignorance. Let’s examine each contention and see how Andy compares with the Creationist school of argumentative style:

Contention # 1: Global warming is wrong because it’s not getting warmer everywhere.
The most frustrating thing about Bolt’s article is his continuous (and misrepresentitive) use of the term ‘global warming’. Bolty’s basic argument goes like this: It’s been cold in parts of the world this year. Cold ≠ warm. Global warming is wrong, QED. He’s playing with semantics and acting like simple word-play is going to cause all the evidence to just disappear. The theory in question in it’s current form is known as ‘climate change’ and implies just that: extreme change in the climate. The term ‘global warming’ has not been in use in the scientific community for a number of years – Andy knows this, but deliberately uses the old one because then he can ignore any evidence that suggests significantly cooler weather patterns caused by human activity.

This misrepresentation of terms and subsequent mendacious word-play is also a favourite of the Creationist who love to refer to the theory of evolution. Hey, it’s just a theory, it’s not like, a fact. A theory in the scientific sense is an idea that explains all the available evidence and makes predictions that are supported by any new evidence – such as evolution. (And things like gravity, germ theory and atomic theory.) There is not the same level of uncertainty as when we use the word in a conversational sense. Incidentally, this is why I have no fear of jumping off high buildings, because after all, gravity is only a theory.

What Bolty said: Global warming over and over - 14 times in total. (The term 'climate change' was used only 4 times and in every case was contained in the quotation of someone who actually had some idea of what they were talking about.)

What the Creationists say: Evolution is theory, not science, and any theory that says nothing times nothing equals everything is flawed from the outset. - cameron222, Rapture Ready forums

Contention #2: The adherents of climate change are like a religious movement.
Throughout his article Bolt refers to climate change proponents as ‘preachers’ who are ‘lecturing us on our sins against the planet’. The implication is that these people base their views, not on solid scientific evidence, but through some sort of environmental revelation that provides it’s adherents with a religious-like certainty that they are right. Bullshit. The notion of climate change is based on decades of accumulated scientific data from myriad different fields. It has been accepted as sound science by the majority of the scientific community. What information does Bolty have that atmospheric scientists are unaware of? It is the people that are vehemently opposed to the idea of climate change that are guilty of dogmatically ignoring evidence because it doesn’t tie in with their blinkered worldviews – and Bolt is a particularly consistent example.

Implying that your opponents are pontificating at you from a sense of self-righteousness rather than from an unbiased interpretation of the evidence is a common (and amusingly ironic) accusation of the Creationist against the scientific mainstream. They say that Darwinism is a religion because it demands faith to accept the naturalistic explanation of life on this planet. Once again, the contrast is between one group basing their stance on evidence and another simply asserting that it is right.

What Bolty said: Preaching green sermons over the dead is vile enough [...]

What Creationists say: Now that the Theory of Evolution has been disproven, why is it still taught in our schools? [...] Evolutionist lecturers and writers would stop earning the more than $1 billion they earn every year by preaching evolution. - Dr. Michael J. Bisconti, The L. F. Nexus

Contention #3: People that accept climate change are ‘warmists’.
At one point in his woefully poorly written article, the B-man refers to a mysterious group of people known as ‘the warmists’. Given that climate change (or ‘global warming’ as it is known by Bolt and people that lived in the eighties) is accepted by the majority of the scientific community and the public, why are it’s adherents being described like some kind of atmospheric science splinter group? Quick! Everyone out of the earth science building! The Warmists have staged a coup and are going to turn the physics department into a paramilitary outfit! Please. This is basically on par with calling someone a ‘spherical earthist’.

Guess what? Creationists love calling people that accept evolution (AKA sane people), ‘Evolutionists’. And guess what else? There’s no such thing as an Evolutionist – there are just people who are willing to accept what the evidence is telling us. Like Bolt, these people are implying some kind of schism when one simply doesn’t exist.

What Bolty said: [T]here are two more reasons to reject this crowing of the warmists

What Creationists say: I'm disgusted with all evolutionist, because they refuse to see the truth, or even look into with an open eye (though i'm sure everyone of you will claim you have) but if you did, you would see the truth. - Heather, No Answers in Genesis

Contention #4: Global warming theory is in trouble.
Inherent in this article and all of Bolt’s references to climate change in his ‘journalism’ is that it is a ‘theory in trouble’. This is so startlingly reminiscent of Creationist rhetoric that it’s almost indistinguishable. If climate change is an unsound theory, why is the worldwide scientific community in consensus on it’s validity? Why are it’s critics always semi-literate right-wing journalists and not atmospheric scientists? The Creationists make the same assertion about evolution, verbatim. And just like Andy, they’re full of shit.

What Bolty said: Ask the high priests of warming at The Age which on Monday ran this attempt to disguise the fact that global warming is a theory in trouble

What Creationists say: Why not just check out Creationist classic 'Evolution: A Theory In Crisis' by Michael Denton?

Conclusion: Andrew Bolt, like the Creationists, is doing his best to sound like his strident denialism is somehow equally valid as countless years of carefully accumulated scientific evidence. But, ironically, it all just amounts to a lot of detrimental hot air. Probably the best part of the article for me was when Bolty referred to Tim Flannery as ‘another preacher with no formal training in climate science.’ I’m sure there’s some sort of appropriate metaphor here involving black kitchenware but it’s so bloody hot in here at the moment, I can hardly think.


Saturday, January 10, 2009

Imagine if you went back in time to say, 1991 and people asked you what it was like to live in 2009 and you told them that Will Smith is one of the most wealthiest and most poweful actors on the planet. People would think you were fucking insane.