Friday, September 28, 2007

Even the New York Times is waking up to the bad faith behind the new 'Expelled' movie. I think Ben Stein is going to eventually regret his involvement in it. As usual, intelligent design proponents talk about the conspiracy of silence against new 'thinking' about evolution.
Krauthammer on France:

Sarkozy is no American lapdog. Like every Fifth Republic president, he begins with the notion of French exceptionalism. But whereas traditional Gaullism tended to define French grandeur as establishing a counterweight to American power, Sarkozy is not adverse to seeing French assertiveness exercised in conjunction with the United States. As Kouchner put it, "permanent anti-Americanism" is "a tradition we are working to overcome."

This French about-face creates a crucial shift in the balance of forces within Europe. The East Europeans are naturally pro-American for reasons of history (fresh memories of America's role in defeating their Soviet occupiers) and geography (physical proximity to a newly revived and aggressive Russia). Western Europe is intrinsically wary of American power and culturally anti-American by reflex. France's change from Chirac to Sarkozy, from Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (who actively lobbied Third World countries to oppose America on Iraq) to Kouchner (who supported the U.S. invasion on humanitarian grounds) represents an enormous shift in Old Europe's relationship to the U.S.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The luck of our soldiers, God bless 'em.

The dudes at Triablogue are just having way too much fun. One of the reasons it's hard not to like their blog, even when I disagree with them....
George Will sums up the New York Times/MoveOn controversy.

Friday, September 21, 2007

John Wilkins is always worth reading, but today he is particularly interesting.
As I have noted before, the sciences have a kind of rolling wall of fog at a temporal distance behind them. They only cite those papers that are this side of that wall, or those papers that stand out like mountain peaks from the more distant past. History is messy and interferes with the simplistic story that textbooks (and, let it be said, defenders of evolution) want to tell.
First, though, read this.

Then check out John's latest.
Krauthammer on what happened in Syria:

On Sept. 6, something important happened in northern Syria. Problem is, no one knows exactly what. Except for those few who were involved, and they're not saying.

We do know that Israel carried out an airstrike. How do we know it was important? Because in Israel, where leaking is an art form, even the best-informed don't have a clue. They tell me they have never seen a better-kept secret.

Which suggests that whatever happened near Dayr az Zawr was no accidental intrusion into Syrian airspace, no dry run for an attack on Iran, no strike on some conventional target such as an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base or a weapons shipment on its way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Circumstantial evidence points to this being an attack on some nuclear facility provided by North Korea.

Three days earlier, a freighter flying the North Korean flag docked in the Syrian port city of Tartus with a shipment of "cement." Long way to go for cement. Within days, a top State Department official warned that "there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment." Three days later, the six-party meeting on dismantling North Korea's nuclear facilities scheduled for Sept. 19 was suddenly postponed, officially by China, almost certainly at the behest of North Korea.

Apart from the usual suspects -- Syria, Iran, Libya and Russia -- only two countries registered strong protests to the Israeli strike: Turkey and North Korea. Turkey we can understand. Its military may have permitted Israel an overflight corridor without ever having told the Islamist civilian government. But North Korea? What business is this of North Korea's? Unless it was a North Korean facility being hit.

Which raises alarms for many reasons. First, it would undermine the whole North Korean disarmament process. Pyongyang might be selling its stuff to other rogue states or perhaps just temporarily hiding it abroad while permitting ostentatious inspections back home.

Second, there are ominous implications for the Middle East. Syria has long had chemical weapons -- on Monday, Jane's Defence Weekly reported on an accident that killed dozens of Syrians and Iranians loading a nerve-gas warhead onto a Syrian missile -- but Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Syria.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Apropos my gripes about the abysmal state of what passes for conservative science journalism, Teresa Nielsen Hayden weighs in:

Why should it be so important to insist that God created the animals via mysterious unspecified means, and to deny that the processes that brought them into being left perceptible traces in the geological record and in the form and nature of the animals we have with us today? There’s no virtue in the denial. Understanding something about how animals happened neither makes us gods nor distances us from God. Refusing to understand it—or worse, lying to maintain a false model of how things happened—puts us very far from God and/or truth.

Lying about evolution is not evidence of faith. Lying about anything is not evidence of faith. Lying to one’s co-religionists is not evidence that you care about the state of their souls or your own. So why do it? Possibly because it fosters an unwarranted certainty, an us-and-them mentality that can be exploited for political gains. And possibly, just possibly, because it leads believers into distracting thickets of false exegesis, and away from a faith whose basic tenets have never been terribly complicated: Love god. Love one another. Share what you have, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the afflicted, be humble, love justice, seek peace, tell the truth, pray often, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, recognize everyone as a child of God just like yourself, and forgive trespasses as you hope to have your own forgiven.

It’s a disturbing religion when you take it straight. Heaven only knows what would happen if more of these people started practicing it.

Can it be put more plainly than that? Or more thoughtfully?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rod Dreher was kind enough to pick up on my post on the woes of conservative science journalism. And so far no obscene comments!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Whoever said being a philosopher means a life without adventure? Not Scott Carson.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Gerald Baker today:

The US is indeed in the middle of another gloomy ride around the “America as Rome” theme park of half-understood history lessons. The pessimists, equipped with their Fodor’s guidebooks, their summer school diplomas, and their DVD collection of Cecil B. DeMille movies, are convinced it’s all up for the people who march today under the standard of the eagle, just as it was for their predecessors. They see military defeat abroad and political decay at home; they watch as far-flung peoples chafe at the dictates of imperial rule and as the plebs at home grow metaphorically hungry from misgovernment. The only real uncertainty in their minds is who will play the Vandals and lay waste to Washington?

It’s a familiar and very tired analogy, of course. From the moment that America became top nation in the middle of the last century, people have been racing to be contemporary Gibbons, chronicling the decline and fall even as it was supposedly happening. Not the least of the objections to their efforts is that Rome’s domination of the known world lasted about 500 years, and survived more than the odd thrashing or two at the hands of barbarian tribes. In modern America, it’s always the same. Every lost battle or turbulent day on the foreign exchanges and the obituary writers are sharpening their pencils.

You know, I can't imagine who he's talking about...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Problem of Credibility

The problem with relying solely on philosophy when it comes to discussing the 'big picture' about God and his role in the evolution of life, is that it too often gives cover to scientific stupidity.

I would much rather say ignorance instead of stupidity, believe me. But ignorance is a condition that can be remedied, assuming the ignorant party is interested in learning the truth. That is not the case with many conservatives and the journalists who pander to them.

In terms of science reporting and opinion, Tom Bethell is one example of an obdurately stupid journalist. As is Pat Buchanan. As is Ann Coulter. Note the journals they write for--they are magazines I used to find stimulating in college and afterwards. National Review, the American Spectator, for example.

Now, I could pick on any one of these aging heavyweights, but for purposes of economy--and because he so regularly supplies ample ammunition, I'll confine myself to Tom Bethell as an example of what I mean.

At the outset, I should point out that the most overtly religious of the conservative magazines today, First Things, I have to say is also the most open about science qua science. Yes, they do publish the usual swill from the Discovery Institute fellows, but they also allow Edward T. Oakes, my favorite Jesuit, to neatly deconstruct them whenever they do. But perhaps FT's true openness to both sides of the argument isn't ironic, for the very reason that the editors take their religion with all of its tradition and history more seriously than the those of the other magazines. (So there. I'm not burning any bridges with them.)

That's not to say FT always gets it right. For example, in an otherwise thoughtful piece, Cardinal Avery Dulles can't resist giving a crumb of credibility to Intelligent Design as one of three plausible reactions to what evolution tells us about the world, in spite of the fact that ID is a movement now so bankrupt in its lack of any scientific content, that it has become an embarrassment to Christians who are practicing scientists and philosophers. (Even Young Earth Creationists have had enough of the Discovery Institute's posturing.)

I'm not blaming the Cardinal, except to the extent that I think leaders of the Church are too careful sometimes, too cautious, in their weighing of urgent questions. Pope Benedict's recent assertion that the whole creationism v. evolution debate is "absurd" would have been more welcome, say, two years ago when Cardinal Schönborn signed his name to an ill-conceived attack on Darwin in the New York Times. Instead, the pope was content to wait until after the cautious, quiet seminars he felt he had to sit through before making up his mind. But at least he invited scientists to make their case--which is more than our mainstream conservative magazines do.

Another part of the problem--at least with regard to conservative journalists and how they cover science--is the narrow provincialism, born of the small social circle of people who make up the current conservative intellectual establishment, meaning, in the corridor between New York and Washington, D.C. [I'm a Red Sox fan, so shoot me.]

A friend of mine, who is also a longtime reader of National Review and the other conservative opinion journals, had some interesting comments about this a while back in an email, and I think he's right on the money: "The problem with NRO is that it's intellectually incurious. It's gotten to be dull and airless because it's not really interested in exploring new ideas and rethinking old ones in light of experience, but instead serving as a political rallying point. There is so much more to conservatism -- or to be more precise, what interests, or should interest, conservatives -- than what happens in Washington, but that's all they seem to care about."

Thus when Tom Bethell repeats his inaccurate cliches about Darwin's Theory (survival of the fittest is a tautology, dontcha know), he relies on Michael Behe and William Dembski to 'make his case'. Well, that's fine. What he does not do, however, is bother to look up any other working biologists or mathematicians who might broaden and challenge his sense of exactly what is going on (or more accurately--what is not going on) with ID.

For example, he might have ventured to query some Christians who are scientists and philosophers, ones who are not scared of Darwin. To name just a few:

Scott Carson,
Steve Matheson
Michael W. Tkacz
Kenneth Miller
Stephen Barr

But talking to anyone who might politely disprove the point is just not part of what Bethell, Gilder, Buchanan, Coulter & Co. are up to. Which is the main reason why conservative journalists have ZERO credibility with a wider educated readership when it comes to science.

There's nothing wrong, by the way, with attacking Darwinism as it is hyped as a philosophy. Bethell is certainly right that Darwin's theory is often used as a philosophy, and a tawdry one. He might also have noticed, though, that the people who most often espouse the philosophy are not the ones doing the science. And there is plenty of science behind Darwin. Bethell is just not interested in finding out what it is, in spite of his breathless proclamations of the imminent death of Darwin going on for... thirty-plus years now. (A statement like that sort of assumes that you know what the hell you're talking about.)

If he took the time to interview, for example, this man, he would learn a few recent facts that the study of Darwin's theory has inspired. Steve Matheson, by the way, is precisely the sort of young Christian that Bethell loves to tout as the future student who will supposedly dispense with Darwin's theory.

Far from dispensing with Darwin, lots of scientists like Matheson are running with him, and building even more impressive evidence for his theory.

Common ancestry in plants, for example.

Then there's Chromosome 2, the most dazzling evidence to date, in my opinion, of our direct connection to primates--all genetic evidence of Darwin's theory of descent with modification by genetic variation and natural selection, that supports the fossil record. But Bethell & Co. (if they are even aware of this) prefer to continue ranting about peppered moths. Pat Buchanan apparently thinks nothing has been discovered in the fossil record in the last 50 years. But then, Pat's still a 1950s kind of guy all around. ("I don't believe all that...I never studied it in high school.")

And speaking of peppered moths, I wonder if the science journalism A-Team is even aware of this? Unlikely.

What I would like Bethell, Buchanan, Gilder, and the other blow-hards of what passes for conservative 'science journalism' to explain, as carefully as they can, is how any sense can be made of modern biology apart from Darwin's theory? Even Michael Behe might admit that would be a tall order. But Bethell has shown that he is uninterested in speaking with anyone working in the discipline today. Why should he? It's far easier to quote-mine--out of context--long dead or retired scientists who don't even work in the field.

Speaking of Behe, when asked to explain once what he meant by the 'designer' and how "irreducibly complex" elements actually got inserted into bacterial systems wholesale, he famously told Larry Arnhart it was 'a puff of smoke'.

Waal, who would you rather have teaching your children science? Michael Behe, or Steve Matheson? William Dembski, or Jeffrey Shalit? Jonathan Wells, or Kenneth Miller? For that matter, how about the nuns at Saint Agatha's who way back in 1969 introduced this reader to the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs and the How and Why Wonder Book of Early Man? And I don't recall Sister Helen Bernard telling me, 'By the way, Johnny, evolution is just a theory, you know.'

But as far as the current generation of gadflies posting 'science' articles to National Review and the American Spectator are concerned, if the philosophy suggested by science is intimidating or disturbing...well--by all means then, out with the baby along with the bathwater. Let's raise a generation of scientific illiterates so that they will have even fewer options to prosper in the challenging world of the future.

While I'm at it, newtonian physics, which Bethell presumably does not dispute, also bred a questionable philosophy (deism), as did Einstein's relativity (moral relativism) and quantum mechanics (don't ask, there are too many isms to list). They all fail to satisfy as philosophies in my opinion, but that doesn't mean there is no science from which they took flight. (Predictably, it hasn't prevented Bethell from making a further fool of himself by attacking Einstein in the past, although lately he has modified his reliance on pure crackpot sources when it comes to that theory, at least. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.)

There's a deeper issue here, of course. It's the problem that many conservatives have with the very methodological basis of science--methodological naturalism. They enjoy blaming this on Darwin as well.

But it is not at all established that the old bugbear naturalism, the exclusion of supernatural explanations from scientific reasoning, is the product of Darwin and Huxley that so many conservative writers suggest. Upon closer examination, it actually goes back (at the very least) to the medieval universities--when the whole show was run by priests. In those days, atheists weren't even allowed to proclaim their skepticism, let alone teach.

Nevertheless, Jean Buridan, the cleric and philosopher of the mid 1300s whose influence on medieval science and philosophy was, for quite some time, more widespread in Europe than that of Aquinas or Albert the Great, wrote in his Quaestiones super quattuor libris de caelo et mundo, “In natural philosophy one should consider processes and causal relationships as if they always came about in some natural fashion; therefore, God is no less the cause of this world and of its order, than if this world were eternal.” [emphasis mine]

That sure sounds like methodological naturalism to me. It's also common sense. (Do you suppose when Pat Buchanan goes out to his car in the morning and finds one of the tires has gone flat he starts looking around for little gremlins?) I should add to this Aquinas' position that it is precisely a solid, stubborn, Aristotelian adherence to empirical facts about the natural order that can point beyond the natural--and not the other way around.

Okay--but isn't this all just a tempest in a teapot? Why all the bother? Why get upset because mainstream conservative magazines are so out-of-touch with science? Who cares?

Waal, as a moderate conservative, I care. And the predilection to publish boneheaded articles on science frankly suggests ...that the mainstream conservative magazines are not so mainstream anymore. When George Gilder can, because he is a veteran contributing editor of National Review, write something so utterly incoherent as this:
The failure of purely physical theories to describe or explain information reflects Shannon's concept of entropy and his measure of "news." Information is defined by its independence from physical determination: If it is determined, it is predictable and thus by definition not information. Yet Darwinian science seemed to be reducing all nature to material causes.
--and National Review's editor Rich Lowry apparently can't sit up in his office and say, "What the f%#$?" and get out his red pen, or ship it back with 'rejected', or at least send it to an expert for some comments...well, I think they're in trouble.

What a small but growing number of conservatives are concerned about, is the wholesale linking of conservatism with bogus science, whether it goes by the name of "Intelligent Design" or "Young Earth Creationism" or "Alternative Electrodynamics" or astrology for that matter (which by the way Behe also thinks passes muster as science) --and the growing discredit that this brings upon conservatism as a whole. Such a state virtually guarantees that the only new blood the movement can count on gaining in the future, is precisely derived from the credulous and the ignorant, most aptly personified by the frightened ferrets now beating the drums for the firing of this man.

Now, in fairness to National Review, perhaps the percentage of readers who are scared of Darwin is so large, the editors feel they just can't afford to educate alienate them and thus lose their subscription base and financial backing. Instead, they let John Derbyshire take the heat for being the lone voice of sanity on science. I don't know, as I don't work there.

On the other hand, I don't recall whether Bill Buckley ever fretted over lost subscriptions when he decided to unload both barrels on the John Birch Society back in the early days of NR's glory. It had to be done to maintain the magazine's credibility.

Well, it's high time for another maintenance job. Time to take an editorial stance against bogus science, no matter how much the think tanks complain.
Why Scott Carson is on my daily reading list:
Be that as it may, the discussion of homosexuality often degenerates into a discussion of what could possibly be wrong with loving people who are deeply committed to one another rubbing their genitals and other various appendages together. This discussion often turns on cultural phenomena: we in the West have a particular view of the matter that is due principally to historical accident, perhaps even to ancient Hebrew strictures against idolatry, and other cultures may view the matter differently and, indeed, biology itself makes no particular claim on how these things ought to go down (if you will pardon the expression), given that "in nature", as is often noted, animals are wont not only to rub their genitals against all nature of thing but also to eat their own young, eat their own feces, kill their own kin, and do all manner of other things that we find abominable in our benighted human delicacy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How cool is it to see your book translated into Japanese?! Fortunately, I have a sister who is fluent in the language.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stephen Schwartz today:
The human, financial, and technological resources of Al-Qaida have diminished immensely since 9/11: it lost its Afghan base and then plunged into the Iraqi bloodbath, in which it is being defeated. Rather than a second Vietnam for the U.S. - comparing two wars that really have almost nothing in common - Iraq could be a fatal quagmire for al-Qaida. With the increasing failure of Iraqi Sunnis to rally to AQI, the enemy seeks to export the Iraqi jihad to the weakest area on the Western front: Europe.

But as became visible in the successive London terror conspiracies as well as the most recent investigation in Germany, Al-Qaida has been significantly degraded everywhere. In place of expensively-trained cadres driving airliners against the most famous buildings in the West, the enemy must have recourse to marginal fanatics using low-tech explosives. Superficial clichés about "homegrown terror" among Muslims in the West ignore two things. First, the conspiracies are never "homegrown," i.e. based in local grievances and organized spontaneously. They are always directed from the same nexus in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Second, the "terrorist movement" among European Muslims remains atomized and peripheral. Its criminal efforts require efficient detection, prevention, and punishment, but they are based in isolated cells, not in a network with ranks of volunteers such as Al-Qaida possessed in 2001. Cell operations cannot and do not replace mass movements in changing history.
More depressing evidence of Christian documentary filmmakers who feel no need to be honest about what they are doing when they approach prospective interviewees to be in their films.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tom Bethell is at it again. If you want a snap-shot of just how out-of-touch conservative journalists of the grizzled generation of Bethell, Buckley and Buchanan truly are about biological science in general, read Jeffrey Shalit:
Bethell tells us that "Structures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural" without bothering to mention that "specified complexity" is junk mathematics and doesn't permit an inference to anything at all, except that Bethell is rather gullible to accept William Dembski's assurances as gospel.

Bethell then goes on to repeat a common lie of the intelligent design movement: that the SETI Project (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) spends its time looking for things as a sequence of prime numbers". Sorry, Tom, that was the movie "Contact". You know, fiction?
Sigh. Do you know why Tom says complexity permits an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural? Let me guess: Because Dembski probably sent him an email. You know why Buckley doesn't believe in evolution? Probably because of that outdated tome written by Gertrude Himmelfarb 45 plus years ago. Buchanan? Coulter? You can be sure they get their 'information' from the same in-bred sources.

As opposed to, say, contacting 5 biologists picked at random from the colleges and universities around the country and simply asking them some questions. You know, what journalists are normally supposed to do.

This is why conservative journalists have NO credibility when it comes to science. Because they are incurious, intellectually lazy, and afraid to really find out the truth.

Update: Just as an example, here's one guy Tom could spend an afternoon with to great profit.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Friday dose of Krauthammer:
The critics at home, echoing the Shiite sectarians in Baghdad, complain that an essential part of this strategy -- the "20 percent solution" that allows former-insurgent Sunnis to organize and arm themselves -- is just setting Iraq up for a greater civil war. But this assumes that a Shiite government in Baghdad would march its army into the vast Anbar province, where there are no Shiites and no oil. For what? It seems far more likely that a well-armed and self-governing Anbar would create a balance of power that would encourage hands-off relations with the central government in Baghdad.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Great new science blog, Quintessence of Dust, by Stephen Matheson, an associate professor of biology at Calvin College in Michigan (critic of intelligent design arguments and a big Shakespeare fan).
I think it gets much worse than that for anti-evolution thinkers. I regularly see certain old-earth creationists (e.g. the folks at Reasons To Believe) and design proponents (e.g. William Dembski) arguing that "junk DNA" (which includes, but is not limited to, the 45% of the human genome composed of mobile elements and their debris) is not "junk" but can have important functions. (The arguments of these critics are flawed in several ways, which I'll detail some other time.) While it's true that mobile elements have contributed to the formation of new genes from time to time, and are thought to be significant sculptors of genomic evolution, it's also true that mobile elements are indiscriminate in their jumping, and their continued hopping about is a documented cause of harmful mutation. Here, though, is a significant quandary for a design advocate considering a bird genome: if these mobile elements have important functions in the organism, then how is it that birds can get by with 1/4 as many of them as, say, squirrels? Why, if these elements have important functions in the organism, do bats seem to need far fewer of them than, say, rats? (The genome of the big brown bat is 40% the size of the genome of the aardvark. Hello!) It seems to me that these facts are best understood when one considers the possibility that most of this DNA is essentially parasitic, and that some types of organisms have benefited by restraining its spread. A "design" perspective with regard to genome size is just not helpful, and if that perspective insists on excluding common ancestry, then it's worse than worthless.
I'm liking this guy. Thanks to Siris for pointing him out.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Red Sox Chick does a good job explaining why a lot of whining Yankees fans need to get a life.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

It's long overdue, but Teresa Nielsen Hayden reports her husband and longtime Tor books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has (finally) won the 2007 Hugo award for best editor. Congratulations to Patrick. He deserved to win it about, oh, twelve years ago....

What a great way to start September!

Fifteen days after making his major league debut against the Angels in the first game of a day-night doubleheader, a day that began with manager Terry Francona telling a sleepy morning assemblage of reporters that "[it] doesn't matter if he throws a no-hitter, he's going back down," 23-year-old Clay D. Buchholz made Francona an accidental prophet of sorts with the 17th no-hitter in franchise history and 20th by a rookie in major league history in a 10-0 win over the Orioles.

"I think that's about as nervous and excited as a lot of us have been in a long time," said Francona, who could have been speaking for the sellout crowd of 36,819 that made the rafters of old Fens vibrate with sound while Buchholz's teammates hung on the dugout railing until umpire Joe West signaled that the 115th pitch from Buchholz, a backup curveball, was strike three on Markakis.