Combatting IDiots in the School Board

Spencer, Iowa kids are going to get the science education they need, thanks to folks who ensured the school board didn’t get snookered by shysters.  And the lessons learned there can apply to anyone whose district is facing an invasion of IDiots:

The defeat of this “religious liberty” policy does harbor potential lessons for others trying to fight these anti-science actions in local school districts. First, college faculty members should not underestimate the power of their opinions on these issues even in school districts where these faculty members do not live.
Yes, some school board members might resent outsiders, but others welcome expertise and attention from respected institutions. This is especially the case if advice is given with courtesy and tact. The school board must be convinced that the aim is to further good science education rather than to impose some ideological hegemony on a small school district. One should try to contact school board members, and see how open they are to outside advice before dismissing any interaction as a lost cause.
Good coordinated actions by coalitions are extremely important. Although I am an incompatibilist in terms of religion and science (i.e., I don’t think that religion and science are philosophically compatible), the fact remains that many religious people do support evolution, science education, and the separation of religion and government. When a common goal is to keep creationism out of schools, and good science education in schools, then the practical thing to do is to work together with interfaith alliances.
Finally, vigilance and rapid action are always important. This means having shoes on the ground — a ready group of educators, scientists, and other allies ready to write letters, draft petitions, and even travel (in our case, about 3-4 hours) in person to places where we could make a difference.

 Good advice, all.  Keep it handy just in case DIsco comes dancing into town…

(Tip o’ the shot glass to the Panda’s Thumb)

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Of Weasels and Wankers

I’m currently reading Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker (which is a book guaranteed to make creationists sob). By computer standards, the book is ancient – the computer he wrote it on had a memory measured in kilobytes. Nowadays, of course, that’s laughable.

But he still managed to get that wee little machine to sit up and do tricks. One of his tricks was the Weasel program. It’s a simple, elegant display of random mutation vs. random mutation with selection. It all had to do with monkeys writing Shakespeare, and the power of evolution to bring order from chaos. In just a few dozen generations, selection causes random mutations of letter strings to converge on “Methinks it is a weasel.” The need for infinite monkeys, time and typewriters is eliminated when you throw a little selection into the mix. It’s an outstanding tool for understanding how a little thing like natural selection combined with a bit o’ mutation can produce all the brilliant complexity life demonstrates.

This, apparently, has made creationists sob for over 20 years. In fact, William Dembski, hereafter more aptly named Dimski, just can’t let it go:

Over at uncommon descent William Dembski is musing over Richard Dawkins Weasel program. Why you may ask?

[snip]

Such is its power, the Issac Newton of Information Theory, William Dembski, spent a not inconsiderable portion of his time attacking this toy program. In particular, he claimed that after every successful mutation, the successful mutation was locked into place, and couldn’t be reversed. But he was wrong, and it seems he just can’t admit it.

As you can see, by using the Courier font, one can read up from the target sequence METHINKS*IT*IS*LIKE*A*WEASEL, as it were column by column, over each letter of the target sequence. From this it’s clear that once the right letter in the target sequence is latched on to, it locks on and never changes. In other words, in these examples of Dawkins’ WEASEL program as given in his book THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, it never happens (as far as we can tell) that some intermediate sequences achieves the corresponding letter in the target sequence, then loses it, and in the end regains it.

Selection strikes again! In the book, instead of plumping for 160 pages of gibberish, Dawkins presents us with every 10th fittest string. Dawkins even kindly provided the rules he gave the program. Someone who isn’t a complete Dimski can whip up a version for themselves, and watch the strings wander all over the place, even indeed losing and regaining target letters, before landing on the target sequence. Indeed, there’s even a BBC documentary in which Dawkins puts his program through its paces, and you can watch it happen.

A normal person would go, “Whoops.” Dimski screams “Conspiracy!”

That leads one to wonder whether the WEASEL program, as Dawkins had programmed and described it in his book, is the same as in the BBC Horizons documentary.

What a doofus.

So what does a Dimski do? Puts a “chief programmer” on the case:

In any case, our chief programmer at the Evolutionary Informatics Lab (www.evoinfo.org) is expanding our WEASEL WARE software to model both these possibilities. Stay tuned.

Say what? How long does it take someone to write a program that basically takes a string, copies it with mutations, compares it to a target, chooses the best mutant, copies and mutates the new string, and compares again until the target is reached?

Well, this is Dimski we’re talking about.

*cue Musak*

Doop-de-doo. Dum dum dum. Hmm, I wonder what’s mutating in the fridge?

My goodness, how that grass does grow.

Whelp. Let’s check in and see how things are going:

It is now 62 hours since William Dembski posted that the Evolutionary Informatics lab was going to try and reproduce Dawkins Weasel Program according to how it was actually written, as opposed to their fantasy version. In that time I’ve resurrected an elderly program, and several readers have made their own weasels from scratch. Commenter Anders has even made a Python version that puts “freely mutating” and “locking versions” head to head with great graphs.

Y’know, Billy Dim, I do believe it’s taking you so long because the program you’re trying to create never existed. Makes it rather hard to duplicate, dunnit? It’s kinda like trying to selectively breed for gryphons by way of proving all the myths are true.

This little dustup does demonstrate a rather powerful truth, although not the one Dimski intended. It’s really hard to produce scientific results backing up claims that are just flat-out wrong.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why IDiots haven’t managed any scientific proof yet, eh?

The Presuppositionalists

Science Sunday continues…

Two posts, one on The Panda’s Thumb and one on Thoughts in a Haystack, explain brilliantly why creationists stubbornly stick to their pseudo-science in the face endless evidence debunking them mercilessly.

First, honored patron of the cantina Richard B. Hoppe gives us this fantastic analogy:

Once in a while an analogy comes along that deserves wide dissemination. I got one such this afternoon on the Ohio Citizens for Science list, and I’ve got permission to quote it from Joe Hern, its author. Joe was musing on the video of Michael Schermer interviewing Georgia Purdom, creationist geneticist at AIG. (I don’t know how long that URL will be good, so grab it if you want it.) Joe, who IIRC is a former YEC himself, captured the creationist mindset perfectly:

The psychology behind why Creationists seem to make up stuff that fit their theology is best understood by recognizing precisely how we feel when we see a magician pull a rabbit from its hat in a magic show. We do not need to know how it works to “know” it is not really magic. We do not entertain ideas that we may be ‘missing’ a step in our epistemology. We would roll our eyes at anyone who insists to us we are not thinking critically to accept that there may be true magic involved. The key component of this thought process is that we ‘know’ we do not have to look into it… it’s a foregone conclusion that there is no magic involved.

To the creationist, this is the exact same thought process. They ‘know’ God is real, that what he wrote is literal, and there is no reason whatsoever to even begin to entertain the idea that the ‘evidences’ for evolution are really evidence. It’s a foregone conclusion that such ‘evidences’, regardless how intellectual or damning they sound, are “simply” ways man makes data fit their own ideas, as Dr. Purdom stated.

[snip]

That really is what we’re up against: presuppositionalist thinking vs. evidential thinking, in Purdom’s terms. As I remarked in my AIG creationists on the jury post last week, for creationists evidence is not a means of testing presuppositions: evidence must be interpreted so as to corroborate them or one will fall into apostasy.

That being so, you can bet that when one of them starts to sound like they understand science, they’re going to veer off into IDiocy within a few seconds. Friend and fellow Elitist Bastard John Pieret has a perfect example:

Dr. Terry Mortenson, of Answers in Genesis, described as an “apologetics ministry” rather than a scientific organization, places science and the Bible in direct conflict:

“The Bible says the earth was created before the sun, moon, and stars — contrary to the big-bang theory. The Bible says that plants were created before sea creatures — contrary to…evolutionary theory,” Mortenson points out.

“And then the Bible says that there was no death before Adam’s sin — no animal death, no human death. But evolution says there were hundreds of millions of years of death in the physical world. So you have to ignore the details of the Bible to accept evolution.”

[snip]

Naturally, Mortenson claims that there is “an enormous amount of scientific evidence that supports that God created separate kinds of plants and animals … and there’s an enormous, massive amount of evidence in the geological record for Noah’s flood.”

But as we already know, that “scientific” evidence is evidence only if you ignore the “evidentialist approach” and, instead, adopt presuppositionalism by starting with the authority of the Word of God instead of with the “authority of human reasoning.” In short, there is scientific evidence for the biblical account if, and only if, you start by assuming the Bible is true. Besides the danger of his disappearing up his own butt running in such tight circles, Mortenson is being less than honest in not explaining that the “evidence” is not coming from actual evidence but from assuming his conclusion from the outset.

I’m not ashamed to admit that “disappearing up his own butt” gave me one of the most amusing mental images of my young life. Icky, but amusing.

Here we have the reason why they must be “less than honest.” Their religion doesn’t allow honesty. When you’ve painted yourself into the corner of Biblical inerrancy, and your entire worldview – your very idea of salvation – is predicated on that perfection, facts either have to be doctored or denied. There’s no other way out.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said something in his lecture that pertains here. When you memorize facts versus ideas, you’re susceptible to thinking the world is coming to an end when facts change. And that’s precisely where the creationists and IDiots are. Thus, presuppositionalism, and all of the antics that ensue.

All we can hope for is that enough evidence dogpiles on them to cause catastrophic cognitive dissonance, leading to a crop of ex-creationists. At least in the meantime, lookers-on learn a bit more science, and get to point and laugh as a bonus.

Luskin Does Lucy

It’s too bad I didn’t visit Lucy’s Legacy on the same day Casey Luskin did. Watching an IDiot ponder transitional fossils is almost as entertaining as watching Cons try to employ clever rhetoric. It’s even more enjoyable when people who know what the fuck they’re talking about get their hands on his burble and take him apart with gleeful precision:

I don’t know why I do it to myself. Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment and frustration. Every so often, I’ll feel the need to go to one of those Intelligent Design/Creationism blogs and get myself all angry and riled up. This morning I went over to Evolution News and Views and saw that Casey Luskin has been to the Pacific Science Center’s Lucy exhibit, and he’s soooooo not impressed. That’s okay though, because I’m not impressed with his critique.

Luskin says,

The first thing my friends and I noticed when seeing Lucy’s bones was the incompleteness of her skeleton. Only 40% was found, and a significant percentage of the known bones are rib fragments. Very little useful material from Lucy’s skull was recovered. (This seems to be common: many of the replica skulls of early hominids at the exhibit were clearly based upon extremely fragmentary pieces.) And yet, Lucy still represents the most complete known hominid skeleton to date.

I’m not sure if this is just a confusion of terms or just glaring ignorance, but Lucy is not the most complete fossil hominid known to date. Meet Nariokotome Boy. If you’re looking for complete skulls, let me introduce you to the Taung Child, Little Foot, Mrs. Ples, or KNM-ER 406. Or, open a book and introduce yourself to any number of the other skeletons that are comparatively or more complete than Lucy.

A Primate of Modern Aspect goes on to utterly demolish him, but the fun doesn’t end there. Afarensis gets his smackdown on:

In the second section Casey tries to cast doubt on the bipedality of Lucy by quoting from a News and Views article by Collard and Aiello. The Collard and Aiello article reports on a “letter” to Nature by Richmond and Strait called Evidence that humans evolved from a knuckle-walking ancestor. In that paper Richmond and Strait claim to do two things. First they provide evidence that Australopithecus anamensis and A. afarensis both share wrist morphology indicative of knuckle-walking. They then argue that knuckle-walking is a synapomorphy that links the African apes and humans. Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, the relationships between chimps, gorillas, and humans was considered an unresolved trichotomy. Quite a few people argued that chimps and gorillas were more closely related to each other than either was to humans. Others argued, based on morphological and genetic evidence, that chimps and humans were more closely related. Richmond and Strait’s results took away a crucial piece of evidence for the gorilla-chimp clade. Casey, having “…studied about Lucy and other fossils…” doesn’t mention any of this. Of course, if Lucy really is the commingled remains of who-knows-what as Casey argued above, then none of this matters and one has to wonder why Luskin goes futher. But he does. Says Casey:

Lucy did have a small, chimp-like head, but as Mark Collard and Leslie Aiello observe in Nature, much of the rest of the body of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, was also “quite ape-like” with respect to its “relatively long and curved fingers, relatively long arms, and funnel-shaped chest.”

Given that Luskin is dedicated to exposing the misreporting on evolution, I’m sure you will be shocked as I am to find that this is only kind-of sort-of what Collard and Aiello said:

The basic facts are not in dispute. A. afarensis has a combination of traits that is not seen among living primates. In some respects, A. afarensis is quite human-like (for instance in the foot structure, nonopposable big toe, and pelvis shape). In others, it is quite ape-like (relatively long and curved fingers, relatively long arms, and funnel-shaped chest).

My goodness. An IDiot twisting the scientific literature to suit his own purposes? Say it ain’t so!

One day, for shits and giggles, I’m going to take a field trip to the Discovery Institute with a sack full of science journals and ask them for their peer-reviewed contributions to science. I’ll ask for their original fieldwork, their dramatic finds, and Nobel Prize-winning research. They’ll try to hand me Luskin’s lunacy and Egnor’s ignorance, because it’s all they’ve got. And that’s their only contribution: in being such ignorant fuckwits, they allow actual scientists to shine in the rebuttal.

I’m discovering that you can indeed learn a lot from a dummy, because the smart people have such fun taking them apart.

(George points us to Afarensis’ follow-up, which is an excellent chaser.)

AC Grayling’s Not to be Trifled With

First, the setup: AC Grayling, writing brilliantly in New Humanist, took Steve Fuller to the woodshed over his obnoxious little book Dissent over Descent. You know someone’s not impressed with your efforts to give ID a little boost when they entitle their review of your book “Origin of the specious.” Fuller, of course, responded by whining incessantly. Grayling, seeing he had not fully absorbed the lessons of the woodshed, took him out back for a second round, this time employing a prototype Smack-o-Matic 4000 that I desperately want to lay my hands on. Beautiful mayhem ensues.

I want to highlight one paragraph that captures the essence of what science is and ID isn’t. If Intelligent Design were a person, what follows would qualify as a debilitating towel-snap to the nads:

I am, says Fuller, ignorant (sheerly so; this is the glaring deficiency in my case) of “ID’s argument structure”, which is – argument to the best explanation! Oh pul-eese! I ignored this bit in my review out of a kind of residual collegiality, for even among the toxicities that flow when members of the professoriate fall out, embarrassment on others” behalf is a restraint. But he asks for it. Argument to the best explanation! Look: there is a great deal we do not know about this world of ours, but what is beautiful about science is that its practitioners do not panic and say “cripes! we don’t understand this, so we must grab something quick – attribute it to the intelligent designing activity of Fred (or Zeus or the Tooth Fairy or any arbitrary supernatural agency given ad hoc powers suitable to the task) because we can’t at present think of a better explanation.” They do not make a hasty grab for a lousy “best explanation” because they have serious thoughts about the kind of thing that can count as such. Instead of quick ad hoc fixes, they live with the open-ended nature of scientific enquiry, hypothesising and testing, trying to work things out rationally and conservatively on the basis of what is so far well-attested and secure. What looks like having a chance of being both an “explanation” and the “best” in a specific case turns on there being a well-disciplined idea of “best” for that specific case. But an hypothesis has no hope of becoming the best explanation (until a better comes along) unless it survives testing, is specific, and is consistent and conservative with respect to much else that is secure. This is a far cry from the gestural “best explanation” move that ID theorists attempt, which – and note this carefully – does not restrict itself to individual puzzles only, but applies to Life, the Universe and Everything. It has to, at risk of incoherence; and yet by doing so, it collapses into incoherence.

Oh, snap!

I think I’m going to have this paragraph printed on little cards. Why waste my breath with IDiots when I can simply hand them the card, watch them read it, and then grin as they splutter?