Monthly Archives: October 2007

Shooting Hawks Now a Royal Pastime?

An AP report says that the UK’s Prince Harry and a companion were questioned by police concerning the shooting of two “hen harriers” at the royal residence at Sandrignham.

Harry and a friend, who were in the area at the time of the alleged shooting, were questioned by police but knew nothing about the incident, according to Buckingham Palace.

Norfolk Constabulary, which is investigating the hawks’ deaths, said Wednesday they questioned three people in connection with incident.

Prince Harry, his friend, and the person who reported the shooting makes three.

Hen harriers prey on grouse, which makes them unpopular with hunters, which leads to the current state of affairs where the harriers are threatened and only 160 nesting females remain.

John Angus Campbell’s Election Campaign Gets a Boost from the Kitsap Sun

Discovery Institute Fellow John Angus Campbell picked up a recommendation from the Kitsap Sun newspaper recently, in an apparent “anyone but the incumbents” bright-line choice that overlooks the baggage the non-incumbents may be carrying with them. In other words, reading the endorsement makes it clear that the Sun’s evaluation of Campbell went no further than the fact that Campbell is challenging the incumbent and has stated that he wishes to improve education for the children. The latter seems a trite superfluency when one considers that these are all people running for school board positions.

The Seattle Weekly ran an article pointing out Campbell’s record of advocacy for “intelligent design”. Campbell has responded on his campaign website, saying that of course he is not an advocate of “intelligent design”, but merely favors “classical liberal education” that might include arguments that “challenge ideas I personally favor”.

Wow. For someone who claims to “personally favor” “Darwinian” views, one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of such favoritism on Campbell’s part. On the other hand, one finds Campbell has been a productive apologist for the goals and aims of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, co-editing books described as “wedge books” and offered as evidence that IDC has “peer-reviewed or peer-edited” content.

There’s more good stuff in Ian Ramjohn’s article on the topic, pointing out that Campbell has offered an explanation for his withdrawal from the Kitzmiller v. DASD case as an expert witness that is at odds with the account offered under oath by DI CRSC director Stephen C. Meyer. Campbell casts it as a matter of principle, where his withdrawal was premised on a fundamental philosophical disconnect with the aims of the Dover Area School Board. Meyer recounts it as a disagreement over whether Campbell and other DI Fellows could be represented personally by DI-affiliated lawyers during the proceedings, insistence upon which the Thomas More Law Center, quite properly, objected to. [At least o]ne of them is lying to us… North Mason School District voters, do you feel lucky pulling the lever for Campbell? Further, there was the interview in 2006 with DI head honcho Bruce Chapman, who stated that he had requested the five DI-affiliated expert witnesses withdraw from the case because of his assessment that the Dover defendants were going to lose. That sounds a lot more like political expediency rather than philosophical principle. While the case was unfolding, we were treated to three different, and fundamentally incompatible, versions of why DI CRSC Senior Fellow William Dembski dropped out of the case, so this multiplicity of remembrances is no novelty when it comes to what can be spun from the mess.

But I think Campbell’s version of things rings hollow all on its own. The Dover case did not substantially change during the brief period of Campbell’s being part of the defense team. The points at issue there were the policy and the supplemental textbook, Of Pandas and People, neither of which changed in the period between Campbell’s submission of his expert report supporting the Dover policy and choice of text, and his purported philosophizing leading to the parting of the ways. In his expert report, Campbell asserts,

Acknowledging the legitimacy of different perspectives – such as those offered by advocates of ID – is one of the defining marks of a master teacher as traditionally understood in the context of a liberal education, and, therefore, advances education, and, in this case, a better understanding of Darwinism.

All of that, it turns out, is wrong. “Acknowledging the legitimacy of different perspectives” is not a matter that defines a “master teacher”; it is a matter of discrimination that the field in question must determine. Campbell’s advocacy here is to have no standard whatsoever for what is considered “legitimate” and what is claptrap. A master teacher, in my view, doesn’t go out of his or her way to leave the impression with their students that falsehoods are legitimate. And advocates of IDC have offered up falsehood after falsehood when it comes to discussing evolutionary science. These do not advance education, and they lead students to misunderstandings of evolutionary science, a primary one being that there is some specific current stance called “Darwinism”.

But Campbell is still proceeding exactly on DI lines. In his rebuttal to the Seattle Weekly article, Campbell states in conclusion:

But I will support teachers and administrators who, in accord with their best judgment, strive for educational excellence.

And the DI?

Luskin: While ID shouldn’t be mandated, it also shouldn’t be banned by court order. Science teachers should have the freedom to discuss it precisely because ID is based on science, not religion.

And here:

1. Discovery Institute’s science education policy has been consistent and clear. We strongly believe that teaching about intelligent design is constitutionally permissible, but we think mandatory inclusion of intelligent design in public school curricula is ill-advised. Instead, we recommend that schools require only that the scientific evidence for and against neo-Darwinism be taught, while not infringing on the academic freedom of teachers to present appropriate information about intelligent design if they choose.

North Mason School District voters: the Seattle Weekly was right. “Educational excellence” for Campbell would encompass teachers passing along IDC arguments as if they were science, even though those ideas are narrowly sectarian religious doctrines and have no accountability in the scientific literature. The Kitsap Sun dropped the ball here and shirked their duty to inform the public.

Ernest Elsberry, Jr.

Last weekend, I was in Florida and visited my uncle, Ernest Elsberry, Jr. He was having complications from a failure of a replacement mitral valve. Despite the fatigue and pain, we were able to talk about bird dogs and hunting in central Florida, among other things.

Ernest Jr. had a career in the US Customs service, with most of that service being in the Miami area. When he retired, the family moved to Gainesville.

I just got a call from my father to tell me that Ernest Jr. died earlier today. What I’ve been told so far is that we will likely have a memorial service after Thanksgiving.

Florida’s Proposed New Science Standards

There’s an Orlando Sentinel article by Leslie Postal that describes how the new proposed science standards explicitly say that students should learn about evolutionary science. The proposed standards will have a period now for public commentary before the Florida Department of Education adopts them.

This is the final, critical phase for the citizens of Florida to be on the lookout for attempts to insert phrases that would allow antievolution advocates to argue that the standards either permit or require the teaching of their old, tired, bogus antievolution arguments. We know what many of those will look like — “teach the controversy”, “critical analysis”, etc. We also know that attempts to redefine science are bad news. Something that may be particularly annoying would be an attempt to put something in the standards that would give students the mistaken idea that science can never remove a false explanation from the table. That is, in fact, the only way in which science can act with a degree of certainty. It seems to be popular with antievolutionists to take up a radical postmodernist view that all stances are matters of personal interpretation, none of them being objectively more worthy than any other. Anyone trying to slide in “same facts, different interpretations” language should be considered with great suspicion. After all, that strategy has been apparent ever since the same arguments were being called “creation science”.

The article has this bit in it:

Fred Cutting, a retired engineer in Clearwater who served on the standards committee, wanted the new document to reflect that latter view and to let students know that scientists do not yet have all the answers.

“If you want students to understand the theory, they have to understand the pros and cons,” he said, adding that the draft presented too “cut-and-dried” a view of evolution.

The reporter didn’t quite deliver the full background here. Cutting is not just some retired engineer; he is also a known “intelligent design” creationism advocate, who as recently as 2006 was reported to be teaching IDC to students in Pinellas County science classrooms. Certainly anything coming from known anti-science advocates should be viewed with great suspicion and with a skeptical eye looking for weasel-words and strategies.

I was happy to see Florida Citizens for Science mentioned in the article:

Joe Wolf, president of Florida Citizens for Science, called the draft standards a “wonderful” blueprint for science education. Wolf, of Winter Haven, said the evolution debate holds little interest to most scientists, who accept it as fact. That’s why the issue did not become controversial during the standards-writing meetings, he said.

“It’s a PR issue,” he said. “And it’s a religious issue. In the scientific community, it’s not an issue.”

If the new standards are adopted, “I think the kids will have a better understanding of science, which is what it’s all about,” Wolf added.

UF/UGA in Jacksonville, 10/27

I’m visiting family in Florida this week, and one of the things I was tasked with was getting four tickets to the U. Florida Gators vs. U. Georgia Bulldogs college football matchup in Jacksonville sold. So they are up on eBay, set to sell in pairs.

The auction ends Sunday afternoon. We figured that way people could see the results of games on Saturday and hopefully be more motivated to attend.

Behe Jumps Shark

Over the summer, Abbie Smith called Michael Behe on statements that he made about HIV in his book, “The Edge of Evolution”. It’s taken two and a half months, but Behe finally got around to saying something himself about the issues raised.

Now, up to this point Behe has had the character of harmless nebbish down pat. But I think that he has been hanging out with a bad crowd. Look at how he starts off his response:

This is the second in a series of responses I’m posting this week, this one regarding the Darwinian website The Panda’s Thumb, where a woman named Abbie Smith questioned whether results from HIV research actually square with the claims I made that little fundamental change has occurred in the virus, even though it attains enormous populations sizes and has a much increased mutation rate.

Although she calls herself a “pre-grad student,” the tone of the post is decidedly junior high, the tone of someone who is trying hard to compete with all the other Mean Girls on that unpleasant website. I’ll pass over all that and try to stick to the substance.

“Passing over all that” would mean actually not committing it to print, Mike. By actually putting it in print, you already have come unstuck from substance and are dealing in simple invective. And such invective… As Abbie points out herself, sexism ill becomes you, Mike. Was there provocation? Sure. She pointed out that you didn’t know what you were talking about. That’s gotta sting.

Today is a Fine Day for a Woollen Kettle or a Copper Sweater

I happened to post an essay today concerning the unacknowledged errors in an essay by Robert Marks and William Dembski. In following up to a reader comment, I was skimming through another essay from the same website containing the one my post was about. Within its pages, I discovered that Dembski and Marks were treating readers to a description of a program Richard Dawkins discussed in his book, “The Blind Watchmaker”. Since the program seeks a target of a string, “METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL”, it is usually referred to as the “weasel” program. The program is simple enough to describe accurately, but Dembski and Marks botch the job thoroughly.

The accurate way to describe Dawkins’s “weasel” program is this way:

1. Use a set of characters that includes the upper case alphabet and a space.

2. Initialize a population of n 28-character strings with random assignments of characters from our character set.

3. Identify the string or strings closest to the target string in the population.

4. If a string matches the target, terminate.

5. Base a new generation population of size n upon copies of the closest matching string or strings, where each position has a chance of randomly mutating, based upon a set mutation rate.

6. Go to step 3.

Dembski and Marks claim that Dawkins’s “weasel” program smuggles in information of the target by use of partitioned search, by which they mean that every time a particular letter matches in a string, that correct assignment of letter and position are retained in all future generations. This is equivalent to the bad old password login scheme on DEC machines, where one could figure out which characters in a proffered password matched and continue login attempts until all of them matched. However, that is not how Dawkins’s “weasel” program worked, so every statement Dembski and Marks make that is based upon that false premise is utterly meaningless. Just as the Marks and Dembski “ev” critique failed upon easily checkable stuff, one can run Dawkins’s “weasel” and get results similar to those reported by Dawkins; however, running Dembski and Marks’s “weasel” with the partitioned search will return results that are far different from what Dawkins reported.

The “” website lists the paper in question as being “in review”. If it passes under the noses of sleepy reviewers somewhere, I look forward to having a corrective letter published in the same venue.

What makes this all particularly amusing is that Dembski knows that his description of Dawkins’s “weasel” program is erroneous. He knows about this error because I emailed the following text to him:

Information request to William Dembski:

He starts with a target sequence taken from Shakespeares Hamlet, namely, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. If we tried to attain this sequence by pure chance (for example, by randomly shaking out scrabble pieces), the probability of getting it on the first try would be around 1 in 10^40, and correspondingly it would take on average about 10^40 tries to stand a better than even chance of getting it.12 Thus, if we depended on pure chance to attain this target sequence, we would in all likelihood be unsuccessful. As a problem for pure chance, attaining Dawkinss target sequence is an exercise in generating specified complexity, and it becomes clear that pure chance simply is not up to the task.

But consider next Dawkins’ reframing of the problem. In place of pure chance, he considers the following evolutionary algorithm: (1) Start with a randomly selected sequence of 28 capital Roman letters and spaces (thats the length of METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL); (2) randomly alter all the letters and spaces in the current sequence that do not agree with the target sequence; (3) whenever an alteration happens to match a corresponding letter in the target sequence, leave it and randomly alter only those remaining letters that still differ from the target sequence. In very short order this algorithm converges to Dawkinss target sequence. In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins recounts a computer simulation of this algorithm that converges in 43 steps.13 In place of 10^40 tries on average for pure chance to generate the target sequence, it now takes on average only 40 tries to generate it via an evolutionary algorithm.

[End Quote – WA Dembski, “Can Evolutionary Algorithms Generate Specified Complexity”, “Nature of Nature” conference, Baylor University]

There are several issues that this text brings up. Of the three steps listed as comprising Dawkins’ algorithm, only step (1) has anything like it in the pages of “The Blind Watchmaker”. Steps (2) and (3) appear to be inventions rather than descriptions. What is the basis for claiming that steps (2) and (3) represent Dawkins’ “weasel” algorithm?

Further on, the issue of “tries” it takes to find a solution is raised. For “pure chance”, a figure of ~10^40 “tries” is given, which would correspond to individual candidate solutions tested. For “weasel”, though, only ~40 “tries” are given, but in this case the number 40 derives from the number of generations taken by the “weasel” algorithm rather than the number of candidate solutions examined. It seems to me that for the purpose of comparison, a “try” ought to mean the same thing for both approaches. I would like to see a restatement of the section concerning “tries” that takes this into account.


I even corresponded with Dawkins to make sure that there were no editions or versions of “The Blind Watchmaker” that incorporated anything arguably like Dembski’s inventions.

One may be wondering about the title I chose for this little essay. Well, the traditional anniversary gift lists says that copper and wool are the materials for a seventh-year anniversary. And my email to Dembski was sent:

Date: Mon, 9 Oct 2000 11:38:11 -0500 (CDT)
From: “Wesley R. Elsberry”
Message-Id: <>
Subject: Information request re: Dawkins’ “weasel” algorithm
Cc:, welsberr

Unacknowledged Errors in “Unacknowledged Costs” Essay

Back over the summer, William Dembski was talking up “Baylor’s Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory”, and one of the features there was a PDF of an essay critiquing the “ev” evolutionary computation program by Tom Schneider. Titled “Unacknowledged Information Costs in Evolutionary Computing”, the essay by Robert J. Marks and William A. Dembski made some pretty stunning claims about the “ev” program. Among them, it claimed that blind search was a more effective strategy than evolutionary computation for the problem at hand, and that the search structure in place was responsible for most of the information resulting from the program. The essay was pitched as being “in review”, publication unspecified. Dembski also made much of the fact that Tom Schneider had not, at some point, posted a response to the essay.

There are some things that Marks and Dembski did right, and others that were botched. Where they got it right was in posting the scripts that they used to come up with data for their conclusions, and in removing the paper from the “” site on notification of the errors. The posting of scripts allowed others to figure out where they got it wrong. What is surprising is just how trivial the error was, and how poor the scrutiny must have been to let things get to this point.

Now what remains to be seen is whether in any future iteration of their paper they bother to do the scholarly thing and acknowledge both the errors and those who brought the errors to their attention. Dembski at least has an exceedingly poor track record on this score, writing that critics can be used to improve materials released online. While Dembski has occasionally taken a clue from a critic, it is rather rarer that one sees Dembski acknowledge his debt to a critic.

In the current case, Marks and Dembski owe a debt to Tom Schneider, “After the Bar Closes” regular “2ndclass”, and “Good Math, Bad Math” commenter David vun Kannon. Schneider worked from properties of the “ev” simulation itself to demonstrate that the numbers in the Marks and Dembski critique cannot possibly be correct. “2ndclass” made a project out of examining the Matlab script provided with the Marks and Dembski paper to find the source of the bogus data used to form the conclusions of Marks and Dembski. vun Kannon suggested an easy way to use the Java version of “ev” to quickly check the claims by Marks and Dembski.

Continue reading

Antievolution in a “Post-Wedge” World?

Google Alerts popped up with use of my name elsewhere in a comment about freeing “intelligent design” from the “Wedge” strategy in a “Post-Wedge world”.

I don’t think that there is a “Post-Wedge world”. As long as the same old tired, bogus antievolution arguments get used to diminish evolutionary science, the “Wedge” is still in effect. What name gets used as the rhetorical thin edge of the “Wedge” may change, but the content remains the same.

Just thought that I would clear that up.

Which makes the following bit:

As Elsberry explains, ID can no longer be the leading edge of the “wedge.” Thus, objective and reasonable people can no longer view those of us who are interested in ID, and how it relates to biology and evolution, as being part of “the wedge.”

a complete non sequitur. People are using the “Wedge” as long as they continue to promote the same old tired, bogus antievolution arguments. The high-profile IDC advocates are still all “Wedging” just as they were before. They just don’t use the same label for it anymore.

O’Reilly and Math

Diane and I are visiting the breeders from whom we bought Ritka, our young Vizsla. A copy of Bill O’Reilly’s Culture Warrior book was on the kitchen table, and I couldn’t resist having a look at his comments on education.

And my outrage threshold was crossed with the following comment by O’Reilly.

Want more evidence that S-P [secular-progressive] opposition to school vouchers damages kids? Try this: In Washington, D.C., according to the National Center for Education Statistics, public school spending on each pupil is now over $10,000 per child per year, an astounding amount and about double what it was thirty years ago. D.C. Catholic schools spend far less per pupil than the public schools do. And — you guessed it — test scores for the Catholic school kids are far higher than those for the public school students. In fact, 98 percent of kids graduating from D.C. Catholic schools go on to college, while almost 40 percent of D.C. public school students never graduate from high school; they drop out. Once again, the math tells the story. Too bad so many public school kids will never learn how to do math.

Uh, Bill, I’m not sure how to break this to you, but based on the evidence of the above paragraph, you haven’t proven that you know how to do math, either. Or use logic, for that matter.

I’m fully prepared to believe that, in general, private Catholic high schools are fine places to obtain a good education. I graduated from one myself, and I did learn a fair bit of math there. I also know that my admission to the school was premised upon my prior record of performance and passing an entrance examination. This selection effect is a confounding factor that means that a direct comparison of a few numbers from public schools and Catholic schools will not necessarily be telling you anything interesting about the topic of interest, which is how much any arbitrary student entering one or the other will learn from the school. Since Catholic schools generally only accept students with high performance expectations in the first place, one expects that their students will do well upon graduation, too. I recall a story in Smithsonian magazine concerning a specialized math and science high school in Boston. There was a paragraph that did detail the rigorous admission standards, such that they only took in the top 2 percent of students applying. Later in the article, the author expressed enthusiasm for the 99 percent figure for graduating students going on to college, but as far as I’m concerned, the selection effect is a completely adequate explanation in both cases.

But a further problem with O’Reilly’s “analysis”, if we may stretch the word a bit, is that he doesn’t bother to provide us with numbers that we could do math upon. For one class of schools, Bill gives us the percentage of graduating students who go on to college. Bill does not provide us with the same figure for the other class of school. I expect that’s because it wouldn’t make the same visceral contrast that Bill wishes to paint concerning the situation. For the other class of school, Bill tells us the percentage of students who drop out. Is Bill confused? Is the merit of a class of school in the proportion of students who go on to college after graduation, or is it in the proportion of students who make it to graduation? If Bill were being coherent and mathematically consistent, he’d have stuck to numbers about one or the other, or provided numbers from each class of school on each proposed measure of merit. Instead, we’re getting apples and oranges from Bill, and the resulting mash is a mess. I know for a fact that students do indeed drop out of Catholic high schools; I’ve seen it happen. I know for a fact that a substantial proportion of public high school graduates go on to college; I have studied alongside them.

I have another problem with Bill’s rhetoric, which is in the way the numbers, incomparable as they are, are presented to the reader. Bill tells us that “98” is a good thing, and then that “40” is a bad thing. Even putting aside the fact that the numbers aren’t on the same scale at all, if Bill were being consistent, he’d either report both “good” numbers (98 and 60) or both “bad” numbers (2 and 40), but not a mix of “good” and “bad” numbers to further confuse his reader. I suspect that confusing the reader, though, is exactly the effect that Bill was pursuing. This sort of shady dealing with numbers is covered in detail in Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics.

What about that per-child expenditure figure? Well, the selection effect goes some way to explaining that, too. Public schools cannot be selective; private schools can. A private school need not admit special-needs students; public schools must budget to accommodate special-needs students. And special services for special needs will increase budgets in a non-linear fashion.

We don’t even have to go to O’Reilly’s favored factor for the difference in classes of schools, discipline, in order to see that Bill has failed to make his case. Knowing something about the math, as I learned it in Catholic high school, means that I look at Bill’s rhetoric and see a culture warrior adrift without a clue. If he attended Catholic high school, he could have used a bit more knuckle-rapping with a ruler in math class, I guess.

The Silence of the Blog

Sorry for the posting hiatus. Things are picking up at work, and there are a number of issues we are dealing with under deadlines otherwise.

I am working up a post to appear here and at Panda’s Thumb soon concerning unacknowledged errors in an antievolution essay.

There has been some recent progress on modifications that I am making to Avida. Jeff Barrick and I had a very productive session going over some things on Tuesday, including various scenarios of using spatially limited resources. There’s also a proposal that I am contributing some draft text to.

The hawks are still molting, which has pushed back our hunting season. Rusty still has her deck feather from last year’s molt; she may end up using it for the next year if it doesn’t drop soon.

We are also looking over the list of items that were stolen last year and getting replacements ordered for things we haven’t yet gotten around to. There’s a one-year window of opportunity to put in for replacement cost, so we want to take advantage of that.