Monthly Archives: July 2008

Something Terrific from MIT

I was looking for some open source courseware, and my Google search brought up this site from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They already have materials from 1,800 courses online. Have a look at the home page for the introductory Genetics course, for example.

This isn’t a distance learning site and there are no fees involved; you can self-pace yourself through the materials for whatever courses you like here. This looks to be a great resource for students and educators everywhere. It does cost them to do this, and they do solicit donations to help make this happen.

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Antievolutionists Gaming YouTube Rankings

I got email passing along a plea for assistance from a person who makes video responses to antievolution guff and posts them to YouTube. He has several that take on the AiG “Creation Museum” where it sits, literally… he shows a field trip to the Cincinnatian limestone/shale formation from the Ordovician period, the same formation that underlies the “Creation Museum”. There, he shows the various marine fossils found in situ and then puts them together with a poster-sized artist’s rendering of Ordovician marine life. The point? The rocks speak eloquently to the coherence of a marine community, built up and laid down in place, without any catastrophic influence that would have randomized species found, mixing them with others that scientists assign to other times, but antievolutionists insist must have been coeval with those found.

OK, that’s the first video, at least.

What’s the problem? YouTube has a ranking system that interfaces with their search function. For a video to come up near the top on YouTube for a search on “fossils”, say, it isn’t enough just that “fossils” be in the keywords associated with it; it must also garner positive votes on the rating system. People viewing these videos are given the opportunity to vote each video with between 1 and 5 stars. And the antievolutionists have figured out that they can make inconvenient debunkings disappear from the high spots in YouTube search results by all logging in and voting 1-star ratings on those debunkings. The video above, for example, was previously a consistently 5-star rated video that came up in the top five or ten results when one searched for “fossils”. It was down to 3 stars average, and has inched back a little since the antievolutionist gaming was first noticed.

So let me encourage you to watch that video, and others linked below, and give them your own ranking. Don’t give a video a ranking it doesn’t deserve, certainly, but in my viewing of the above, I found it informative and persuasive, so I certainly have no qualms about giving it a positive ranking myself. Don’t let the heckler’s veto deprive others of the ability to find and view good materials.

Part 1 (embedded above)

Part 2

Icon video

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Dave Barry’s Colonoscopy Journal

A friend of mine emailed me one of those humorous things, this time it was Dave Barry’s article on the experience of having a colonoscopy. Apparently, everybody posts these all over the place; go have a read at the link if not a few hundred other webpages with the essay.

I tried to read it aloud to Diane and was reduced to incoherent bouts of laughing several times. The primary experience Dave relates is the day-before cleanout and its inherent horrors, which Dave turns into light humor. Here’s where Dave talks about the colonoscopy itself:

If you are squeamish, prepare yourself, because I am going to tell you, in explicit detail, exactly what it was like.

I have no idea. Really. I slept through it. One moment, ABBA was yelling ‘Dancing Queen, Feel the beat of the tambourine,’ and the next moment, I was back in the other room, waking up in a very mellow mood.

I think that holds for most people, especially when slightly out of shape people prone to a bit of hypertension go get a coloconoscopy. OK, so I’m slightly out of shape myself, but my blood pressure is a bit on the low end of normal, so the last couple of times I had a colonoscopy, you can erase the bits about the anesthesiologist obligingly making the world go away during the main event. That’s right, I could fill you in on the part Dave could not, but a mere five years remove is not yet enough to turn the recollection humorous. So the one positive benefit one can get from high blood pressure is assurance that they would have little reservation at knocking you out for a colonoscopy, and a positive benefit of total colectomy, like I had, is that I never need another colonoscopy, especially one without anesthesia.

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Intelligent Design: Philosophical Bogosity

Over at Telic Thoughts, they are pumped that a self-described atheist, Bradley Monton, is shopping around for a publisher for a manuscript of his that says, hey, those “intelligent design” creationists have some good arguments! They quote Monton as saying,

By rejecting the fallacious arguments against intelligent design, I am helping everyone to understand the issues and arguments more clearly.

They kindly put up a link to Monton’s weblog.

Since I’ve authored several of the critiques of IDC arguments, I figured that Monton must have some response to some of the things I’ve written. Using the search function on his blog, though, collects no hits for “elsberry”, nor any for “shallit”, my even more high-profile co-author. Searching Google doesn’t show any web-accessible responses, either.

Now, something a philosopher like Monton should know is that rejecting an argument does not say anything about the validity or soundness of the argument; one should be able to rebut an argument by showing that it is actually invalid or unsound in some fashion. So it is unclear whether Monton does the heavy lifting of addressing critiques of IDC or whether he simply labels them as fallacious and passes on.

Looking at entries on Monton’s blog for what he does take up, I’m not at all impressed. Let’s have a look at an entry Monton makes concerning Ken Miller. Miller, according to Monton, argued that “theistic science”, as in science with hypotheses depending on supernatural entities or mechanisms, was a science stopper, that once such a hypothesis was in place, inquiry ceases. Monton is having none of that.

Ken Miller’s new book, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul, has some frustrating aspects to it. For one, he gives the old argument that, if science allows for supernatural hypotheses, then science will stop:

A theistic science … will no longer be the science we have known. It will cease to explore, because it already knows the answers. (p. 198)

This argument has been given before (e.g. by Pennock) and the standard (and in my opinion correct) response has been given before (e.g. by Plantinga). I’m not faulting Miller for giving an argument that’s not new, but I am faulting him for seeming to show no awareness of the standard response. The standard response is that, while theistic scientists could choose to stop investigating the world, and be satisfied with the answer “God did it”, they need not. What theistic scientists can do is investigate the questions: “what did God do?” “What structure did God choose to give the world?” As long as scientists are willing to investigate those questions, then science can go on in pretty much the standard way. Allowing supernatural hypotheses won’t really change anything.

The worry, of course, is that scientists will be too willing to turn to the God answer when problems get tricky. But suppose some scientists do that — is it really so bad? Newton is undisputedly one of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, but when he came to the belief that the planetary orbits are unstable, he postulated that God occasionally intervened to keep the planets in their intended orbits. Did exploration stop a a result of Newton’s appeal to the supernatural? No; later investigators determined that the planetary orbits are more stable than Newton had thought.

In sum: even though I think that supernatural hypotheses in science will ultimately be proved wrong, I don’t see how allowing them will lead to the end of science. Those scientists who do are willing to allow for supernatural hypotheses can still search for naturalistic explanations for phenomena.

As for the Newton example, one can argue precisely counter to Monton’s deployment. If Newton had eschewed a supernatural conjecture as a place-holder and instead clearly marked out the phenomena that did not fit well with his framework as it was then constituted, one has the clear expectation that this would generate immediate attention and work upon a recognized open problem. Instead, the solution had to await Laplace over 100 years later, who chose to seek those natural explanations that would provide a testable basis for how the phenomenon worked.

The quoted response is demonstrative of why I’m not much of a fan of Plantinga, nor of Plantinga’s legion of fans. The essential point is conceded by Plantinga and Monton in this summary: the supernatural explanation fails to explain, and explanation must await someone willing to seek a naturalistic secondary cause that will itself actually explain the phenomena of interest. The mere possibility that someone working in a theistic science could choose to do so does not validate “theistic science” as something good and to be desired. In fact, what one has in that case is the state of scientific inquiry up until the late 18th century and part of the 19th. While the scientists and philosophers of the time where science was reconceptualized as a process of seeking natural explanations of natural phenomena would certainly not go so far as to state it quite so baldly as that the then-current form of science prevented any advance, they certainly would — and did — argue that then-current form of science was inefficient and prone to seeing a supernatural explanation as knowledge when it had no actual claim to that state. And that is the proper form that the objection should take today as well: supernatural hypotheses are not explanations, as they provide no means of testing their veracity or falsity in the light of the evidence. While they may not completely block the progress of science, they represent an unnecessary hindrance to that progress, masquerading as a suitable explanation to phenomena not yet studied in detail. By focusing on the somewhat too strongly worded claim, Monton entirely overlooks the weaker claim that is not susceptible to the sort of dismissal he makes: supernatural hypotheses do nothing to advance science (other than perhaps to mark where further work is needed in proposing and testing non-supernatural hypotheses), do not themselves represent knowledge, and are known to delay the progress of science.

The issue is not whether science could make progress in spite of re-adoption of 17th century theistic science, but whether theistic science could provide any benefit to the methods of science today. Monton, Plantinga, and the neo-Luddites have not convincingly made that case. Mostly, they haven’t even badly made that case. They seem to assume that science would be better off reverting to 17th century theistic science and become perplexed when scientists disagree with them. We had that debate, we call it “the 19th century”. Nobody has shown that the mostly-theistic body of scientists who decided to eschew supernatural conjectures as part of science were wrong to do so. Mostly, I think, because they were right to do so, and their reasoning still applies today.

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More DI Airy Dismissals

You know that the spinners at the Discovery Institute love to hype their own performances and those of critics who usefully follow their lead in discussions of antievolution. So it isn’t any great surprise that the DI is busting out in gleeful adulation of three out of four speakers at a “debate” this past weekend. DI representatives Stephen C. Meyer and George Gilder are profusely praised, and Skeptic Society President Michael Shermer is given a pat on the head for going along with their premises.

Now, maybe Shermer didn’t say the things the DI credits him with; for sure, every claim they make is suspect from the word, “Hello”, onward. But the DI is nothing if not adept at massaging even the most feeble of concessions to their rhetoric into some sort of implicit recognition of the looming paradigm-shift-ability of “intelligent design” creationism (IDC).

But one thing is certain, and that is that the DI could not find enough to spin from Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey in order to work him into the skein of their little tapestry. Given that they wanted to boost their guys and give a token lollipop to Shermer for playing into their hands (or so they imply), they couldn’t simply excise Bailey out of all mention. The DI has had over a decade of experience in airy dismissals of that which they can’t be bothered to deny in detail, though, and they apply it to Bailey.

What do intelligent design, evolution, information and purple people eaters all have in common? Well, they all took front stage at Freedomfest in Las Vegas last week when ID proponents Stephen Meyer and George Gilder squared off against Darwinists Michael Shermer and Ronald Bailey in debating whether there is scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature.

[...]

Ronald Bailey opened his presentation by saying he would take intelligent design seriously, and then proceeded to disrespect his audience by mocking it for the rest of his talk, instead going off about purple people eaters. If you want to punish yourself, you can read his remarks here.

That’s it for mention of Bailey. The DI gets credit for linking to Bailey’s page, but it’s pretty obvious that is a grudging concession.

So I went and read Bailey’s remarks and found them to be reasonable, if phrased with a spicing of sarcasm. There’s some good stuff in there, and highly inconvenient to the IDC program of making themselves appear to be reasonably erudite people on the edge of a scientific revolution. And well they should be; Bailey acknowledges that he adapted many of his points from Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller.

Bailey (and Miller) did take IDC seriously; they ask the questions that arise when one puts an old earth chronology and an “intelligent designer” together. Why did the intelligent designer spend 2 billion years working on single-celled organisms? Why did the intelligent designer either permit — or cause — the misfortunes leading to the mass extinction events in life’s history? Why would an intelligent designer always take care that successive created species always resemble some previously existing species? Why would an intelligent designer, having proved that he can endow some species with working vitamin C producing parts, somehow give a group of primates a non-functional version of a gene that makes that happen, and do so such that the same error appears in several of those species? These questions not only expose the IDC program as scientifically and intellectually sterile, but also as theological poison. It is no wonder the DI tried to dismiss Bailey’s response as being beneath anyone’s notice; they certainly have no substantive response for any of those issues.

But I think Shermer and Bailey need to take a lump or two for agreeing to this staged event in the first place. Look at the debate topic as stated by the DI:

[...] debating whether there is scientific evidence for intelligent design in nature.

Come on. If one is going to appear on stage with the DI clown force, the least one can do is insist on a question that will provide a challenge for the DI fellows to substantiate and give some prospect that one can effectively take the negative. The debate “question” above is way too ambiguous, as demonstrated by the flabbiness of Stephen C. Meyer’s contributions (fine-tuning, DNA has information, etc.) leading to half the audience polling for the DI as having taken the debate. The DI press orgasm following doesn’t make mention of whether Shermer bothered to point out that none of that presents evidence for “intelligent design”, but rather requires one to eliminate natural causes and then accept IDC as a kind of woe-begotten consolation prize. I don’t recall seeing that rejoinder in Bailey’s write-up.

One knows that one did well in an outing against the DI fellows when after the event they fail to give any cognizance that the event occurred at all. That gold standard was met, I’ll point out, when Ken Miller, Genie Scott, and I took on Michael Behe, Warren Nord, and William Dembski, respectively, at the CTNS/AAAS “Interpreting Evolution” conference on June 17th, 2001, IDC’s “Black Sunday”. One reason that the DI spinners found it inconvenient was that videos of the encounters were placed online. In 2006, I scored another such inconvenient-and-thus-unmentionable encounter when I debated Ray Bohlin at Southern Methodist University. Sweetly, the DI had to overlook that encounter entirely the following year when it claimed that Southern Methodist University was averse to discussing the controversy.

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Irresponsible, or Wicked?

In a stunning case of projection, a shill for “intelligent design creationism” has entered a scurrilous review on Amazon.com of Lauri Lebo’s “The Devil in Dover”. The reviewer, anonymously writing as “Darwin Researcher”, was also among the coterie of reliable sycophants who got pre-release copies of the Foundation for Thought and Ethics’s book, “The Design of Life”, and entered a glowing review on Amazon about that book as part of an organized effort to game the Amazon review system.

This crud deserves a fisking.

irresponsible, July 16, 2008

You have here an anonymous reviewer making unsupported and unsupportable claims about a book… Like I said earlier, this is a matter of projection; the review is more aptly seen as “irresponsible” than the text reviewed.

By Darwin Researcher

Somehow, I doubt this person has done much in the way of “research” other than to credulously assume that everything the antievolutionists write is accurate. The pseudonym is apparently a ploy to falsely convey an impression that the person behind it is a serious scholar. That is at least a falsehood, at worst a lie.

The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America, was a easy read that at times tells much more about the author than the trial.

Uh, since this was a memoir, it should tell about both. The quoted sentence does tell something about its author: “Darwin Researcher” is a Grade A idiot.

She clearly does not like theists and relished making fun of them, partly, as she made clear, in reaction to her love-hate relationship with her father.

“Clearly does not like theists”? Here we get down to those unsupported and unsupportable claims. Lauri obviously does like theists, even theists who have acted reprehensibly. But she does hold those who acted reprehensibly to account for their actions, and that apparently sets off “Darwin Researcher”.

She describes him as a very good man, generous to a fault, but yet seemed to resent him only because he was, in her words, very religious.

No, “Darwin (I don’t have reading comprehension) Researcher”, she had a prickly relationship with her father because late in his life he became very religious and expected his daughter to become very religious in exactly the same way. That’s somewhat different than being resentful of someone for being very religious, don’t you think?

When he died she said little more than “I woke up on New Years Day, realizing that I, along with the rest of my agnostic family, had inherited a fundamentalist Christian radio station” (p. 206). No kind words, regrets, or I miss him, he was a good father. Not even some words about his funeral. After all, most everyone when they die have good things said about them. This was surprising in that so much of the book was about him.

Well, duh, “Darwin (I’m still having trouble with reading comprehension) Researcher”. The content of the book to that point does far better as a eulogy than most of the platitudinous pablum I’ve heard served up at those events.

She did, mocking Christians, thank the “Flying Spaghetti Monster, without whose spiritual guidance this book would not be possible” (p. 226).

How is that “mocking Christians”? It mocks religious bigots of all sorts who wish their particular doctrines be given privileged status in our nation’s public schools, but I’ll thank “Darwin Researcher” to leave this Christian out of the group of offended religous bigots.

Having the “Flying Spaghetti Monster tattooed on her body in an embarrassing place hardly showed much professionalism.

“Darwin (I have trouble comprehending things) Researcher” seems not to get the point that people have personal lives as well as professional obligations. The anonymous coward fails to document any lapse in Lebo’s professional ethics, and latches onto a tattoo as a way to make an unsupported and unsupportable slur.

She had endless unkind words for, often mocking, theists who took their religion seriously, and endless kind words for most everyone else, especially ID opponents who could do no wrong according to her book.

“Darwin (I didn’t get it) Researcher” obviously overlooked the point made that there were theists on both sides of the case, and turns having respect for theists who did no wrong and expecting accountability from theists who demonstrably did wrong into a one-sided slur, both unsupported and unsupportable.

Her account of the trial testimony was very inaccurate, as anyone who takes the time to read the transcript will soon determine.

No, “Darwin (I wasn’t there) Researcher”, Lebo is just as accurate in her book as she was in reporting on the scene, having been a witness to the entire proceedings. As someone who did read the transcripts in a capacity as a consultant to the plaintiffs’ legal team, the reviewer’s claim here is not just unsupported and unsupportable, but also just plain false. I only see two explanations for the claim, that “Darwin Researcher” is thoroughly delusional, or that he is lying. The latter would, I think, fall cleanly into the “wicked” category of behavior.

One gets the impression that she believed people who need faith are weak, and those who don’t are strong.

Only if one doesn’t read the book, or one decides to lie about its contents. Lebo represented Ken Miller, Eric Rothschild, Steven Harvey and others on the plaintiffs’ side as having quite a bit of strength, as anyone who actually read the book for comprehension would know. That leaves out shills like “Darwin Researcher”.

Last, accusing people of things for which the evidence was flimsy was irresponsible.

“Darwin (I don’t have a mirror) Researcher” concludes with this scurrilous attack, far more apropos when applied to his own screed than to anything one will find in Lebo’s book. Did the Dover school board members lie about their desire to adopt creationism? The evidence on that point was not flimsy; it was overwhelming. The only reason that the perjury charge investigations against Buckingham and Bonsell have not yet been concluded has to do with politics and not the strength of the evidence. Judges in their decisions don’t directly accuse witnesses of lying without having the evidence to back it up.

OK, readers, please visit the Amazon site linked above and register your vote on whether you found “Darwin Researcher”‘s review helpful or not. Also, if anyone can change “Darwin Researcher”‘s anonymous status to non-anonymous, that would be a step forward for personal accountability.

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GECCO 2008

I’m at GECCO 2008, the ACM’s SIGEVO annual conference.

This morning, PZ Myers gave a very nice keynote talk on developmental biology and the cool things developmental biology provides for those considering how evolutionary change happens.

PZ and I and one of my colleagues from the MSU Digital Evolution lab went over to the Georgia Aquarium and had a fine time. We were not clued in to what the theater show was, so we attended that. Other than spending 15 minutes on a 3D cartoon, the trip was informative, and at times awe-inspiring. The 6.3 million gallon tank and the whale sharks in it provided a large chunk of the awe.

I’ll be headed back to Michigan tomorrow night. Pictures and posts will follow.

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Fireworks

Okemos and Meridian put on a good fireworks show this past Fourth of July.

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What do Carl Baugh and Answers in Genesis Have in Common?

Answer: they both have expressed appreciation for The Flintstones.

My copy of Answers Update came in the mail today, and on the flip side from the address label is a one-page article titled, “The Flintstones — Evolutionists’ Enemy?”

This popular cartoon program — going around the world for decades — goes against everything that evolutionists indoctrinate us in with regard to dinosaurs. You see, they believe that dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago, and that no dinosaur lived at the same time as man. It’s a key part of evolutionary belief — one of the foundational doctrines.

Voltaire’s prayer comes to mind here.

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Blast from the Past: IC and Impedance Matching

Today, Nelson Alonso turned up on AtBC and turned in an amazing performance that has to be seen to be believed. Alonso is a long-time second-tier “intelligent design” creationism cheerleader; I’ve had experience in online discussions with him since the late 1990s. Some of his braggadocio touched upon having a long history of online discussion. I had a look back at the archives of the Calvin “evolution” email list, where I had some exchanges with Nelson. And I found one such discussion that had an end-point. It even has to do with “irreducible complexity”. I pointed out that the mammalian middle ear ossicular chain is an IC system providing an impedance-matching function, and that the impedance-matching goes away if you remove any of the parts. Nelson tried to deny that this qualified as IC, at least in part because the fossil record is clear that the system evolved. I’ll quote this last part of the exchange.

Nelson Alonso wrote:

[...]

NA>Wesley wrote:

I’m going to put it in one block here before moving on to
responding to Nelson’s post.

MI>People have given examples: The Krebs cycle and the human
MI>inner ear are IC systems (as defined by Behe and asserted by
MI>me) for which means of gradual evolution have been given.

It’s the impedance-matching function of the mammalian *middle*
ear that is proffered as an example. I saw someone today
saying that it is unnecessary to mammalian hearing. This
ignores the fact that every piece is absolutely necessary to
the impedance-matching function. That function goes away
(with about a 30 dB re 1 microbar decrease in sensitivity, or
about 1 / (2^10) the original sensitivity) if any of the parts
are removed. The human blood clotting system, one of Behe’s
examples of IC systems, is not *necessary* to circulation in
much the same way.

WRE>”It’s the impedance-matching function of the mammalian
WRE>*middle* ear that is proffered as an example. I saw
WRE>someone today saying that it is unnecessary to mammalian
WRE>hearing. This ignores the fact that every piece is
WRE>absolutely necessary to the impedance-matching function.

NA>This isn’t true, as I have stated above, one can remove the
NA>entire 3-bone system and I would still hear when pressure
NA>waves hit the oval window.

It is true. The impedance-matching function is lost if any of
the components is removed. As I develop below, there is a
characteristic and significant loss of sensitivity due to the
loss of the impedance-matching function.

My point was not that impedance-matching in the middle ear is
*necessary* to any amount of hearing, but rather that trying
to dismiss the impedance-matching function on the basis that
hearing itself is not completely eliminated is a digression.
One can simulate the loss of sensitivity involved in a gross
manner by donning a good pair of hearing protectors. Trying
to argue that the difference in sensitivity is not a
functional difference seems ludicrous to me.

I suggest that Nelson pick up any good basic text on
audiometry, which will explain about impedance mismatches
going from pressure changes in air to movement of the oval
window.

WRE>That [impedance-matching] function goes away (with about a
WRE>30 dB re 1 microbar decrease in sensitivity, or about
WRE>1 / (2^10) the original sensitivity) if any of the parts
WRE>are removed.

NA>Mere observation can tell us this is false, the one-bone
NA>system of reptiles make them hear quite well.

No, actual experimentation has shown this characteristic loss
of sensitivity in terrestrial mammals to be the case. The
topic of discussion is the function of impedance-matching in
the mammalian middle ear. Normal hearing in another taxon is
not responsive to the point. But Nelson’s digression to
reptilian systems does him no favors. When the middle ear of
lizards is removed, their hearing likewise decreases by 35 to
57 dB in sensitivity, showing the importance of
impedance-matching to acute hearing even outside mammalian
species. See
http ://www.glue.umd.edu/~carr/Hearing/lecture4.html.
Also, Nelson’s digression shoots him in the foot on another
point, which is that such systems help establish the utility
of simpler systems in accomplishing the same function, which
is a point in favor of evolutionary development of the IC
impedance-matching function of the terrestrial mammalian
middle ear.

I’m a co-author on research that looked at hearing sensitivity
in white whales. Part of that paper discusses the loss of
impedance-matching reported by others in terrestrial mammals
placed in hyperbaric chambers. (You don’t have to use surgery
to reduce the efficacy of the middle ear’s
impedance-matching.)

Sam Ridgway, Donald Carder, Rob Smith, Tricia Kamolnick, and
Wesley Elsberry. 1997. First audiogram for marine mammals in
the open ocean and at depth: Hearing and whistling by two
white whales down to 30 atmospheres. The Journal of the
Acoustical Society of America Volume 101, Issue 5, p. 3136.

WRE>The human blood clotting system, one of Behe’s examples of
WRE>IC systems, is not *necessary* to circulation in much the
WRE>same way.”

NA>Why can’t any one anti-IDist be specific?

What, specifically, does Nelson think is vague about the
statement above? Human circulation occurs even if there is a
problem with the human blood clotting system. Terrestrial
mammalian hearing occurs, at reduced sensitivity, if the
impedance-matching function of the middle ear is compromised.
Trying to dismiss the impedance-matching function of the
mammalian middle ear on the grounds that hearing is not
entirely lost if it is interrupted should likewise cause ID
proponents to reject the example of the human blood clotting
system, which if interrupted does not mean that all
circulation stops.

[...]

Here’s some of what I’ve written on the topic before.

[Quote]

By irreducibly complex I mean 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 effectively cease functioning.

[End Quote - MJ Behe, Darwin's Black Box, p.39]

The mammalian middle ear has on one side the tympanum, which
demarcates between middle and outer ear, and on the other the
oval window of the cochlea. In between the two are three
small bones, the malleus, incus, and stapes. These small
bones are articulated in series. What the system of tympanum,
malleus, incus, stapes, and oval window accomplish as a
function is the conversion of high-volume, low pressure
movements of sound in air at the tympanum into low-volume,
high-pressure movements of the oval window and thus the fluid
contents of the cochlea. In tech terms, the system is an
impedance-matching mechanism.

If any component of the system is removed, the
impedance-matching properties of the system go away, and
hearing thresholds are reduced by about 30 dB. With this
system in place, though, hearing can be quite sensitive.

This system appears to make a good match for Behe’s definition
of irreducible complexity. One might wonder why Behe doesn’t
use this instead of mousetraps. Well, one reason is that
there is a fossil record showing forms intermediate between
the reptilian ancestral condition and the mammalian anatomy,
and irreducible complexity doesn’t look so spiffy a concept if
one has to say that IC excludes evolutionary explanation,
except for this case that has been documented as having an
evolutionary explanation.

Wesley

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A Pournelle Misunderstanding

Jerry Pournelle is apparently convinced that “intelligent design” creationism is unfairly being suppressed. Among a smorgasbord of misunderstandings served up by Jerry, I’m just going to pick on a little one here.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about intelligent design because I have never had any concern about the impossibility of reconciling something like Darwinian Evolution and religion (nor indeed of reconciling reason and religion). This is probably due to my education at Christian Brothers College (now Christian Brothers High School) in Memphis during the 1940′s. Brother Fidelis was careful to teach the theory of evolution (although the Scopes Law had not yet been repealed and it was in theory illegal for him to do so) along with St. Augustine’s and St. Thomas Aquinas’s discourses on reason and science; and the concept that God could easily have created the universe in germinal causes and fixed laws, and allowed development to proceed with a bare minimum of miraculous interventions.

(Emphasis added.)

It is possible that I misunderstand this; if “Christian Brothers College” (now High School) was, in fact, a public school in the 1940s when Jerry Pournelle attended, then you can ignore everything further, because it is all premised on taking Christian Brothers High School as being both now and then a private Catholic school.

There is no “Scopes Law”. The law under which John T. Scopes was tried was the “Butler Act”. The Butler Act is not mysterious, and we actually know the content of it. Or, at least, some of us do.

An Act prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.

Section 1. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Section 2. Be it further enacted, That any teacher found guilty of the violation of this Act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than One Hundred ($100.00) Dollars nor more than Five Hundred ($500.00) Dollars for each offense.

Section 3. Be it further enacted, That this Act take effect from and after its passage, the public welfare requiring it.

Was Brother Fidelis really a scofflaw as Pournelle asserts? It seems most unlikely. The most likely scenario is the one where Pournelle’s high school alma mater really was a private school, and thus what was taught within it was completely unaffected by the content of the Butler Act.

I went to a Catholic high school, too, and was taught evolutionary science from the BSCS curriculum textbook there. We didn’t spend our limited time in science class being taught things that hadn’t passed scientific muster. I don’t know why Jerry Pournelle thinks the limited time of public school students should be given over to credulous treatment of the sham of “intelligent design” creationism.

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