Monthly Archives: July 2009

I Want

All I want for Christmas… well, any date coming up, would be this 180 acre parcel of land. Of course, I don’t have the $5.4 million or more that the auction on Sept. 10th is likely to bring, but I can daydream. Maybe somebody I know will end up with it, and we could do some fishing in the lake near Reynolds Road.

Cloudscape at Lakeland, FL parcel

Cloudscape at Lakeland, FL parcel

Lake near Reynolds Road

Lake near Reynolds Road

Picnic site near Reynolds Road

Picnic site near Reynolds Road

In the Absence of Knowledge: Melanie Phillips

I just ran across a column from Melanie Phillips in the Spectator. In it, she wrongly accuses Ken Miller of having given “muddled testimony” in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. DASD trial. Further, she lays it out plainly:

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science. Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days. Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism. But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them — the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous. In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator. The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.

As a result, both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall. Yet the two continue to be conflated. And ignorance is only partly responsible for the confusion, since militant evangelical atheists deliberately conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism in order to smear and discredit ID and its adherents.

Sorry, Melanie, but it is you who is demonstrating ignorance here. Of course, understanding the legal situation in a different country can be a large contributing factor, but it would still have paid Melanie dividends to at least have recognized that she didn’t have all the facts in hand before launching into the bogus recriminations against others.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides a guarantee that the government will not entangle itself with religion. This makes the situation in the USA quite different from that in the UK, where there is a state religion, or Canada, whose constitution has no provision for separation of church and state. Prior to 1968, three states had laws on the books that forbid public school teachers to instruct students in evolutionary science. Those laws were rendered invalid in 1968 when the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that kind of exclusion of a science topic to privilege a particular religious interpretation was unconstitutional. The case there was Epperson v. Arkansas, and it pit a schoolteacher against the state of Arkansas. The take-away message there, that science could be taught in the classroom without hindrance, caused the religious antievolution movement to embark on a multi-decade campaign rooted in deception. Where before antievolutionary creationism was explicitly a religious endeavor, the leaders of the antievolution movement came up with a strategy that was both simple and dishonest: they would simply call the same old arguments made under the banner of antievolutionary creationism “science”, and attempt to argue that the explicitly religious underpinnings were separable from the putatively scientific portion they wanted to go into public school science classrooms.

Originally, this effort settled upon calling the part to be “sanitized” for public school adoption “scientific creationism” (SciCre), and the explicitly religious part as “biblical creationism” (see this page). The ICR published two versions of a textbook titled “Scientific Creationism” before the great re-naming effort. There was the regular SciCre textbook and there was the “Public School Edition”. The “Public School Edition” redacted references to bible verses, biblical history, and God in an attempt to make its message such that public school administrators would adopt it. Not too long after that, yet another shift in labels occurred to serve the cause: call the part for public school science classrooms “creation science” instead of “scientific creationism”. Apparently, it was felt that the “-ism” ending for “scientific creationism” was too evocative of philosophy and not science-y enough. The interchangeability of those terms can be seen in this page from the ICR, where to illustrate “scientific creationism” it recommends a book titled, “What Is Creation Science?”

It was under the label of “creation science” that religious antievolution was dealt its most widespread legal defeats. Two separate cases were tried based on very similar laws passed in Arkansas and Louisiana. The laws derived from text published by antievolutionist Wendell Bird, and mandated that any time evolutionary science was taught in public school classrooms, there would be “equal time” or “balanced treatment” setting forth “creation science”. The case in Arkansas was McLean et al. v. Arkansas. It was tried in a federal district court before Judge William Overton and featured expert witnesses testifying for “creation science” and pro-science experts taking those claims apart. Judge Overton ruled against the state in 1982; the state declined to appeal the ruling. The setback “creation science” received in Arkansas led to a summary judgment in a similar case in Louisiana, so there were no testifying experts in the Louisiana case. The resulting lawsuit, Edwards v. Aguillard, went all the way to the SCOTUS, and they ruled in 1987 that “creation science” promoted a particular supernatural doctrine and therefore was unconstitutional to insert into public school science classes.

A part of the SCOTUS decision in Edwards is that the majority decision refers to the purpose of legislation and how a stated secular purpose has to be sincere and not a sham. In the majority decision, the purpose stated by the Louisiana legislature was found not to be sincere on various grounds. (This was disputed in a dissenting opinion authored by Justice Antonin Scalia.) This element of the need to root out attempted deception in antievolution efforts was recognized in the SCOTUS decision.

The analysis of textbook content so breezily dismissed by Melanie Phillips in her screed is critical to understanding the 2005 Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District case and the relationship of “creation science” and “intelligent design”. In 1982, “creation science” lost in the federal district court-level decision in McLean v. Arkansas. Shortly thereafter, the Texas-based Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) began a project to produce a textbook advancing “creation science” that would pass scrutiny such as was brought to bear in the McLean trial. By 1983, the FTE had a draft of the textbook, titled then as “Creation Biology”. A total of six different drafts of this textbook project were provided under subpoena of FTE to the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case. These ranged in date from the 1983 draft to somewhere prior to the release of the published edition in 1989 under the title, “Of Pandas and People”. Four drafts up until 1987 were explicit in advocating “creation science”. A fifth draft dated to later in 1987, following the SCOTUS decision in the Edwards case saying that “creation science” was unconstitutional to insert into the public school classrooms, suddenly replaced references to “creation science” with “intelligent design”. The import of this is that this draft marks the first widely distributed usage of “intelligent design” to be treated as a field of human inquiry and not, as has since been noted as long-extant usage, simply an adjectival phrase. The textbook and its documented history demonstrates that “intelligent design” had exactly the same content as the previous version of religious antievolution. In fact, a paragraph offering a definition of “creation science” became a paragraph defining “intelligent design” by the simple expedient of replacing the former with the latter in the text. This documented relationship of having identical content between “creation science” and “intelligent design” was not “muddled testimony”; it was hard evidence of the continuing strategy in religious antievolution of trying to find a new label that would pass legal scrutiny for the same old religious antievolution argumentative content.

Melanie Phillips is also ill-informed when it comes to a relevant definition of creationism. Phillip Johnson, lawyer, special advisor to the Discovery Institute, and authoritative source on “intelligent design”, put it this way in his 1991 book, “Darwin On Trial”:

Clearing up confusion requires a careful and consistent use of terms. In this book, “creation science” refers to young-earth, six-day special creation. “Creationism” means belief in creation in a more general sense. Persons who believe that the earth is billions of years old, and the simple forms of life evolved gradually to become more complex forms including humans, are “creationists” if they believe that a supernatural Creator not only initiated this process but in some meaningful sense controls it in furtherance of a purpose.

(Source: Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (2nd ed.), Intervarsity Press, p.4 (footnote).)

“Intelligent design” can hardly “stand opposed” to creationism as Melanie Phillips claims, when one has the knowledge imparted by reading the “intelligent design” advocates’ own meaning for the term.

Melanie Phillips wants us to credit that “intelligent design” can be distinguished from religious antievolution. As seen above, her argument as given founders on the fact that she didn’t even get the relevant definitions right.

What Phillips wants is a qualitative distinction between “creationism” and “intelligent design”, but her arguments would, even if valid, not deliver that as a conclusion. Phillips argues that there is “disdain” between “creationists” and “intelligent design” advocates, and thus concludes that identifying “intelligent design” as a form of “creationism” is wrong. There have been some instances of criticism of “intelligent design” from young-earth creationist advocates, but these are far from establishing a qualitative break between “creationism” and “intelligent design”. Note in this example of criticism from Henry M. Morris, a leading young-earth creationist advocate, that even he sees the religious content and intent of “intelligent design” tactics:

We disagree with this approach! We do appreciate the abilities and motives of Bill Dembski, Phil Johnson, and the other key writers in the Intelligent Design Movement. They think that if they can just get a “wedge” into the naturalistic mindset of the Darwinists, then later the Biblical God can be suggested as the “designer” implicit in the concept.

Yes, it is an example of criticism of “intelligent design”, but its import undercuts Melanie Phillips’ claim that any qualitative difference can be supported as existing between “intelligent design” and even young-earth creationism.

Nor is Melanie Phillips correct in the general claim that IDC advocates “think Creationism is totally off the wall”. The Discovery Institute’s list of fellows includes a substantial proportion of young-earth creationists. Those knowledgeable of the antievolution movement know that, contrary to Melanie Phillips, criticism of young-earth creationism is actively discouraged by “intelligent design” advocates. It isn’t hard to discern why this obtains. “Intelligent design” creationism (IDC) is numerically a tiny movement. The real numbers in antievolution advocacy are in young-earth creationism (YEC). IDC advocates know that for their success, they must have a substantial proportion of YEC believers on board with their program.

Melanie Phillips has, in her uninformed arrogance, missed a significant piece of information: the “Wedge” document. This 1999 fund-raising document from the Discovery Institute lays out the strategy that would guide the promotion of “intelligent design” creationism. It serves as a glimpse into what “intelligent design” meant for the people who would aggressively promote it.

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.


Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism.


Governing Goals

* To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
* To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.


5. Spiritual & cultural renewal:

* Mainline renewal movements begin to appropriate insights from design theory, and to repudiate theologies influenced by materialism
* Major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation & repudiate(s)
* Darwinism Seminaries increasingly recognize & repudiate naturalistic presuppositions
* Positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God

“Intelligent design” was sold by its primary advocates not as a scientific movement, but as a religious counter-attack on “materialism”.

Given what I’ve covered, let me re-examine Melanie Phillips words.

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it.

Wrong. The textbook analysis demonstrated identity between the content of “creation science” and that of “intelligent design”. “Intelligent design” came out of and is comprised of the same ensemble of arguments seen in “creation science”. It presents a subset of the “creation science” arguments, as “creation science” presented a subset of antievolutionary creationism arguments. IDC does not repudiate the arguments it does not carry over from “creation science”; IDC instead provides a “big tent” to hold all the opponents of evolutionary science. This can be seen in various of the answers from the IDC “experts” brought in for unofficial “hearings” in Kansas in 2005, where when asked how old they thought the earth was, several held that it could be either several thousand or several billion years old, and some said simply that it was under 100,000 years old. (Responses are compiled here.) “Intelligent design” only stands against “materialism”, since many of its principal advocates are themselves YECs and protection of YEC dogma from critique is still an organizing principle of the IDC movement.

This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science.

Wrong. The “Wedge” document demonstrates quite clearly that the focus of “intelligent design” was on advancing a particular form of theism, not science. IDC advocates must, in order to have some hope of foisting an effective sham, declare that they aren’t religiously motivated. Their self-report is therefore suspect, and they must be judged on other criteria, like what actions they take and the actual argumentative content that they use. For both of those criteria, IDC advocates are indistinguishable from either “creation scientists” or “biblical creationists”.

Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days.

Wrong. Even Phillip Johnson, the “intelligent design” advocate’s “intelligent design” advocate, defines “creationism” as far broader than young-earth creationist belief. This is the sort of thing that even a cursory examination of the topic should have revealed to a competent journalist or commentator.

Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

Unsupported. When one looks at the list of fellows of the Discovery Institute, scientists are not a majority of of folks on the list. By my count, there are eleven fellows with some scientific credentials there, out of forty fellows total. Instead, one finds a bunch of lawyers, philosophers, writers, and other non-science professions taking up the majority of the list. Nor does Melanie Phillips bother to try to somehow turn what is putatively a general career choice among “intelligent design” advocates into an exclusion of having religious motivations for their advocacy.

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism.

Wrong. The correct perception of “intelligent design” as simply another form of creationism comes from knowledge of the religious antievolution movement, its history and its people.

But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them — the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous.

Wrong. Melanie Phillips again runs afoul of not knowing how broadly “intelligent design” advocates define “creationism”.

In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator.

This may be about the closest that Melanie Phillips came to a true statement in the whole quoted block. However, any implication that “intelligent design” advocates only say things with that minimal content would be utterly misleading, and the notion of IDC advocates “concluding” something is misleading in its implication that there is a valid chain of argument there.

The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.

True, but misleading. There are two or three people routinely offered as agnostic or atheist advocates of “intelligent design”. All of the remainder, including every single high-profile IDC advocate, are theists. The signing-up of a couple of contrarians should not be considered as defining what the preponderant motivation is.

As a result, both Creationists and many others of religious faith disdain Intelligent Design, just as ID proponents think Creationism is totally off the wall.

Wrong. There are some criticisms made of “intelligent design” by YEC sources, but none of those rise to a level that could be called “disdain”. As seen above, many IDC advocates are themselves YEC in belief, and protection of YEC beliefs from criticism in the IDC ranks is a priority for the controlling IDC advocates.

Yet the two continue to be conflated.

Wrong. “Conflated” implies that the demonstration of identical content between “creation science” and “intelligent design” was somehow improper.

And ignorance is only partly responsible for the confusion, since militant evangelical atheists deliberately conflate Intelligent Design with Creationism in order to smear and discredit ID and its adherents.

Wrong. For myself and other theists who object to the deceptive nature of religious antievolution advocacy in the USA, pointing out the actual and demonstrable identity of content between “intelligent design” and precursor forms of creationism is upholding truth and accuracy. The demonstrable fact that the “intelligent design” creationism movement is continuous with, identical in content, and sharing the same deceptive strategy as prior religious antievolution means that Melanie Phillips has ironically defended the wrong-doers by smearing others.

Melanie, just a word of advice: when writing, it helps if you know something about the topic at hand. When you don’t, you end up blithering, as in the quoted passage from your column. Further, basing odious attacks on the integrity of people like Prof. Ken Miller on nothing more than one’s arrogantly held ignorance quite well fits Richard Dawkins’ characterization of the “wicked” component of religious antievolution. Melanie, you owe Prof. Miller an apology, and you owe your readers informed commentary.

Prof. Steve Steve and ???

Reed Cartwright can hardly contain himself for an upcoming tale on Panda’s Thumb of the continuing adventures of Prof. Steve Steve. PSS got to meet a famous fellow…

Reed will have the complete picture, the details, and the identity of Prof. Steve Steve’s latest acquaintance soon.

Toy Yoda v. Toyota

I ran across a captioned photo recently showing a young woman with a boxed Yoda toy, where the caption was a large “FAIL”. The story behind the photo was a bit interesting, and led me to an analysis article by a lawyer with a sense of humor.

Several years ago, Jodee Berry was working as a waitress at a Hooters restaurant in Pensacola, Florida. Apparently, management would hold periodic contests for the wait staff, probably with the goal of maintaining enthusiasm. For the two or three people left in the world who don’t already know, Hooters restaurants are primarily noted for various styles of fried chicken wings and having young female wait staff who tend to have mammary glands on the large side of average. In any case, the waitresses were informed that a month-long contest would be held with several Hooters restaurants participating, where the waitress selling the most beer to customers at each restaurant would have their name entered in a drawing, the prize to be a Toyota vehicle. According to Berry, periodically the manager would remind the waitresses of the contest and drop little pieces of information such as that he wasn’t sure whether the Toyota would be a car, truck, or van, or that the winner would have to pay for tax and registration on the vehicle.

Jodee Berry won the contest. For the award ceremony, she was blindfolded and led out into the parking lot, where when the blindfold was removed, what was in sight was not a Toyota vehicle, but rather the Yoda figure out of the Star Wars merchandising collection, or a “toy Yoda”. Apparently, great hilarity was had by all. And for some, the hilarity goes on in the form of the photo with the large “FAIL” blazoned across it.

Well, almost everybody was laughing. Jodee Berry did not take this lightly. She quit her job at Hooters shortly thereafter and retained a lawyer. She sued her former employers for breach of contract, contending that she was due a Toyota automotive product as winner of their contest. Gulf Coast Wings, the company owning the particular Hooters restaurant in question, presented a couple of different arguments as to why they shouldn’t pay up. First, the contest was held in April and was obviously a joke. This argument has a mixed history of success in law, and tends to have the less success where fewer of the principals understand that there is a joke in play. Second, Gulf Coast Wings argued that Berry should have submitted to arbitration instead of a lawsuit, according to terms of her employment contract. The court explicitly denied this argument, noting that Gulf Coast Wings reserved the right not to have such arbitration be binding on itself. It’s unclear whether the “jes’ funnin'” defense argument would have gone anywhere, because somewhere in there, Gulf Coast Wings settled the suit with Berry. Details weren’t forthcoming, but Berry’s lawyer assured reporters that there was enough there for court costs, his fees, plus a real Toyota vehicle for Berry.

I’ve summarized much of the story above from a legal analysis article by Keith A. Rowley. It is worth a read. At the time Rowley wrote it, the case had not been settled. But I found Rowley’s conclusion quote-worthy:

Whether Jodee Berry is ultimately successful against Hooters remains to be seen. However, she has already survived summary judgment, which suggests that Hooters will end up spending substantially more money defending this lawsuit than it would have cost them to perform. Our moral: If you are going to use the farce, beware of the dark side.

It seems to me that an updated version of the photo of Berry with her Yoda toy is needed. I’d really like to see a smiling Berry with her Toyota vehicle and the toy Yoda, and a nice large “WIN!!!111!!!” caption.

That’s Some Kind of Service

I took a trip early in the year to attend my aunt’s funeral. While on the trip, I got a call from American Express, asking if I had just made an $800 purchase on my credit card. After confirming that the charge was made where and when neither Diane or I had been, I told them no. They said that the best course of action would be to de-activate my cards and that they would send out new cards with a different number. I thought that was pretty spiffy at the time, that American Express seemed to be really on top of things.

I was reminded of this because I was going through the mail that had come in in the past few days, and ran across something from American Express: my new set of cards to replace the de-activated ones.

OK, if there has to be a disparity in alacrity of departments at a credit card company, I surely prefer the model American Express has gone for, with consumer fraud being right on its toes and card replacement in “whenever” mode. But it seems to me that it wouldn’t hurt to get the card replacement people nearer to prompt scheduling.

Illogic and Innumeracy at the Biologic Institute

The Discovery Institute has posted an essay by a new contributor, Dr. Ann Gauger of the Biologic Institute.

If you are wondering whether this new expository source will sustain the Discovery Institute’s longstanding reputation for publishing spin, please read the following excerpts and be comforted.

Let me explain what the four forces are, and then I will describe the problem they pose.

Natural selection is the evolutionary force with which most people are familiar, and can be simply stated as follows: organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and have more offspring than other less fit counterparts, all other things being equal. Mutation and recombination act as the engine of organismal variation: mutations change an organism’s DNA (by substitution, insertion or deletion of particular bases, or modification of the DNA), while recombination shuffles the DNA into new combinations, thus producing further variation. This means that each individual has a unique genome. Differences in each individual’s DNA can produce differences in how well the organism functions in its environment. Finally, genetic drift causes particular variations to be lost from small populations at random, simply because individuals may die or fail to reproduce for reasons unrelated to their fitness for their environment.


This may seem counter-intuitive, so let me reiterate this point. Because of the accidental effects of genetic drift in small populations, natural selection is not strong enough to guarantee that beneficial mutations will eventually become fixed (universal) in a population or that weakly harmful mutations will be eliminated. Thus, in organisms with small effective population size (e.g. all vertebrates, which includes us humans), the stochastic and non-adaptive forces of mutation, recombination, and drift will tend to drive evolution in non-adaptive directions.


This picture of evolution is strikingly in contrast to the stories told by biologists who believe in the adaptive power of natural selection to generate whole new cellular systems, behaviors, and body plans (see for example Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll 3 or most evolutionary psychology arguments 4). If three out of the four forces driving evolution are non-adaptive, then perhaps most evolutionary change is also non-adaptive, and not due to the power of natural selection. Hence the controversy.

Emphasis added.

First, the main bit of illogic in the above. The conclusion, highlighted in the quoted excerpts, does not follow. The conclusion would need measurement of the relative frequencies of each process, something that Gauger apparently is not prepared to enter upon, since it would also invalidate her argument. Simply because there are four enumerated processes does not imply that some specific one of them must therefore occur less frequently, making the above quoted bit a straightforward piece of misleading and fallacious argumentation.

Second, another bit of illogic in the above. Gauger depends on a contributing argument, that if most evolutionary change is non-adaptive, adaptive processes cannot be said to account for such things as the generation of new cellular systems, behaviors, or body plans. This argument is completely unsupported by Gauger. Something Gauger fails to take cognizance of is that even among those called “adaptationist” as if it were an epithet, the prevalence of non-adaptive evolutionary change is commonly stipulated. I heard Richard Dawkins field a question as to whether natural selection could be said to be the main process in evolutionary change, and in his response he explicitly stated that when one looks at the level of proteins and the genome, what one mainly sees is change via genetic drift, but that if one looks at the level of visible or discernible morphological and behavioral traits, most of those have been shaped by selection. A trivial result from examination of the genetic code is that about 20% of possible single nucleotide changes are completely neutral, meaning that a substantial proportion of a genome could change without engaging any selection at all. On the other hand, only about 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins. Selective processes can be far less frequently in action than drift and yet have important effects on the evolution of traits; what the mode of evolution is does not eliminate selection as the cause of the various phenomena Gauger lists.

Third, Gauger pushes innumeracies. When saying that “natural selection is not strong enough” to effect change, Gauger ignores the fact that one can utilize the math to determine just how strong selection would need to be to be effective at a given effective population size. There is no single fixed value for the strength of selective pressure on a particular trait, as Gauger’s text misleadingly relies upon; that is a context-dependent value that one can only get from empirical study. Certainly, only larger selective values will overcome drift at small population sizes, but one can then work on characterizing the likelihood that such strong selection may occur rather than following Gauger’s fallacy and believing that one need not even look. Another innumeracy of Gauger’s is her bland assertion that all vertebrates have small effective population sizes. This will come as a shock to ichthyologists, rodent biologists, and bat biologists everywhere. Even artiodactyls have had large effective population sizes (e.g., bison in North America before 1865). Once the various sorts of biologists are over their shock, though, they will have a good chuckle at Gauger’s expense.

Editor’s Note: Ann Gauger is a senior research scientist at Biologic Institute. Her work uses molecular genetics and genomic engineering to study the origin, organization and operation of metabolic pathways. She received a BS in biology from MIT, and a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Washington, where she studied cell adhesion molecules involved in Drosophila embryogenesis. As a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard, she cloned and characterized the Drosophila kinesin light chain. Her research has been published in Nature, Development, and the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Her awards include a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral fellowship and an American Cancer Society post-doctoral fellowship.

That’s very sad. Gauger shouldn’t be having these very, very basic problems with the biology. It just goes to show just how ideological precommitment to “intelligent design” creationism can make even smart people like Gauger say uninformed things.

Freeze Me, Please! Another Bid Text (1)

I’ve changed my bid text to tell an anecdote about penguins and the predatory skua.

I’m not just interested in falcons. I’ve done research on lekking greater prairie chickens. Diane and I were called upon to help researchers test captive-bred prairie chicken response to raptors. We observed the prairie chickens respond to a hawk flying over their pen. These were naive birds, but the whole population hit the deck and stayed put when the hawk flew over the pens, showing that the captive-bred birds still had the instinct to cower intact.

The Antarctic has its own avian predator. The skuas are gulls that will prey upon penguin chicks and even adult penguins. These are large, aggressive birds, described by some as “seagulls from hell”. William Evans told me about an early penguin exhibit, and how people accidentally observed some instinctual behavior in penguins interacting with skuas. A feature that we don’t see in current penguin exhibits was the inclusion of two skuas. The skuas initially spent their time bullying the assembled penguins. A wild penguin can flee from a pursuing skua, and corners tend to be uncommon. It didn’t take long for one of the penguins to find itself cornered by a skua. The cornered penguin pecked back at the harassing skua. One reason penguins don’t often bother with trying to engage a skua attacker is that skuas fly and penguins don’t. But these two skuas had their wings clipped. The skua gave a flap that lifted it momentarily off the ground. Every penguin there suddenly swiveled its head to bear on the skua, then attacked. Within seconds, there were no longer any live skuas in the exhibit.

So I’m interested in seeing what these interactions are like in the wild for myself. Please give me your vote and I’ll enjoy telling you what I learn.

Please give me a hand by voting for my bid and passing that on to other people you know.

Another Look at Law and Theory

There’s a lot of philosophical discussion about what, precisely, constitutes a law or a theory in scientific practice. There’s also a lot of usage of the terms that has come to us over several centuries of not-quite-consistent application of terms.

What I’d like to offer here is not a scheme to try to make past usage fall out consistently; I think that is a task doomed to failure. Instead, I’d like to express a view of the various terms that makes sense to me and is how I have used the terms myself. Hopefully, others will also find it useful, even if only as a spur to discussion.

First, I’ll present a Venn diagram of how I broadly see things, and then add some comments.

venn diagram theory law 101

I see a qualitative difference between facts and explanations. So the broad non-intersecting categories here are “Facts” on the left, and “Testable Explanations” on the right. I don’t want to go into the qualifier too much at this point, but essentially I see an explanation as delivering knowledge only if it can be tested and applies broadly, that is, inter-subjectively. That’s why I start with “Testable Explanations” rather than an unadorned “Explanations”. You can imagine a further inclusive superset of “Explanations” on the right if you wish, but I won’t spend any more time on that.

Within the realm of facts, one can notice consistent, persistent patterns or interrelationships that occur between facts or classes of facts. These are our “Laws”. One can test a law in the sense that one confirms that the proposed relationship is consistent and persistent. What one does not get from a law is an understanding of why the relationship occurs. Historically, people have received accolades for scientific work in discovering and publishing such patterns, though modern practice seems not to hold such work in good esteem.

When one turns to explanations, things quickly get more complex. “Hypothesis” as shorthand for “scientific hypothesis” is straightforward enough: it is a testable explanation of phenomena, whether or not the tests have occurred yet. But “Theory” is the difficult term to deal with, given that past usage has been so highly variable, confusing and conflating the term not only with hypothesis and the lay connotation of a “guess”, but also where “theory” has been applied to laws or law-like constructions.

It seems to me that when it comes to “theory” it makes more sense to try to make future usage better than to try to reformulate what has gone by in the past. We’d like the usage we settle upon to be broadly applicable to past usage. But we should not be afraid to simply abandon usage that cannot be made to fit a rational view of “theory”, though.

Part of what many people use to distinguish “theory” from “hypothesis” is the status of testing. For hypothesis, testing may not have happened yet. But for “theory” to apply, people generally want testing to have happened already. This seems clear enough to apply as a property of “theory”.

A more problematic property is extent. By that I mean that people will refer to a small-scale explanation as a hypothesis rather than as a theory. One runs into the heap paradox with this, since there is no bright-line rule for where explanations stop being “small” in extent, and thus should be referred to as hypotheses, and where they are “large”, and should be referred to as theories.

It seems to me that a better property to reserve for “theory” is that a theory should be productive, and by that I mean that by application of the theory, one should be able to generate further testable hypotheses.

So for myself, I use theory as a referent for a testable explanation that has been tested and is capable of generating further hypotheses (or has generated further hypotheses). That generally takes care of the problem of “extent” as well, since an explanation that is small in extent is less likely to be productive.

I think this sort of scheme is internally consistent and could be used in teaching, where it should minimize confusion for students. It explains why theories do not become laws (they are in separate categories of concepts) and why laws are more of a starting point for scientific inquiry than an end in themselves, since understanding why the relationships seen in laws happen requires explanation.

It is also why I’m not on board with the move to simply shift terminology around and refer to theories as laws. It seems to me that this is confusing and doesn’t help communication with the public. If we need to deploy different terminology, then make it really different. Where this whole issue of clarifying terms comes to application is in what to call evolutionary biology. At the level of some science organizations, there is a move afoot to simply refer to this as “evolutionary law” as a replacement for “evolutionary theory”, on the grounds (as I understand it) that the reality is closer to the public connotation for law than for the public connotation of theory (the “just a guess” thing). But it seems to me that this essentially is abandoning our responsibility to keep to accuracy if we simply capitulate to lay usage. Another possibility would be to use the insight that what distinguishes theory is that theories provide mechanisms by which things happen, and refer to things as “evolutionary mechanisms”. It at least doesn’t come laden with the baggage of past usage. But evolutionary biology incorporates knowledge that falls into the “facts” category and the “testable explanations” category (as noted by S.J. Gould), so I think a better alternative is simply to make it a broad term and refer to it as “evolutionary science”. This doesn’t permit the easy dismissal of “just a guess” and takes a step away from the whole law versus theory morass.