Monthly Archives: November 2009

Opderbeck and Dover

David Opderbeck weighs in with an opinion on the decision in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case:

This leads to my primary criticism of the Kitzmiller decision. I don’t believe Judge Jones should have ventured a broad definition of “science” in the Kitzmiller case, as though such an exercise necessarily ends the discussion of constitutionality. Under the applicable standards for establishment clause cases, the proper inquiry is into purposes and effects: was the government’s purpose “secular” and was the primary effect of the government’s decision to advance or inhibit religion or to produce an excessive entanglement of government and religion? Whether an idea is labeled “religion” or “science,” in itself, is irrelevant to the constitutional question. “Religion” is a constitutionally proper subject of study in the public schools, provided that the purpose and effect of that study is not sectarian.

Rather than wading into the deep waters of defining “science” over against “religion,” then, Judge Jones should have focused primarily on the purposes of the Dover school board, which clearly were to proselytize for a particular kind of creationism, rather than to explore interdisciplinary approaches to science and religion generally.

I am baffled that anyone who has claimed to have read the decision could possibly apply a clause like “as though such an exercise necessarily ends the discussion of constitutionality” to it. It is manifestly inapplicable to Judge Jones’ decision.

Opderbeck’s primary criticism is much vitiated by what he later endorses as an alternative statement that he would have found acceptable for the decision:

In my view, however, there is a significant qualitative and quantitative difference between giving an issue some consideration and making it the central issue in the case. The court could easily have said something like this, and nothing more than this, on the demarcation issue:

The question of ID theory’s scientific merits, and indeed whether ID theory is properly considered ‘science,’ is hotly disputed by the parties. The court finds, after hearing extensive testimony, that the mainstream scientific community generally does not consider ID theory to be valid science. Combined with the clear overriding religious purposes of the school board members, this finding establishes that there was no valid secular purpose for the school board’s actions and that the proposed curriculum would result in excessive government entanglement with religion.

In this context, the Judge Jones’ effort to define “science” in a broad sense was unnecessary, but not “activist.” In any event, the term “activist judge” generally sheds far more heat than light on the complex nature of the judicial function.

In order to evaluate the defense’s argument that introducing “intelligent design” to students because it was science, Judge Jones had to take up the issue of whether the claim that it was science stood up to scrutiny. So, qualitatively, Opderbeck has no argument: he stipulates above that addressing the “secular purpose” argument was necessary, though he seemingly misses the connection to determining the scientific status of “intelligent design” by saying the discussion of science in the broad sense was unnecessary. One can’t accomplish the one without doing the other, though. Nor was the decision seeking to resolve the “demarcation” question, something that has eluded philosophers of science thus far.

How about the quantitative aspect that remains? One can argue about Opderbeck’s assertion that the “ID is not science” section became the “central” issue; certainly most careful readers of the decision will not find it to be the case. It was the fourth section under consideration of the “endorsement test” and section “r.” under the “purpose inquiry” part of considering the “Lemon test”. It was, though, extensively discussed. Judge Jones had at least two motivations for doing so.

One would be a proximal concern that if the case went before an appeals court, that that court have both the full trial record and the judicial reasoning that set aside the defense’s argument of having a secular purpose in “intelligent design” being science. This is commonly called “appeal-proofing” a decision, and it is a valid endeavor for a judge to engage in it. That the subject happens to offend Opderbeck is not a consideration. Could Judge Jones have responsibly only said what Opderbeck offers above? One would beg to differ; Opderbeck’s formulation of how to deny the defense’s “secular purpose” argument seems to be erroneous. On appeal, Opderbeck’s statement could be attacked as simply being a statement of hearsay and not reflective of the actual trial record, a fault that Judge Jones’ decision does not share.

The second motivation would be to provide a record for other courts that might become involved in similar litigation. This kind of record is best done expansively, laying out the issues with full consideration and clarity. Opderbeck’s preferred text would be next to useless for such a purpose.

But all this pales in comparison to the misdirection that Opderbeck engages in by way of his discussion. Opderbeck introduces his “primary criticism” as being motivated by the general principle that courts should refrain from seeking to determine the content of science courses, that they should limit their “gatekeeping” function to the aspect of determining what evidence is relevant and what testimony can be considered expert and entered into the trial record, and in determining the purpose and effects of governmental agents. But Judge Jones clearly is making inquiry into the nature of “intelligent design” precisely in service of the limited goals Opderbeck himself endorses, and not the one that Opderbeck claims is the basis for his “primary criticism”.

In summary, Opderbeck’s “primary criticism” of the Kitzmiller decision seems to be confused as to why the issue was important, arguably wrong concerning the claim that his concern was the “central issue” of the decision, and unappreciative of the purposes for the length of the decision. Are we really sure that the text attributed to Opderbeck was really written by the David Opderbeck who is a professor of law, and not somebody seeking to make him look bad?

Update: There is a next thread where I respond to the latest comment entered in this thread by David Opderbeck.

A Sesquicentennial

Today marks the sequicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the date of publication of Charles R. Darwin’s most-sold book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The original printing of 1,250 copies sold out immediately. I just checked, where it is right now sitting at the #10 bestselling science book position.

You don’t have to buy a printed copy to read it, though. I first got an etext through an archive at Oxford, and Project Gutenberg has long had one of the editions. But for the most of Charles Darwin’s works to be had online, head over to John van Wyhe’s fantastic site, curiously enough called Darwin Online.

GPS, Relativity, and Tinkering

One of the great examples of practical application of both special and general relativity is in the Global Positioning System (GPS). There’s a nice description of how relativity simply has to be accounted for if GPS is going to work well or for long; read it here. The short version is that relativistic considerations cause a difference in the rate at which the atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites tick, such that measurements based on them would be off by about ten kilometers in a day, and the errors would accumulate. The whole system is engineered with the consideration of relativity built in, as evidenced by textbooks and even the GPS specification.

Some people, though, don’t like the very notion of a theory of relativity. While looking up other material on GPS systems, I ran across a rant that appeared in the Usenet sci.physics newsgroup early this year. A fellow by the name of Tom Potter posted his “The GPS – General Relativity Myth” message there on February 1st. After a general round of name-calling, Potter gets to his argument:

I, for one,
would like to see any General Relativity Cultists
start with the basic General Relativity equation,
and work their way, step by step,
to the artifact they claim is proof that
General relativity is essential to the GPS System,

and then show why this cannot be handled in a system
by simply setting constants and multipliers to values
that provide the desired results.

For example, note that constants are used to
set calendars to agree with Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.
and multipliers/dividers are used to adjust the clocks
on the Earth to agree with days or years, etc.

The Mayans, Chinese, Babylonians, etc.
managed to sync their days and moons
up to the rotation of the Earth about the Sun,
and to my knowledge they never used General Relativity.

I found this an intriguing way to argue. After all, this concedes that the “General Relativity Cultists” actually do derive the adjustments needed to make the GPS system work based on the theory. All Potter is trying to assert, then, is that the theory was not necessary to the implementation of a working GPS system: all the needed adjustments could be derived ad hoc as we go along. I have two responses. Perhaps a working GPS could come about without knowledge of relativity, but it seems unlikely to happen in one go. Without a theory of relativity, the satellites would quite likely not have any capacity built in to adjust the basic clock rate. Why would they? In classical physics, an atomic clock under any conditions of acceleration or position relative to a large mass would keep the same time. It would only be after the first set of satellites went up that the engineers would discover that the calculations were off, and getting further off with time. So maybe the second set of satellites goes up, and these have an adjustment facility built in. (Oh, and somebody has to turn off or destroy the first set of satellites, the ones that were wildly erroneous.) Now comes a period of adjustment as the engineers try to solve a problem in a large number of variables. It probably could be done. It almost certainly would be no fun, and it would leave the issue of how to validate the system. Remember, GPS was originally a military project, where part of its work was to assure the proper placement of ordnance. Once you’ve dropped your bomb, it is a bit late to be worrying over whether the engineers managed to empirically adjust the actual situation your GPS is dealing with at the moment.

That leads to the second point. Machine learning is a fascinating field. I’ve spent a good chunk of my career with it in one form or another. But one generally doesn’t use machine learning techniques to address a problem with a closed-form solution. Why would you? And the theory of relativity provides some excellent analytical solutions to problems like those posed in implementing a GPS system. It at once provides you with an understanding of the mechanics of what is happening and the means to engineer general solutions, with all the confidence that goes with the decades of testing the theory has undergone. It doesn’t leave one wondering if one has suitably managed to train a learning system to generalize appropriately from a sample of training cases. It is easy to explain how your system works under any particular set of parameters. So, Tom Potter, let’s use machine learning for things where we have no efficient solutions worked out in closed form, and let’s apply our best knowledge when it is appropriate to do so. That latter clause includes applying relativity to GPS systems.

Ray Comfort Parades His Ignorance

At US News and World Report, Ray Comfort has responded to Dr. Eugenie Scott’s critique of the bowdlerized version of the Origin of Species that he is planning to distribute starting this year. And among other pieces of inherited religious antievolution anti-information, Comfort fires what he mistakenly seems to believe is a broadside:

Scott quoted a famous geneticist, who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” I would like to drop one word, so that the quote is true. It should read, “Nothing in biology makes sense in the light of evolution.” For example, evolution has no explanation as to why and how around 1.4 million species of animals evolved as male and female. No one even goes near explaining how and why each species managed to reproduce (during the millions of years the female was supposedly evolving to maturity) without the right reproductive machinery.

Uh, Ray, you’ve already embarrassed yourself on this point. But I guess Ray can’t be bothered to actually learn about what he tries to critique. The fact is that while evolutionary science doesn’t have one single theory that everyone agrees explains why sex evolved, it does have lots of hypotheses bearing on that topic, and plenty of research is ongoing concerning that. So, Ray, how does having many proposed explanations equate to having no explanations? Or is math also something you repudiate?

The how question also has various hypotheses in play, though you won’t learn about them from Comfort, since he is also apparently ignorant of the fact that we can see even in extant populations just about every gradation between asexual and sexual modes of reproduction that are conceptually possible. Once organisms start swapping genetic information, there is a clear path to the condition of “male” and “female” where there are two complementary strategies to how to package that information. Males use a strategy of making more, but smaller gametes, and females make fewer, but larger gametes. As to the right reproductive machinery, Comfort is also apparently ignorant of the various invertebrate species that feature a sperm delivery system called the cirrus, but no corresponding vagina-like receptacle: transfer is accomplished simply by stabbing the intended mate with the cirrus and transferring the gametes that way. And Comfort simply doesn’t get the important fact about common descent that each daughter species inherits most, if not all, the properties and attributes of the parent species, including mode of reproduction. Sexual reproduction does not have to independently arise in a great many different lineages; that’s the special creation conjecture that Comfort is actually critiquing. Once sexual reproduction (in the form of exchange of a complete haploid copy of genetic information) does arise, the descendants are free to use that and to modify the mechanisms by which it occurs.

Comfort concludes:

There are so many gaps and holes in the theory of evolution that you could drive a fleet of a thousand fully laden 18-wheelers through them. The irony is that I can see them, and I’m not an expert on the subject of evolution. So, what does that say about the theory’s experts, whoever they are? It says (as a wise man once said) that man will believe anything . . . as long as it’s not in the Bible.

Ray, not only are you not an expert, you are pretty much a documented complete ignoramus when it comes to biology. The “gaps and holes” you see are your ignorance, not something of scientific note and interest. Your brand of ignorant religious antievolution damages both faith and science.

Update: Ray Comfort has apologized for the argument about sexual reproduction. Ray should be commended for his willingness to admit error, which is a trait all too rare among religious antievolution advocates. Ray further notes that the evolution issue is not his primary concern, but evangelizing people to come to Christ. Ray, you will hopefully have more opportunities if you drop the requirement that those who believe that science is finding out how God created must set that aside for the poor apologetics of religious antievolution.

Out of the Ashes?

Philip Clayton at “Religion Dispatches” has a post up about evolution/creationism issues and the yin/yang of the classes of antievolutionists and new atheists who agree that one must choose between religion and science, but just disagree on which way to jump.

There’s a brief mention of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) (with a disclaimer that it isn’t necessarily adequate) and a further discussion of how the participants need to set aside “hegemonic” claims.

When evolutionary and religious explanations are construed as fighting for the same territory, they will unleash their weapons upon each other—as today’s religion wars show. When we recognize and acknowledge their different strengths, a far more interesting discussion emerges.

This new debate is challenging because it requires both sides to give up certain hegemonic claims: scientists, the claim that science provides the answer to all metaphysical questions; and religionists, the claim that they know better than science how nature works.

I think Clayton does all right in entering certain arguments concerning metaphysics. But I think that he has overlooked the public policy aspect concerning K-12 public school education. Since 1968, religious antievolutionists have been illegitimately claiming scientific status for their conjectures, and attempting to inject those conjectures into the public school curriculum at every opportunity at every level, individual, school, district, state, and federal. “Interesting discussion” is hindered when it is consistently one side that demonstrates such intellectually bankrupt and immoral behavior. Until religious antievolutionists ‘fess up that what they are pushing is religion, not science, there can be no rapprochement on this. Of course, that also means that they have to abandon the long-term project of diluting or contaminating K-12 public school science education. I see no moves in that direction. Until that happens, the flames will continue, and will be contributed to by theistic evolutionists like me, who see religious antievolution as a threat to the integrity of both faith and science. It is way too soon to talk about ashes.

Prototypes and Archetypes

I went over to Wikipedia earlier this evening, hoping to find out what major University of Florida football quarterback Tim Tebow was graduating in. I didn’t find that out, but I did run across this sentence there:

One of the reasons he chose Florida was because of Meyer’s spread option offense, an offense for which Tebow was deemed a prototypical quarterback.

Given that the spread option offense has existed since the 1920s, it seems unlikely that Tebow was around then to serve as the prototype of a quarterback to run it. So I changed that to read:

One of the reasons he chose Florida was because of Meyer’s spread option offense, an offense for which Tebow was deemed an archetypal quarterback.

and left this explanation for others editing the page:

prototype=first of kind or preliminary; archetype=instance most indicative of the type

Before committing that change, I did look to see if I could get the Gainesville Sun article that was referenced for that sentence. I had no joy on that, but Google indicates that sports writers seem to have this as a common confusion over the difference in the terms.

Results 1 – 10 of about 156,000 for tebow prototypical


Results 1 – 10 of about 746,000 for football prototypical

I’m sure some of those are legitimate uses of “prototypical”, but my sense from looking over a small sample is that most are not.

Update: I found Tebow’s major; it is “Family, Youth and Community Sciences” in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The web page says that the program is an applied social science.

Further update: I’ve found at least one source that defines “prototype” as “a standard or typical example”. That would make sense of a lot more of the usage I see in sports writing, but would still leave out those that are trying to communicate a sense of someone being exceptional in performance. It is certainly out of place in trying to use it in description of Tebow.