June 6, 2007

Lest we forget

With Mike Behe in the public consciousness once again with the release of his old-news book The Edge of Evolution, I thought it might be useful to revisit something he said in his Kitzmiller testimony.

Since it seems inevitable that this book will be touted by some as an addition to the DI's long list of "peer-reviewed" publications (one can only hope that Behe himself has learned his lesson on this score), let's take a moment to reflect on these comments under cross-examination from Dr. Behe,
“[t]here are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred.”
No doubt the truth of this moment of clarity will be little altered by Behe's book.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled gap argument.

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June 2, 2007

Gonzalez' tenure - Only mostly dead

Okay, so that's over. Guillermo Gonzalez' appeal of his tenure denial has been turned down by Iowa State University president Gregory L. Geoffroy.

Well, not entirely over, since Gonzalez can file another appeal, this time with the university regents. But his tenure hopes, at least at ISU, are certainly looking very gray. And he can thank his buddies at the Discovery Institute for their help in ensuring that ISU denied him. They did their level best to publicly humiliate Gonzalez in the process of turning him into a martyr, and so created such a furor around his department that it was virtually certain he could never go back there. Now one has to ask oneself, what mainstream Astronomy/Physics department would have him?

And so another soldier for (some twisted form of) Christianity falls on his sword - or, more accurately, was shoved.

For my money, it was the DI itself, by way of its Wails and Moans webpage, that sealed the deal. In one entry which attempted to refute the suggestion that it was Gonzalez' inability to bring in funding that dropped him off the tenure radar, they produced evidence of his funding-finding success. This included three examples,
"2. Contrary to some reports, Dr. Gonzalez did receive outside grant funding during his time at ISU:

From 2001-2004, Dr. Gonzalez was a Co-Investigator on a NASA Astrobiology Institute grant for "Habitable Planets and the Evolution of Biological Complexity" (his part of the grant for this time period was $64,000).

From 2000-2003, Dr. Gonzalez received a $58,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation. This grant was awarded as part of a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process, and his winning grant proposal had been peer-reviewed by a number of distinguished astronomers and scientists.

Earlier in 2007, Dr. Gonzalez was awarded a 5-year research grant for his work in observational astronomy from Discovery Institute (worth $50,000)."
In an earlier post on this issue I said this: "In the consideration of possible tenure, ISU needs to (and I assume has), analyze the trajectory of Gonzalez' career and make an educated guess as to how much his theological proclivities might eventually distract from his academic obligations. They have every right, and responsibility to potential students, to do so." I still believe this to be the salient point considering Gonzalez' possible tenure, not his publication record or how many Ph.D. candidates he's produced. The university takes a significant risk when it grants tenure to a professor, and it is obligated to anticipate to the best of its ability whether a tenure applicant might be heading for the deep end. For a science instructor, the "deep end" can reasonably be characterized as excessive credulity regarding non-natural phenomena. In that light, let's look at the DI's examples of Gonzalez' ability to secure funding.
  • Co-Investigator on a NASA Astrobiology Institute grant for "Habitable Planets and the Evolution of Biological Complexity" (his part of the grant for this time period was $64,000). There nothing particularly alarming here, although in retrospect it's easy to see that this dovetails with his work on showing how privileged the Earth is - a credulous notion if ever there was one. Even more important, though, is the fact that the principle recipient of this grant was Peter Ward (UW), not Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a member of Ward's group which totaled over 50 people.
  • A $58,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation. The Templeton Foundation is well known for funding projects that they think might link spirituality and science in some grand metaphysical sense. This is from their Mission Statement - "The mission of the John Templeton Foundation is to serve as a philanthropic catalyst for discovery in areas engaging life’s biggest questions. These questions range from explorations into the laws of nature and the universe to questions on the nature of love, gratitude, forgiveness, and creativity." This isn't an indictment, the TF does fund some legitimate science, but it's another provocative data point.
  • A 5-year research grant for his work in observational astronomy from Discovery Institute (worth $50,000). The DI hacks were so hard up for evidence that they included their own grant to Gonzalez in this very spare list. There is no question what the DI funds - religiously motivated investigation of evidence for "design."
Now being generous and accepting all of this on its face, not only is this meager amount of grant money ($172K) barely worth mentioning, there is clearly a trend here that would put any committee evaluating tenure on alert . If, in the process of determining suitability, an instructor's potential areas of focus are considered then certainly the examples above are cause for concern in granting tenure to a science professor. It's not Gonzalez' personal religious convictions that are the problem, it is his penchant for mixing them into his science
(for God's sake, he included "The Privileged Planet" as part of his tenure application!). That's just bad science, and is, in my opinion, excellent cause for denial, especially as the arc of his career suggests it will only get worse.

Of course the DI shills will continue to whine about "academic freedom," as does the shrillest shill on this issue, John West...
“President Geoffroy has clearly demonstrated that academic freedom is not as important to Iowa State University as passing an ideological litmus test.”
...as even more of Gonzalez professional life is left in ashes on the funeral pyre. But clearly this isn't about Gonzalez' academic freedom, it's about the academic freedom of potential ISU students to be exposed to the best in science instruction, not someone's personal philosophy.

And in the end the "intelligent design" marketing machine will get something even more valuable to them than a tenured ID-touting professor. They'll have a continuing opportunity to build up those persecution points of which they are so enamored. Heck, maybe they'll convince G.G. to appeal to the ISU regents and keep this blustery bonanza going indefinitely.

After all, there might still be some life left in the poor guy.

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June 1, 2007

Suburban Skeptic - How human are we?

[Although they're not as ubiquitous or influential as urban legends, suburban legends offer two distinct debunking advantages: First - they have a way of finding me, and Second - they present a significantly less demanding challenge, the combination of which qualities generally allows my meager level of attention and effort to equal the task.]

"I heard that we're actually mostly other than human!"
"I heard that technically we're more bacteria than human, or something like that."

I overheard this chunk of conversation recently. It dovetails with similar claims I've encountered, including - "Our body mass is actually made up more or parasites than our own tissue," and "most of the cells making up your body are not your own cells."

I always thought both claims were overblown. As it turns out. I'm only half right.
It is estimated that 5000 to 10000 different species of bacteria live in the human body (Sears, 2005). Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are about ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (1000 trillion (1015) versus 100 trillion (1014); Sears, 2005).
The above, which clearly show me to wrong about the "number of cells" issue, is from Wikipedia.

Now it seems that estimates as to the number of cells in the human body vary quite widely, from Sears' 100 trillion to about 60 trillion to other more moderate guesses in the ten trillion range. Most sources seem to agree on the 100 trillion estimate.

As well, most sources I've looked at agree that there are about ten times (one suggested 20x) more symbiotic microbes hanging around in your body (mostly bacteria, and mostly in the gut) than there are human cells making up your body. I offer this distinction between "hanging around in" and "making up" because I was at least right about one thing: most of the human body is not symbiotic cells. By number, bacteria et al are greater, but these cells are so much smaller than most human cells that it is incorrect to suggest we are mostly microbes, especially when considered by percentage of mass. The only source I found that gave numbers on this indicated that bacteria in the human body could mass up to 2 kilos. This is about 3% of body weight for an average sized man (150 lbs.)

And here's another interesting tidbit from Dr. George Weinstock, co-director of the Human Sequencing Center at the Baylor College of Medicine,
"Even though a microbial genome is one-thousandth the size of the human genome, the total number of microbial genes in [the human] body is much greater than human genes because you have so many different species."
Even your humble skeptical servant learns something now and then (though he hates to admit it).

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May 31, 2007

Brownback spins furiously

The New York Times has an opinion piece written by Sam Brownback (running for Repub. nomination for presidential candidate) in which he, like Huckabee, tries to minimize the damage done subsequent to his fateful hand-raise.

A masterpiece of talking out of both sides of one's mouth, Brownback's "What I Think About Evolution" should be required reading for anyone preparing for a career in political obfuscation. Let's look at a bit of it:
"The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.
Seems reasonable enough, until one reads far enough to notice that, golly gee, Brownback says a lot of things that indicate he's a creationist, like,
The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.
Many questions raised by evolutionary theory — like whether man has a unique place in the world or is merely the chance product of random mutations — go beyond empirical science and are better addressed in the realm of philosophy or theology.
The most passionate advocates of evolutionary theory offer a vision of man as a kind of historical accident. That being the case, many believers — myself included — reject arguments for evolution that dismiss the possibility of divine causality.
The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded. I am wary of any theory that seeks to undermine man’s essential dignity and unique and intended place in the cosmos. I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose.
Maybe he just doesn't want to be called a creationist. It would certainly be utterly unsurprising to find that a politician wants to manipulate his image so as to offend as few voters as possible.

Then there's this fluffy bit of hot air,
The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.
Brownback believes, wholeheartedly mind you, that there cannot be any contradiction between faith and reason. However, as in the quotes immediately preceding this one, he seems to be willing to do a lot of rejecting of possible scientific conclusions if and when they come into conflict with his faith. Even so, he says again a few paragraphs later,
Ultimately, on the question of the origins of the universe, I am happy to let the facts speak for themselves.
Indicating his willingness (wholehearted I presume) to accept the conclusions of science. But this is once more just a cynical nod to political expediency as he follows soon thereafter with,
It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

Biologists will have their debates about man’s origins, but people of faith can also bring a great deal to the table. For this reason, I oppose the exclusion of either faith or reason from the discussion. An attempt by either to seek a monopoly on these questions would be wrong-headed. As science continues to explore the details of man’s origin, faith can do its part as well.
I see. So for Senator Sam, "as long as the facts of science don't contradict my faith, I'm willing, as should any rational person be, to accept the conclusions of science. Physics and cosmology are well left to scientists, but hey, when it comes to biology I think people of faith should have a place at the table." The sad thought is that this kind of nonsense will resonate with some.

And then we come to Brownback's stirring denoument of double-speak,
While no stone should be left unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins, we can say with conviction that we know with certainty at least part of the outcome. Man was not an accident and reflects an image and likeness unique in the created order. Those aspects of evolutionary theory compatible with this truth are a welcome addition to human knowledge. Aspects of these theories that undermine this truth, however, should be firmly rejected as an atheistic theology posing as science.

Without hesitation, I am happy to raise my hand to that.
Now, is it just me, or is Sam happy to leave at least a few stones unturned? You know, like the ones that have something to say about whether Man ("M"?) was an accident or not?

Yeah, Sam's happy to accept that "The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates," and to "let the facts speak for themselves," as well as leave no stone "unturned in seeking to discover the nature of man’s origins." Sure, all of this is fine with him, as long as none of it undermines his personal concept of the "truth."

In other words, Senator Sam is full of shit.

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