Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Bubble Hall of Fame

An article in Slate lists some of history's all-time worst "bubble-blowers" -- people who help create unsustainable economic bubbles through their relentless promotion, over-optimism, and snake-oil salesmanship. Upon seeing the article, my first thought was, I bet I know at least one person who will definitely make the list. I was right:

The Internet

George Gilder (1939-present)

Noteworthy bubble-blowing role: Newsletter writer and futurist foresaw a world of infinite wealth because of infinite bandwidth. Book published in 2000 promoted soon-to-be-worthless stocks like WorldCom and Global Crossing.

Catchphrase: "The investor who never acts until the financials affirm his choice is doomed to mediocrity by trust in spurious rationality."

Bonus catchphrase: Of WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers, he said: "He is a hero of the dimensions of Rockefeller and Milken."

Ignominious end/debunking: Dot-com wipeout nearly forced him into bankruptcy (subscription required), according to the Wall Street Journal. Still touting stocks and trying to undermine Darwin.

Random Disgustingly Cute Picture

A worker from Rome's Biopark zoo holds a Testudo Kleinmanni hatchling, an endangered species also known as an Egyptian tortoise, in Rome May 22, 2007. The offspring is the hatchling of several Egyptian tortoises that were rescued from a smuggler's suitcase in 2005 at Naples airport, southern Italy, by Italy's forestry police and were entrusted to Rome's main zoo.


Sen. Sam Brownback: Intelligent Falling Advocate

Presidential candidate Sam Brownback was one of three Republican candidates who raised their hands when asked if they didn't believe in evolution.

Today he has an op-ed piece in the New York Times wherein he explains his stance. If you're looking for something original, meaningful, or interesting, it's not for you. It's your standard "I'm a creationist but am too cagey to come out and say it so I'm going to dance around the issue and exude platitudes about faith..." There's a fair chance it was ghost written by a member of the Discovery Institute. Consider this:

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.

And what if evolution means what it really means, namely that various species (say, humans and great apes) share common ancestry? Brownback totally dodges that one.

The great thing about the internets though is that new-fangled things call blogs allow people to let it all out and say what they really think, the kinds of things they would never publish in the New York Times. You know, unhinged, stream-of-consciousness rantings. Things like this:

Senator Brownback is among a tiny handful of 2008 potential Presidential candidates who understand that ANNUIT COEPTIS is what makes America great. Senator Brownback's belief in a Higher Power goes far beyond reasonable belief. We know beyond any and all possible doubt that gravity had to have come from somewhere and by inference that this "Intelligent Designer" has favored our undertakings.

Brownback apparently didn't get the message that the "Intelligent Designer" is an unknown entity that might well be an evil space monster, because ID is not a religious belief no sir it's not, but he's hardly unique in that regard. Putting that aside, what the heck was that about gravity? Here it is again:

It would take a miracle from God himself to convince non-believers that patterns statistically beyond random chance that prove an "Intelligent Designer" to be behind the creation of gravity. Maybe this miracle, or series of miracles has already happened. Belief in a Higher Power taught to our school children will increase discipline in our public schools, thus increase our economy. Reasonable belief that gravity had to have come from an "Intelligent Designer" is just the kind of miracle that America needs.

Brownback is a proponent of Intelligent Falling! We knew there had to be one out there somewhere. And apparently gravity is coming in for quite a shellacking, because they've even created their own category for it on the blog:

Tags : Gravity, Higher Power, ID, ethics, morals

Sadly, this is the only post under "Gravity" for now.

(Cross-posted to the Panda's Thumb.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday Animal Blogging

Lazy squirrel:

Look at that bastard. Just laying spread-eagle on a branch. Who said life in the wild was rough? Here's a close-up:

(Don't forget to visit the Friday Ark.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why Theistic Evolutionists are Not a Legal Threat

Okay, here's a follow-up to yesterday's post. This one is about PZ Myer's claim that the presence of TEs somehow harms the legal case against creationism. Let me repeat in full his comments on that here:

Try to imagine the next big court case to get ID out of the schools.

The lawyer says, "Mr Matzke (you know Nick will be there, right?), you've brilliantly dissected this textbook the Discovery Institute is using, and shown that despite the absence of any overt mention of god or religion, it's antecedents are derived from the creationist movement, and its authors are all strongly religious and have made statements outside the context of this particular book that strongly imply intent to promote religion. We should not be fooled by the absence of obvious religious advocacy in the book itself, but recognize instead its duplicitous nature and the bad faith arguments of its proponents?"

Nick will humbly reply, "Yes, sir."

And the DI lawyer will then say, "But half your witnesses are "theistic" evolutionists, and proud of it. They say openly that they believe a God, the Christian God, not even an ambiguous supernatural force, was involved in the creation of human beings. They write books about DNA as the "language of God". They lecture with considerable force that science and religion are compatible, and more, that science strengthens their faith in the Christian God. Proponents of the evolution position blithely call these people who insert a god into their explanations of origins 'pro-science'. Your side ignores or even derides scientists who insist on purely natural explanations of our evolution, and promotes those who use religion to sell science to the public."

"I'm baffled. On what basis are you arguing that this case involves a violation of the separation of church and state when I can scarcely tell the two of you apart, and when it's your side that more openly embraces religious ideas—when the Intelligent Design proponents show a history of nominally moving away from their religious roots, while your side shows a history of increasing recruitment of church leaders, theologians, and lay advocates of god-involvement in science?"

And Nick will say … I have no idea how Nick would reply. I'm sure it will be clever and devastating, and I'm sure it will explain how the statement that "I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation" is pro-science while "I do not believe in the sufficiency of random mutation and natural selection to explain the history of life on earth" is anti-science. I'd like to hear an explanation for how "theistic evolution" is less religious than "intelligent design".

This belief, to me, seems based upon some serious ignorance about what the actual legal issues are concerning creationism. Here I'm going to delimit what the legal issues are really about, and part of that is going to include some examples of what they are not about:

1. ID/Creationism is not unconstitutional because its adherents are religious.

This may seem obvious, but PZ seems to think that the mere fact that TEs are religious creates the possibility that they'll be seen as indistinguishable from IDists in a court setting. But their religiosity is not an issue. After all, if being religious were enough to condemn one's ideas, 90% of the country would have to remain silent.

2. ID/Creationism is not unconstitutional because its adherents are motivated by religion.

This is not obvious to most people. But it's important to realize that religious motivation per se is not enough to violate church-state separation. Lots of legislators and public servants do things that are motivated by their religious beliefs. Opening orphanages, feeding the poor, passing anti-gay laws, etc. Some of these things are exemplary and some are not, but none of them has ever been found unconstitutional on church-state grounds. Motivation is only an issue to the extent that it provides evidence for what's really at stake...

3. ID/Creationism is unconstitutional because it has the primary effect of advancing religion and has no secular purpose.

This is why the courts have consistently ruled against creationism. Not because its adherents are religiously motivated, but because the policies they put in place have the primary effect of advancing religion. That's the distinction between someone who pushes anti-poverty laws because his religion tells him to, and someone who pushes prayer in school (to pick a random example) in order to get more believers. The former does nothing to advance religion while the latter most certainly does. The evidence that ID is intended to advance religion is quite overwhelming; one needs merely to read any of the ID movement's foundational books or documents.

That the government is not allowed to advance (or inhibit) religion is one of the three prongs of the so-called Lemon Test, which is the courts' current precedent for deciding church-state separation cases. Another prong is that the government's actions must have a legitimate secular purpose. ID/Creationism fails this prong too. The courts have ruled that since ID/Creationism isn't science, there's no secular purpose for teaching it in science class. Contrast that with anti-poverty laws, which have an obvious secular purpose. (The third prong of the Lemon Test is that there cannot be excessive entanglement between church and state -- to the best of my knowledge this has never been an issue in creationism cases, and it's not clear to me that it's a useful prong to begin with.)

So considering what church-state jurisprudence is actually based upon, what effect does the presence of TEs have in fighting creationism? It doesn't violate the effect prong because TEs are not arguing to have their religious views included in science classes -- quite the opposite in fact. Nor does it violate the purpose prong because what TEs do want taught (plain old everyday evolution) has an obvious secular purpose. And it does nothing to change how the effect and purpose prongs are applied to the IDists. Yes, the IDists will continue to get sneakier and try to make it look as if their claims aren't religion masquerading as science, but the presence or absence of TEs isn't going to have any effect on that. That's why TEs have testified in every creationism court case that we've had, and yet we've still won all of those cases.

There is however one major way in which TEs have had an effect on the courts. Creationists have long argued that evolution is the same thing as atheism, or that it at least strongly promotes atheism. Therefore, they say, in order for the government to be religiously neutral, it has to give equal time to religious ideas such as creationism. The courts have soundly rejected this argument. One reason is that the creationists contradict themselves when they say that creationism is religiously neutral yet is necessary to counterbalance an anti-religious idea. Another reason is that the plaintiffs can drag out all of these witnesses who say that evolution doesn't conflict with their religion, and that they're comfortable believing in both evolution and the existence of God. We call those people theistic evolutionists. And they destroy the creationists' case for portraying evolution as necessarily atheistic.

PZ's apparent belief that TEs need to be purged (or swept under the rug, or whatever) not only isn't going to help our case, it has the potential to severely damage it. If the courts were to rule that the primary effect of evolution was to inhibit religion -- and this ruling would be much easier for them if evolutionists automatically excluded anyone with religious beliefs -- then it would be toast. That's not to say that you have to think that evolution and religion compatible. You can personally think that they aren't, but the proper legal strategy is to acknowledge that there are people who believe that religion and evolution are compatible, and that therefore evolution is not in essence an anti-religious theory.

P.S. Wesley Elsberry has more.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mitt Romney: THEIST!!!

This was entirely predictable. After I wrote my post about Romney's position on evolution, calling it "essentially pro-science", PZ Myers writes a post griping about it. According to PZ, anyone who believes in both God and evolution must be anti-science or something. He never really quite explains how it is that a large fraction of scientists, some of them notable evolutionary biologists, are anti-science according to his own criteria. If asked, these scientists would say pretty much the same thing that Romney said -- i.e. there's a God behind everything, but mainstream evolutionary theory is correct. One might criticize them for having incoherent or contradictory metaphysical beliefs about the world, but to call them anti-science when they are 100% the same as the rest of us concerning scientific matters is asinine.

Jason Rosenhouse, who also provoked PZ's ire when he dared suggest that Romney's stance is actually a good thing, wrote a reply that I think is pretty spot on. And like Jason, it simply boggles my mind that that PZ cannot understand the difference between theistic evolution and ID. That's like being unable to understand the difference between a pot smoker and an axe murderer. They don't make distinctions much more obvious than that.

PZ wrote a reply to Jason in which he reaffirms the fact that he can't tell the difference between the two:

The second big issue is the complaint that I can't tell the difference between a theistic evolutionist and an intelligent design creationist.

That's a fair complaint, actually. I can't.

Pretend I'm a Martian (not hard to do, I suppose; to a lot of people, my complete rejection of "faith" as a reason for believing in something seems to make me alien, anyway). Explain it to me. I even explicitly laid that out as a question at the end of my post; no one seems to have tried. At best, what Jason and poke do is point out that there is a difference in tactics—the theistic evolutionists are willing to move their god out of gaps in our knowledge as they are closed and place them in other gaps; the IDists want to fight to keep the gaps open, usually by misrepresenting the science that threatens them.

What he really shows is that he doesn't know what theistic evolution is. The vast majority of TE's reject god-of-the-gaps arguments. To be fair, there are some who use that style of reasoning, like Francis Collins who made the exceptionally lame argument that there's no natural basis for morality, but this is the exception to the rule. Most TE's believe that God acts through natural law, not supernatural intervention. They know good and well that god-of-the-gaps is a losing argument, so they place God outside of any gaps where He becomes all-pervasive and in charge of everything. Again, I'm not saying I agree with this -- I sympathize with people who dismiss TE as being self-contradictory or meaningless, because I myself can't quite figure out how to reconcile a meaningful concept of God with a universe that operates through purely natural means -- but it's definitely not the same as being anti-science. Those scientists who are TEs agree with the rest of us concerning what science is, the methods that it can reliably employ, and what its established results have been. Additionally, they uphold the general integrity of the scientific community and believe that religion has no place in science class. In other words, in every single detail concerning the creation/evolution debate (except the existence of God itself, which absent any scientific claims is a non-issue), they are on the exact same page as I am. Romney scored a perfect 10 as far as scientific and educational issues were concerned. If he had claimed that his religious views were scientific and should be taught in science class, I'd be denouncing him too. Yet according to PZ, merely having religious views mark him as anti-science. What was Romney supposed to do, renounce his faith?

Now let's look as what the ID movement believes. They emphatically do not agree with the rest of us concerning what science is, what methods it reliably employs, or what its results have been. They routinely denounce the scientific community as corrupt, dogmatic, elitist, and repressive. They lie about everything, even those things that can be easily exposed as such. And they have spent the bulk of their time and resources trying to get their so-called scientific claims -- pretty much all of them factually incorrect, grossly misleading, or badly reasoned -- taught to primary and secondary school children. If PZ cannot understand the difference between these guys and TEs like Romney, then he hasn't been paying attention. Or, more likely, his notorious disdain for theism has clouded his thinking. Me, personally, I don't care about theism vs. atheism war, so the contrast sticks out like a big red thumb against a green background.

Ultimately, this is not about whether TEs are right or wrong, or whether we should "enthusiastically embrace" TEs, which neither Jason nor I did. It's about tolerance. It's about forming alliances against the people who are really anti-science, and then recognizing that people like Mitt Romney are on the correct side of the divide. PZ's only excuse for his rejection of all theists is a bizarre belief that when the next court case comes around, the views of people like Romney are somehow going to hurt our side. This is if anything even worse than his failure to see a distinction between the Ken Millers of the world and the Phillip Johnsons. Is he not aware that TEs have testified in every creationism trial in the country, and that this somehow didn't make us lose? Does he know what our prospects for winning would be if judges were persuaded that you couldn't believe in evolution and theism at the same time? Not very good at all. But that's a subject for another post.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Still Slacking...

Well, I'm not really slacking. I haven't been updating the blog much because of the exact opposite of slacking. I just bought a house and moved into it, and it's in need of some amount of fixing up. At work my research is going well for a change, which gives me little time to sit in front of the computer and find silly news items to make fun of. Maybe once my house is in order I'll at least have time in the evenings to blog.

Today I made a post on the Panda's Thumb, Mitt Romney, Theistic Evolutionist. My previous posts on Romney have all focused on the fact that he's a MORMON which doesn't sit well with religious right crazies. His stance on evolution is just more evidence that he's trying to center himself and appear moderate. Ironically, this may placate the wingnuts rather than rile them up. Romney is basically saying, "See, my Mormonism doesn't rule every facet of my life -- I am definitely a normal person, normal I say -- so there's no need for you to worry about it."

We'll see how this plays out.