The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Three

I pitched a book review to the editor of a prominent magazine devoted to critical thinking and pseudoscience: “Well, I don’t see how it will fit with our magazine, but go ahead and submit it.”

I submit it.

“Looks good! We have it slated for the [date] issue, and we’ll send you the proof soon!”

[UPDATE: My review now appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.]

Yeah – unfortunately, wherever science walks, pseudoscience lurks, ready to pounce.

I pitched a different review of the same book to the reviews editor of a prominent scholarly journal devoted to archival science. (The same one, incidentally, that refereed my paper.)

“I really don’t see how this fits with our focus, but go ahead and submit it.”

Heh. You shall see!

With a writer as talented, articulate, and far-seeing as Christine Kenneally, you bet your boots one can write multiple reviews of The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures from different areas of focus, her book is that innovative and multi-faceted.

Everyone on the planet should read her book! (That also goes for her first book, The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language.) This is important work; this is exactly the kind of interdisciplinary research writing that I aim to do. I have a new hero!

A History of Creationism, Part One

What follows are my notes on Professor James Curtsinger’s presentation at the University of Minnesota on February 2, 2006.

Tonight I attended a talk, sponsored by Campus Atheists and Secular Humanists, by James Curtsinger, Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. He graciously allowed me to tape record him, and I took copious notes. (They also allowed me to scarf down a sandwich during the talk, as I went there directly after work.)

Curtsinger’s talk was only loosely organized around “ten things,” and was a comprehensive overview of the various forms of creationism from Archbishop Ussher to Michael Behe’s embarrassing performance at the Dover trial. I would say that there were around 20-25 people in attendance, most of them members of the organization and U of M students (unlike me, an alumna). He covered a great deal of historical ground that will be familiar to those of us who know the history of American creationism, which he admitted was, for him, “oddly stimulating, like Victorian pornography.”

He first made the distinction between “young earth” and “old earth” creationists, and described Ussher’s backdating of the earth to 4004 BCE. To the surprise of many in the audience, he mentioned that William Jennings Bryan was actually not a young earth creationist. However, Young-Earth Creationism experience a resurgence in the 1960s with the help of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, men of some learning who came up with the theory of the biblical Flood causing fossils to be deposited through a combination of hydrologic sorting (marine invertebrates that lived in the lower elevations ended up in the lower strata, etc.), differential escape (human fossils were found last because they ran uphill to escape the floodwaters, etc.), and ecological zonation.

Naturally, problems with this theory immediately presented themselves: whales appear in the strata after, not before, fish; birds appear in the strata after, not before, reptiles; dinosaurs appear before, not after, modern land animals; ecological zones are found on top of one another; and marine invertebrates such as coral and clams are found in both early and late strata. However, the theory was superficially convincing to those who wished to believe, and it reached its peak popularity in the 1980s under the name of Scientific Creationism.

Arkansas passed the “Balanced Treatment Act” of 1981, which purported to give “equal time” between “scientific” creationism and the “evolution hypothesis.” This law was challenged in McLean vs. Arkansas, during which hilarious testimony from the defendants produced such statement as the satanic source of UFOs and the fact that ants were from outer space and concealed their superior intelligence from human beings. The Honorable Judge Overton ruled that the Act was “simply and purely an effort to introduce the biblical version of creationism into the public school curriculum.” A similar law, the Louisiana Creationism Act of 1981, was struck down in 1985 and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (Edwards vs. Aguilard, 1987), where it was ruled unconstitutional with Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissenting.

This essentially drove the final nail in the coffin of “Scientific Creationism,” which would soon mutate and evolve into Intelligent [sic] Design.

Curtsinger gave a thorough overview of the difference between young earth creationism and ID, and went through the biographies of Phillip Johnson (the “Godfather of ID”), Dr. Michael Behe, Dr. William Dembski, Dr. Dean Kenyon, author of the textbook Of Pandas and People, and Dr. Chris Macosko of the University of Minnesota’s Chemical Engineering and Materials Science department.

Curtsinger then examined the claims of Johnson and Behe, and pointed out the faults (dare we say “gaps?”) in their arguments. Johnson, the author of Darwin on Trial, shows his glaring ignorance of biology early in his book by mistakenly asserting that artificial selection is not analogous to natural selection, since the former employs a so-called intelligent agent. Of course, there is a mechanical process in both artificial and natural selection that is independent of either. Another example of this absurdity of this argument is the example of sexual selection (when a female animal chooses her mate, is it natural selection? Is she not, in some manner, an intelligent agent? Is it artificial selection?) Since no clear distinction between natural or artificial selection can be made in such a case, it is revealing that Johnson chooses not to talk about sexual selection in his book!

Curtsinger also noted that, Johnson being a lawyer by profession, he refers to Darwin being “on trial” in his book’s title and indeed acts as a prosecutor—a role in which Johnson is not obliged to tell the whole truth, but only to launch a convincing, and one-sided, case. Johnson also seems to think that the fact that he reads such general-interest publications as Science and Nature, as well as the more highbrow but still abstracted British New Scientist and Scientific American, will give him an adequate understanding of evolution, when in fact such sources do not compare to the education of even a college freshman on the subject.

Curtsinger noted that Johnson scores real points with the general public in the philosophical realm by arguing that “Evolutionary biologists are philosophical naturalists” and have a knee-jerk bias against the existence of God. In fact, Curtsinger argued, most biologists are methodological naturalists. When asked to choose between hiring a gardener to water his lawn or a shaman to do a rain dance, for example, a methodological naturalist would hire the gardener.

Curtsinger pointed out that the frequency of atheists in science has not essentially changed since the beginning of the 20th century. While most (90%) of the “top” scientists tend to be atheists, the rate of religious belief among most scientific members, researchers, faculty, etc. has run consistently at about 40% since 1910 when the first survey was taken.

Curtsinger also dissected Michael Behe’s assertion that the bacterial flagellum was an “irreducibly complex” machine. Strangely, Behe seems to accept most evolutionary theory at the level the cell and higher, but not for subcellular phenomena. However, Behe seems to have taken several positions out of impatience, assigned a mystery to areas of biology that simply have not been studied enough for biologists to adequately describe at the present time. In fact, we do see some evidence of cooptation in the bacterial flagellum, parts of which may originally have evolved as a secretory mechanism.

He emphasized that many respected scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, have issued very strong statements against the teaching of Intelligent Design as “science.” He briefly summarized the recent Dover trial in Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller vs. Dover) and Behe’s particularly rotten performance under cross-examination. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, a Bush appointee to the bench, had the choice to either issue a narrow or a broad decision, and chose the latter, lambasting in harsh language the Dover school board’s decision to overrule its own biology teachers in pushing Intelligent Design on the school district. Even before Judge Jones’ decision in December 2005, all of the board members had been voted out in November and replaced with Democratic candidate opposed to the teaching of Intelligent Design.

Curtsinger stated that the real battleground for adequate science instruction in the United States is in the public high schools for one really good reason—the parents of the children who attend these schools have real influence over the curriculum. Curtsinger noted with alarm that, by the time a student has reached the sophomore level in college, his or her beliefs about evolution have been solidified, so that it is imperative that evolution is taught, and taught properly, in our nation’s high schools. While Curtsinger is not opposed to students exploring their own beliefs and values, and asking questions about creationism in a social or historical context even in high school, he notes that 20% of Minnesota public high school biology teachers teach creationism as science, which is illegal, factually wrong, and a sad cheat that ill-serves our students.

His most controversial point, that “Evangelical atheists make the problem worse,” was heard with a great deal of openness and even sympathy from this group and from me. I was initially troubled when I read this statement in the online calendar, but came away willing to accede his position. Curtsinger expressed himself well on this point. He noted that this was a very personal concern for him. I do not have the expertise to agree or dispute his assertion that Richard Dawkins “was never a particularly important scientist,” but I cannot disagree that Dawkins is “an aggressive atheist” who does “hit people over the head” with his disgust for religious superstition (how should I deny this when I admire Dawkins for it?). Curtsinger called Richard Lewontin “a friend of mine, and a very important scientist” who nevertheless has stated (according to Curtsinger) that, “The purpose of science is to eliminate God from human consciousness.” Well, yes—naturally I don’t agree that that is the purpose of science, no matter how much I wish it would happen. Science is not about “Truth” with a capital “t” as is so often proclaimed by troubled deists and other philosophical romantics, so therefore it is not about “disproving God,” although I certainly think that the methodical accounting for phenomena renders supernaturalist claims more and more dubious. Of course such a statement by Lewontin would “provide ammunition for Johnson,” and for people like him and the Discovery Institute. Of course the group in attendance were most if not all atheists, and I do not agree that if atheists disappeared from the earth tomorrow the creationists would likewise go out of business (far from it!) but I took Curtsinger’s point to mean, “Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.” Point taken.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a summary on why universities are not generally in a good position to help on the issue. Professors are rewarded for the research, for which they spend a good 50% of their time, and for their teaching, which accounts for 40%, leaving a whopping 10% left for outreach—however one wants to go about doing that. Most science faculty pay little or no attention to creationism, anyway, allowing the problem to fester. What is needed are scientists working together with high school educators and with concerned citizens—atheists and theists alike.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a dig at Pat Robertson’s “God will smite thee” quote, and encouraged everyone to check out H.L. Menken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan to see how well it fits Robertson. Curtsinger also stated that he was, with Ed Hessler of Hamline University and Judy Boudreau of Minnetonka, forming the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. He received a lot of applause and there was a good Q-and-A afterward.

Random Thoughts on Reading Kenneally’s The First Word: The Search for the Origin of Language

Re: the first chapter, on Skinner vs. Chomsky vs. generative semanticists.

So, while Chomsky did publicly discuss the utility of language, whenever he mentioned evolutionary theory, it was mostly to discourage its value as a solution to the origins of language. He said, reasonably enough, that you can’t assume that all traits are selected for. [Certainly not! Never would I make such a claim.] In one of his most concrete statements on the topic, he wondered aloud whether a genetic mutation might have been responsible for the property of discrete infinity, which he considered fundamental to language.

I recall a debate with my ex touching this subject: he was convinced that language was necessary for our ability to think at all (as opposed to forming abstract concepts), whereas I, reading the earlier works of Antonin Artaud, was struck by his struggle to express himself at the very edge of language, and despaired of “containing my thoughts.” He wrote (translation by Susan Sontag*):

What I lack is words that correspond to each minute of my state of mind.
“But that’s normal, everyone at times is at a loss for words, you’re too hard on yourself, no one would think so to hear you, you express yourself perfectly in French, you attach too much importance to words.”
You are asses, from the intelligent to the dimwitted, from the perceptive to the obtuse, you are asses, I mean that you are dogs, I mean that you bark in the streets, that you are determined not to understand. I know myself, and that is enough for me, and that should be enough, I know myself because I watch myself, I watch Antonin Artaud.
“You know yourself, be we see you, we see very well what you are doing.”
“Yes, but you cannot see my thought.”
At each of the stages of my thinking mechanism there are gaps, halts–understand me, I do not mean in time, I mean in a certain kind of space (I know what I mean); and I do not mean a series of thoughts, I do not mean a full sequence of thoughts, I mean a SINGLE thought, only one, and an INNER thought; I do not mean one of Pascal’s thoughts, a philosopher’s thought, I mean a contorted fixation, the sclerosis of a certain state. Take that!

When I first read this, I was jolted and thought, I know what he means, too! He could sense in himself the process of his thought shaping itself, and yet without language, before language, a proto-thought; Continue reading

The Hazards of Interdisciplinary Writing, Part Two

In response to a request I am going to highlight a part of my paper to illustrate what can happen when specialists in their field look for evidence from another field and unfortunately misrepresent that evidence:

“Greene, Boles, Bruemmer, and Daniels-Howell assert that ‘the universal nature of archives is neither universal nor natural’ (a sentence to which one is tempted to add, “Discuss,”) and explain:

‘The whole notion of archival truths and the “nature” of archives and records is itself a fundamental weakness… If one is religious, ethics and morality may still be universal and immutable (for example, the Ten Commandments define right and wrong immutably and objectively for believers). But we can no longer even talk about the “nature” of electrons, for example, or the “nature” of light as if they are immutable and absolutely objective. Darwin, Freud, and Einstein blew apart the ability of most of Western society to accept such absolutes about the physical and psychological realms of our existence. Even less do human made things such as houses and cars have “natures”—they are what we say they are. Their characteristics and functions and forms change over time and from society to society. We might suppose that records and archives, also being purely human constructs are fairly plastic and pragmatic things—concepts that help accomplish some larger goal and that can be changed and modified to help achieve that larger goal (Greene et al, 10).’

“With all due respect to these great minds, this is incorrect, and unfortunately repeats a popular misunderstanding of quantum mechanics: that it describes a world in which subatomic particles do not, and thus everything else cannot, have a ‘nature.’ (Do houses and cars really change their functions over time or cultures? Why document functions, then?) Yet physicists do speak of the nature of the electron: it has a quantifiable magnetic moment or ‘spin’ and a negative[1] charge always, and either travels free or is locked in orbit around atomic nuclei, never in the nucleus. These are its static attributes; however, when the physicist attempts to quantify the dynamic attributes of position and momentum, yes, the electron can be said to not possess them absolutely: the more precisely one measures its position, the less precisely one can measure its momentum, and visa versa. This is an empirical, objective scientific observation, not a social construction. In fact all objects display this Heisenberg Uncertainty between their dynamic attributes[2] and that is a far cry from denying that they have a nature.

“As for archives, of course they are what we say they are, but it is what we say they are that evolves, being so inextricably linked to human nature, and this is the rightful province of theory. Of course archives have sociological aspects; of course they are socially defined. Human values, culture, history, art, and justice and are what we say they are, and our conceptions of them evolve, but not haphazardly, and neither do our conceptions of archives change erratically. How, then, do they change?” [What follows is a discussion of Eastman and my thought experiment.]

[1] Negative because Ben Franklin decided to call its opposite charge “positive”; of course, these terms are arbitrary (Krauss, 2001, 24).

[2] The error is too small to be perceived, however, in everyday experience. Greene et al may be interested in George Biddell Airy’s electron diffraction experiment, in which a stream of electrons is aimed through an adjustable circular iris at a phosphor screen which records each electron’s arrival as a “dot.” When this iris is made small enough one can sit and watch the “dots” slowly accumulate, but over time these electrons, which are all in an identical state as they approach the iris, upon going through it and striking the screen form not a central circle but an interference pattern— with concentric rings, like an archery target—an unmistakable feature of waves arriving in and out of phase. This can be described by the equation Ө = 70(L/d), where L is the wavelength, d the diameter of the iris, and Ө is the angular diameter of Airy’s disc (the “bulls-eye”) in degrees (Herbert, 1985, 63). Yet one sees each particle strike the screen in succession!

Thanks for Pointergate, “I, Twitness News”

Yeah – thanks, KSTP. Thanks for making Minnesota, a great place to live, a national laughingstock. Good job!

Thanks, Jay Kolls, for being a yellow journalist and then doubling down and sniping at your viewers on (the aptly named) Twitter.

Thanks, John Delmonico, for being such a narcissistic blowhard for so long. You can take your inflated retirement pay now and GTFO of my state. Just go.

Oh, and nice snotty expression at 1:38, Leah McLean! I’ll bet you remind every hetero man in America of his psycho ex-wife.

Men and Woman are from Earth

Neuroscientist Daphna Joel breaks down the “male and female brain” stereotype to reveal what is really happening – guess what, we are individuals.

As a lifelong tomboy who nevertheless appears “feminine,” yet gets accused online of “really being a man” or engaging in sockpuppetry because “you have a masculine writing style,” I appreciate her message: it’s complicated!

To tell you the truth, as a child I thought of myself as both boy and girl, and as an adult I don’t get why the first question that other people ask about a new baby is what sex it is. Who cares? If gender differences are “natural” they will manifest themselves anyway, without the imprinting of tiresome and destructive stereotypes in young minds. Being that it is hammered into the brain from birth, it makes me wonder if “gender” isn’t more like a religion than a reality.

The Latest Kent Hovind Melodrama

There is a new indictment against Kent Hovind and a certain Paul John Hansen.

Kent Hovind, perpetual tax evader, has been dodging his tax obligations while in prison and instead of responding to motions filed to compel him to cough up, he has filed yet another meaningless piece of paper, one of them a pro se affidavit denying that his attorney can act on his behalf, and complaining that having an attorney at all denies him “independence as a free inhabitant” of the United States, which according to Hovind’s twisted Youth Earth cosmology would only be a few seconds old (if that).

In other words, Hovind is using his religious hair shirt to avoid paying taxes/forfeiting land which, of course, he denies he has to pay or forfeit in the first place. All of his meaningless pieces of paper are attempts to clog up the court system so as to delay any sale of Dinosaur Adventure Land while he scratches on the cell wall his countdown of Last Days (heh, heh).

In July, his motion was denied. An Emergency Motion to stay proceedings pending another apparent Writ of Mandamus to be filed by Hovind (oh, goodie!) was denied “as MOOT.” I now have a new favorite term.

So, not unlike the con who organizes a crime syndicate from his prison cell, throwing false paperwork after pseudoscience is what is getting our Hovie in hot water again.

His supporters are wringing hands and wank-wanking all over Facebook, and his son is asking for prayers (“Sorry to be vague”). Do you believe in fairies? Let’s all clap our hands for Tinkerbell!

In the meantime, Dinosaur Adventure Land is still running, or at least limping, along.