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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Intelligent design and popular culture: ID film's Ben Stein "Expels" Sarah Palin, riles some fans

Recently, Ben Stein, star of Expelled, the film about the intelligent design theorists, annoyed some ID folk by his comments about Republican veep choice Sarah Palin, believed friendly to ID,
"Ben Stein Repulsed By Sarah Palin, Thinks Henry Kissinger Should ‘Babysit’ Her" - says Wonkette, who adds, "He is not impressed with Sarah Palin. No matter what weird causes Ben Stein supports, he has never been very forgiving of total idiots."

Critically, he says "This most peculiar vice-presidential choice there has ever been." and "What we have now is back to, what you might call, this fundamentalist, born-again, backwoods values of the United States of America."

Stein professes to love those backwoods (or backwards?) values, but then some people love pickled 'possum innards, or anyway they profess to.

He also noted that he was probably the only person on CNN who believes in intelligent design - which, if true, says something not very complimentary about CNN's claims to be mainstream.

The many comments I've heard from ID folk, break out along these lines:

- Stein's tone and words were "dismissive and demeaning." "It is just like Obama -- in Scranton where the votes are, talking up the small-town folks, and then in San Francisco at the wine and cheese reception, sneering at the rubes."

- More people will see this Palin putdown free than pay to see Expelled.

- ID folk should stop promoting Expelled until Stein apologizes for the damage he is doing, implying that Palin supporters are yay-hoos and rubes.

- Chill out: A guy could be pro ID but anti-Christian. What if, for example, he were Jewish and held Christianity accountable for persecuting Jews?

- Chill out further: ID is not about being conservative, Republican or Christian, and it's okay if two people who agree with the perspective it offers on current science disagree about a lot of other things, including Sarah Palin.

In my view:

1. The flap blew up before this - and Ben, like many, may well be quietly revising his view:

2. It really has nothing to do with Expelled and will probably soon blow over. Stein thought Palin couldn't handle foreign affairs or the economy. Hmmm. Palin's state sits between Canada and Russia - I wonder how many American states have two foreign neighbours? As for the economy, it's not clear that the US Republicans spend less tax money than the Democrats anyway.

A note on Palin and creationism:

There is much squalling over Palin's presumed creationism, but Edward Sisson reminds me that "Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and John Kerry, Dems all, as well as McCain, back in 2001, all voted for the Santorum Amendment, which is a stronger "teach the controversy" position than Palin's comment at a debate" which is the basis for the anguished squalls. He discusses that here. (Obama was not then a senator, so he did not vote.)

Here's a pretty comprehensive look at Palin's actual views from Parablemania, as well as a clear and well-worded explanation of why Wikipedia is usually a worthless source on these issues and should not be consulted by anyone looking for information, as opposed to propaganda.

British columnist Melanie Phillips gets it right:

Palin is a Christian, which means she believes that the world had a Creator She shares that belief with other Christians along with Jews and Muslims the world over. Unless one takes the view that all religious belief is certifiable, there is nothing remotely odd about a person of faith believing in God. Indeed, one might say this is a prerequisite (unless one happens to belong to the Church of England).

Melanie, not to worry, I hear God survived a recent Church of England vote - with a razor-thin majority to be sure ...

Why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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Darwin's defenders: Moving stuff around and claiming it just happened by chance ...

Intelligent design theorist Mike Behe, author of Edge of Evolution recently commented on his controversial his effort to apply some science thinking to the airy nothings spun around Darwinian evolution:
Musgrave and others seem quite intent on ignoring the basic point of EOE, that we now have data to constrain our speculation about evolutionary events. He assumes that it would be a breeze to duplicate genes and re-target proteins to make new, complex pathways. However, we see nothing like that happening in Lenski's E.coli work, work on HIV, malaria, etc. The chance re-arrangements of which he speaks are all in his head.

It reminds me of a time when I was invited to UCSF to give a talk. Beforehand I met with Wendell Lim, a hot shot in the protein structure field. He intended to show this bozo how easy it was for domains in yeast to swap to give new functional proteins. He brought out a manuscript of his that had just been accepted for publication in Science.

"Look," he said, "We simply took this one domain, and placed it next to this other domain, and look at the activity we got!"

I said, "Umm, YOU put the domain there?"

He, immediately realizing the problem, said, "I guess you're probably going to use this example in your talks now."

There seems to be a mass blindness among these folks that whatever they see in nature happened by Darwinian processes. The nice thing these days is that there are experimental results to rein in that thinking, for those who are willing to look.
Experimental results? Who wnats that when they can get away with moving the domains around and pretending that it happened by chance?

Come to think of it, lawyer friend Edward Sisson told me a similar anecdote:
In preparing for my talk with Bill Dembski at Boston University in 2005, I went on-line to identify and download all the course materials and readings in the BU first-year curriculum on evolution, and read it all, so I would be prepared for any questions, and in hope of making good points.
In one of the supplemental readings (not the textbook) I came across a report of evolution-in-nature and the immediate survival-of-the-fittest consequences.

A field of corn was planted and it turned out that the DNA for the corn in that field had mutated, causing the "silk" in the corn not to be produced, and having the effect that the corn was uniquely vulnerable to some insect or disease (I forget what, precisely).

On reading this my immediate reaction was, Why haven't I read of this clear example of mutation and fitness change before? This is such a good example of the mainstream side's position, it ought to have been everywhere.

So I turned to my computer, and ran a google search, and within 30 seconds I had the answer.

The mutation in the corn was man-made genetic engineering. The silk in corn often has to be removed before further processing, canning, etc., and the removal step costs money (there are machines that do it). A genetically-engineered strain that has no silk will be cheaper to process, so there will be a market for the seeds.

So they made a batch of silkless corn and planted the field to see what would happen. And discovered that a side-effect of the DNA mutation was a vulnerability to this pest.

So the corn-field example was not an example of mutation-in-nature at all. BU students were being misinformed in this reading.

I didn't use the anecdote in the debate; our time was so limited that focusing on an error in a mere supplemental text wasn't effective enough. But it is another example. ...

Edward, the only reason they write that stuff is that there is very little consistent, reliable evidence of Darwinian natural selection producing much of anything. They're like Soviet economists looking for evidence that Marxist economics works - if they look hard enough, they are sure to find something .... and if they can't find it, they ...

By the way, Behe's blog at Amazon is a great - and very imformative - read.

Why there is an intelligent design controversy:

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Just up at The Mindful Hack

Neuroscience: Individual brain cells spotted in act of retrieving memories

Religion and health: Some teens more, not less, depressed due to religion?

Religion and violence: Do materialist intellectuals have answers?

Reviewer thinks The Spiritual Brain should have been longer?

If you need a book that tries to explain religion and doesn't succeed ...

Withstanding the test of slime: Darwin's face spotted on Dayton, Tennessee wall ...

The Onion, surest source of up-to-the-minute over-the-top news, reports that the Face of Darwin has been seen on a slimy wall in Dayton, Tennessee ...
Since witnesses first reported the unexplained marking—which appears to resemble a 19th-century male figure with a high forehead and large beard—this normally quiet town has become a hotbed of biological zealotry. Thousands of pilgrims from as far away as Berkeley's paleoanthropology department have flocked to the site to lay wreaths of flowers, light devotional candles, read aloud from Darwin's works, and otherwise pay homage to the mysterious blue-green stain.

[ ... ]

"Over millions of successive generations, a specific subvariant of one species of slime mold adapted to this particular concrete wall, in order to one day form this stain, and thus make manifest this vision of Darwin's glorious countenance," Cosgrove said, overcome with emotion.

"It's a miracle," she added.
Preach it, sister! These are prophetic times indeed, because Darwin's face was also spotted recently on a tree somewhere ...

Whale evolution: Now there's a story without legs ...

A student wrote to me recently to ask whether I thought that whale evolution was now well understood - don't the funny little vestigial legs on some early whales explain how it all happened? I replied,

The problem with whale evolution, as one scientist explained to me a couple of years ago, is that the "legs" thing isn't actually that important.

Legs are appendages (= useful but not necessary for life). Life forms can have appendages or not have them. Check out legless lizards and you will see what I mean.

The big issue with whale evolution is the some forty or more key changes that must occur simultaneously that adapt a land animal to marine life and to diving to deep levels of water while maintaining normal metabolic processes.

Also - and this is a pet peeve of mine - the scientist happened to mention in his presentation "the whale cow must also know how to bring her baby to the surface and start it breathing ... "

I got hold of him afterward, and asked, "So HOW does the whale cow know that she must do this?

If most whale cows did not know it, the species' duration on this planet would abruptly end. So, given that whales exist, how exactly did whale cows - not individual Einsteins in their own right - acquire this vital information? Not, I suspect, from prenatal lectures."

He admitted that it was a good question.

Essentially, I don't have any answers except to say that the certainties of current public broadcasting science programs will probably not bear up under serious scrutiny.

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Science writer wonders whether telling people about the "end of science" is bad for business

John Horgan is that science writer who got into a whale of trouble with the big Science establishment a while back for thinking that the glory days of science discovery are over.

That's a thought he is not allowed to have, apparently, even if there is good evidence for it. (I don't happen to agree with him, but I belong to a more enlightened tradition where he should feel free to make his case.) Anyway, he has more recently said:

Some critics worry that my predictions might become self-fulfilling by discouraging young people from becoming scientists. To be honest, I worry about this problem too, especially now that I teach at a science-oriented school. I tell my students that, even if I'm right that the era of profound discoveries has ended, there is still much meaningful work to do, especially in applied science.

They can develop better treatments for AIDS or cancer or schizophrenia. They can invent cleaner, cheaper sources of energy, or devise computer models that give us a better understanding of global warming. They can even help us understand why we fight wars and how we can avoid them. I also urge my students to question all big, ambitious theories, including mine. The only way to find out how far science can go is to keep pushing against its limits.

- JOHN HORGAN is a science journalist and Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey.
His comments in Science and Spirit are an illuminating read. Basically, what he is talking about is the end of materialist science, not the end of science - though I don't think he quite realizes that. For example,

Although neuroscientists have acquired increasingly powerful tools for probing and modeling the brain, they have failed to produce a compelling theory of the mind. Nor have researchers winnowed out pre-existing theories. Theories of the mind never really die. They just go in and out of fashion. Some prominent neuroscientists, such as the Nobel laureates Eric Kandel and Gerald Edelman, still think the best theory of the mind is Freudian psychoanalysis.

Our best hope for a breakthrough is to crack the neural code, the set of rules or algorithms that transforms electrical pulses emitted by brain cells into perceptions, memories, and decisions. But recent research suggests that each brain may operate according to many different neural codes, which keep changing in response to new experiences. Some leading neuroscientists, such as Christof Koch, worry that the neural code might be too complex to fully decipher.
Essentially, if the quest is to reduce the mind to the brain, it will fail because the mind is not the brain, as Mario Beauregard and I explain in The Spiritual Brain. But the quest does not have to be that, unless one is a materialist.

Perhaps the real story is that there is no future for materialists in science? Anyway, read the paper and see what you think.

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More on "Evolutionary Creation" ... and yes I will read the book ...

Regular readers will note that I don't have much use for "theistic evolution." I see it as a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

If the problem was that the universe showed no evidence of design but we wanted to believe in God anyway, then theistic evolution might make sense. (= We know by faith that there is a God even though there is no evidence for Him.)

The universe, however, apparently began in a Big Bang (that's creationism, basically) and shows massive evidence of very fine tuning. So theists are not betting against the evidence, but with it.

Of course God could use Darwinian evolution if he wanted to, but he has actually been remarkably sparing in his use of it - probably because Darwinian natural selection is a very conservative tendency. Pretending otherwise merely caters to the atheists who need it to be their creation story.

Anyway, one of theistic evolutionist Denis Lamoureux's students thinks I was unfair to da big guy, as I haven't read his latest book, "Evolutionary Creation."

Very well, I said I will read and review it.

The student then wrote to worry that I wouldn't give it a fair review. I replied,
As for Denis's book, my usual rule with books is this: I review books as a public service (book reviewing pays poorly at best).

If I thought Denis's book was likely to be rubbish, I wouldn't bother. I assume it will meet the intellectual standard one would expect from a prof.

I don't claim to be objective, obut respect for my reader's time requires me to consider: Who would find this book useful? Why? How? To what extent does the book meet those readers' needs? Are those needs - in my view - needs worth meeting?

It's that last point where personal judgement comes in - but that is true of all reviewers, whether they admit it or not.


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