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Freethinker Tweets of the day: Darwin edition

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Written by Jeremy

February 12th, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Darwin Day and Ken Ham’s pseudoscience

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Two hundred four years ago today, Charles Darwin, the man who would go on to introduce the concept of evolution by natural selection (although he didn’t call it that at the time), was born. Of course, here in the year 2013 when we know that evolution is the process on which everything else we know about biology is based.

Artwork by gremz, Deviant Art user

As such, it’s a sad and pathetic travesty that the parties of God, the Republican Party and some within the Democratic camp will probably prevent the nation from formally celebrating his contributions to, not just science, but one of the largest questions of life, that is, how did human life develop from less to more complex forms.

Ken Ham, for example, is not just a very enterprising young Earth creationist who raised more than $25 million to build the monstrosity known as the Creation Museum in Kentucky, is also also a danger to lovers of truth and to truth itself.

In his recent article for Slate, Mark Joseph Stern took one for the team and analyzed some of Ham’s books, which as he noted,

fall into two categories: colorful picture books designed to indoctrinate children, and pseudoscientific tracts aimed at persuading adults.

In one of Ham’s books for adults, “The Lie,” he claims that evolution is a “belief” — It’s not. It’s a scientific theory, or in other words, a fact as concrete as gravity — and is not backed by proof, or in his words, “All the evidence a scientist has exists only in the present.” That, of course, is simply not true.

Here is Stern:

This means we should disregard isotope dating, fossil records, genetic sequencing, geologic time, developmental biology, plate tectonics, disease resistance, and the rest of modern science because who can really know if they’re accurate?

“The Bible’s account of origins,” on the other hand, was written by “the Creator God” and contains all the “history we need to know to understand the present world.”

And that’s pretty much all Ham has. Blind faith in the Bible is superior to belief in evolution, because the former was written by God, while the latter is a myth perpetuated by sinful atheists. Science is a myth simply because it cannot be allowed to contradict the Bible. That’s Ham’s starting and ending point, his premise and his conclusion. Such unquestioning trust and circular logic pervades the pages of the book, presented with smug satisfaction.

There is hope that a formal Darwin Day may be established in the future, just not much of one. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) proposed a resolution to name Feb. 12 Darwin Day, but it’ll most likely die on the vine. As Phil Plaits with Slate notes with some disappointment:

I have more than a suspicion he has an uphill battle ahead of him on this. Far too many members of Congress think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, with far too many of them sitting on the House Science Committee. Of course, to be fair, having even one is one too many.

Indeed. Among them are members like Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA), for instance, who once offered these enlightening thoughts:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

Yes, this guy sits on a science committee in Washington. I’m not making this up. In my view, a person capable of uttering such idiotic nonsense is ill-equipped to lead anyone, much less represent us on a science panel. Then again, maybe this country doesn’t deserve to wave Darwin’s banner when so few people realize the importance of his contributions, cling to creation myths and worse, don’t even attempt to understand or learn about how our world works. I would laugh if not for the equal portions of frustration, anger, and yes, pity.

[Credit: Artwork by gremz, Deviant Art user]

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Do the evolution

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I can kill ’cause in God I trust:

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Written by Jeremy

August 4th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Texas BOE gets something right for once

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Thanks to Robert Luhn from the National Center for Science Education for passing this bit of news along to me.

This issue has been stewing for quite some time, but the Texas Board of Education voted 8-0 this week to use mainstream science textbooks from established publishers in its classroom materials, rather than use materials from International Databases, LLC., that would have included elements of intelligent design, or at least thrown Darwinism and evolution into some question.

Credit: Photograph by: Richard Milner Archive/Handout, Reuters

Here’s some examples of material submitted to the Texas BOE from International Databases (I assume it’s no coincidence that the LLC’s initials are “ID”) claiming that “intelligent input is necessary for life’s origin” and “life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes.”

In an article from The Dallas Morning Star, International Databases president Stephen Sample had this to say:

I am not trying to bring the book of Genesis into science classes. One of the reasons I decided to enter the bidding for these books was to give Texas students a fair and honest treatment of evolution. The scientific community is split on Darwin’s theory, and my material reflects that.

The mainstream scientific community is not “split” on evolution, and it has not even been unsure on the matter in a very long time. Likewise, Darwin’s “theory” is no longer a theory in the more common sense of the word, that is, “a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of actual fact.”

Evolution is a scientific theory, that is, as close to proclaiming something as fact as we ever get in science. Here’s some light reading on types of “theories.”

See this article for more background on the Texas BOE case.

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More battles over textbook curriculum

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Article first published as More battles over textbook curriculum on Blogcritics.

***

In step with the Texas Board of Education’s attempts — and successes — in seeking to alter educational curriculum to give materials a more conservative bent, the state of Florida recently approved to utilize a marine science textbook that included a section that opponents say contains the language of creationism and intelligent design.

Life on an Ocean Planet

The textbook, “Life on an Ocean Planet,” was either approved for use as a whole or it was only later voted that the sidebar section containing the inaccurate and specious arguments be redacted. This article from the St. Petersburg Times quotes a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman as saying the book was adopted with the provision in place to remove the two pages in question. But according to a statement from the Florida Citizens for Science,

Information we have about the committee vote indicates that they voted to approve the textbook overall, and then a second vote was called for to remove the sidebar. That second vote failed but a compromise was reached to ‘fix’ the sidebar. … Further muddying of the waters comes from there being two versions of the textbook: an electronic one on CD and a print one. It’s unclear whether the votes pertain to both versions or just one since it looks like the committee only reviewed the electronic one.

So, what’s in this two page sidebar? The section called “Questions About the Origin and Development of Life” gives lip service to the idea that some questions — for instance, that life might have developed by unnatural forces before evolution got going — deserve our attention. Florida Citizens for Science Jonathan Smith pulled out a few problem areas he found within the section, which were submitted to the St. Petersburg Times’ education blog:

Skeptics [Read: creationists or anti-evolutionists] observe that general evolution doesn’t adequately explain how a complex structure, such as the eye, could come to exist through infrequent random mutations. Such structures consist of multiple integrated components … a subcomponent has no survival advantage by itself, it would not be passed along by natural selection. There’s no survival advantage unless all the components exist at once, yet no random mutation process would produce all the required components at the same time. Transitional forms for some specialized characteristics would be expected to have a survival disadvantage, say skeptics.  An example is the bat wing ….

Smith then commented: “This is a standard creationist trope, well known to be wrong.”

Yes, wrong being the key word.

And about the eye and bat wing: Richard Dawkins has already answered the argument from irreducible complexity, and even Darwin, speaking from the mid-19th century, astoundingly anticipated that some folks would attempt to dash his theory of evolution by bringing to bear the argument that various organs, like the eye, could not possibly be irreducibly complex.

But in The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins explained the usefulness of partial eyesight or partial wing matter. For, as he argues, surely part of a wing is better than no wing. At least with part of a wing, a bat can temper the blow of a fall from the sky. So as with the eye. My eyesight, for instance, is quite poor, but without the invention of glasses, I would prefer my current level of poor sight to outright blindness. Further, our eyes can function on less complex levels without some of their parts, as in the case of cataract surgery and the removal of the natural lens. So it is with bat wings. Take away a bone or two, and the bat may not be able to fly perfectly, but again, the wing wouldn’t cease to be completely useless. Thus, arguments from irreducible complexity break down, and the Florida board of education was quite right to redact this section from the marine science textbook because it gives some measure of weight to theories that have long since been dealt with and discarded.

For further reading, here’s an interesting look at Darwin came to scientifically develop his theory of evolution by natural selection and his personal journey to accept it in light of what he formerly believed about God and creation.

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Written by Jeremy

October 6th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Irreducible complexity and the anthropic principle

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Returning to matters of religion and science, I’ve been listening to scientist Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” audio book, and he, like other authors, who have taken up the subject of God, visited the ideas of irreducible complexity and the anthropic principle. I’ll take both one at the time.

They are both interesting and quite detrimental to the idea of a creator. Creationists argue from the irreducible complexity stance that we can point to certain body parts, like eyes or wings, as irreducibly complex, meaning that they would be useless organs if they were missing parts. Essentially, that they are uniquely perfect in their whole form and would serve no purpose if any of the parts were not there.

Apologists argue that since eyes, wings and other examples would be useless in such unwhole states, thus providing supposed evidence that a creator must have brought these elements into being. They also argue that the theory of natural selection breaks down. Natural selection posits that life evolves, not randomly or by chance, but by an intricate process that, over time, roots out the unfit elements in body parts and species, in favor of those parts that support survival of given species. Natural selection, then, according to some apologists, is invalid because we can find examples of organs or body parts that are complete in and of themselves and are useless without existing as a whole.

Charles Darwin, himself, even said that the “eye … could have been formed by natural selection seems, I fully confess, absurd in the highest degree,” which Dawkins noted that Darwin’s statement was a rhetorical device, not an admission that the eye was irreducibly complex. Dawkins notes that “a cataract patient with the lens of her eye surgically removed cannot see clear images without glasses but can see enough not to bump into a tree or fall over a cliff.” Flat worms have a “blurred and dim image, compared to ours” and have something less than half of human eyes. The cephalopod nautilus has an intermediate eye between flatworm and human.

Dawkins:

It would be spurious precision to put numbers on the improvement, but nobody could sanely deny that these invertebrate eyes and many are all better than no eye at all.

For another discussion about the eye, see here and for another on the flagella motor, another mechanism claimed to be irreducibly complex, see here.

Now, turning to the anthropic principle, has anyone reading this ever wondered about the probability of a world like ours forming that was perfect for the development of life? Surely so. But probably so, also, there is another world, yet undiscovered, possibly undiscoverable, that also houses life. It blows my mind, and it should yours, the sheer number of, not only planets, but galaxies in our universe. Not only that, but some scientists suggest that we are part of something called a multiverse, a group of universes, which in themselves, contain billions of galaxies, and dare I say, trillions of planets.

According to Dawkins, which is also according to astrophysicts, our galaxy contains between one billion and 30 billion planets. Moreoever, our universe contains about 100 billion galaxies. Take the irrefutable low number here. We don’t need 30 billion. Just take one billion: what would it mean to believe that a creator has fashioned this planet uniquely and ignored the others among a pool of one billion planets?

Did he fashion any others? Did life develop on any others naturally? It’s possible. The sheer number of planets in the universe suggests that we might not be alone, and further, that we might not be so unique after all. It also raises the probability, incredibly, that life on this planet was formed naturally. Dawkins, here, takes the estimation of a billion billion planets in the universe:

Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA really was a quite staggeringly improbable event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets.

A grant-giving body would laugh at any chemist who admitted that the chance of his proposed research succeeding was only one in 100, but here, we are talking about odds of one in a billion, and yet even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets of which Earth, of course, is one.

This conclusion is so surprising, I’ll say it again. If the odds of life originating spontaneously on a planet were a billion to one against, nevertheless, that stupifyingly improbable event would still happen on a billion planets (my emphasis). — “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins

This conclusion was so stunning that I have rewinded numerous times. Apologists, of course, simply ignore talk that the planet is millions of years old and the universe billions. They also ignore more irrefutable evidence that we now know that “things” existed well before God’s supposed creation of all things 6,000 years ago, including the domestication of dogs and humans.

But now turning to God. What would it mean to believe that a creator put this whole cosmic slideshow into action? What would it mean that he was the creator of all things, living and non. It would mean that he would have to be incredibly complex, not simple, and as Dawkins states, irreducibly complex:

Even though generally irreducible complexity would wreck Darwin’s theory, if it were ever found, who’s to say it wouldn’t wreck the intelligent design theory as well? Indeed, it already has wrecked the intelligent design theory. For, as I keep saying and will say again, however little we know about God, the one thing we can be sure of is that he would have to be very, very complex, and presumably irreducably so. — “The God Delusion,” Richard Dawkins

Thus, if we assume a creator, we get ourselves into an infinite regress, which eventually begs the question: Who created this extremely complex creator? He was always there, you say? Did he create himself? How could he possibly just always be there ad infinitem given his apparently complex attributes? Because he’s a god? That explains nothing. If he is actually active in our universe and in our dimension, does he supercede the natural laws that govern them? How can he supercede them? Because he’s god? That’s just a statement that means nothing. Simply stating that Poseideon or Zeus or Allah or Yahweh are gods does not make it so, nor does it ascribe to them attributes which trespass on natural laws that govern the world. 

The Bible, of course, begins on this assumption, and moves forward on a pre-known set of events that, if God really loved us, he would have stopped the whole stupifying process from the time Adam and Eve first tasted of the fruit and stopped the entire bloody, hellbent affair that will lead millions of his creation to fire and brimstone. But no, he persisted and allowed thousands of years of suffering in the name of, and because of, religion. Moreover, he sat by idly amid tens of thousands of years of early human suffering and clambering toward enlightenment they would never know. He watched it all with folded arms, and then, from the Christian view, finally decided to intervene about 2,000 years ago in illiterate, Bronze Age Palestine, not in China or other parts, where folks could actually read. A fine place to begin a new religion, indeed.

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