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Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year's Resolutions

1. To not let ID/creationism into the science standards in Florida
2. To work more with children to understand science in general and geology in particular.
3. To not let silly pseudoscientific claims get under my skin.
4. When silly pseudoscientific claims do get under my skin, I will flush them out by reading Dawkins, Shermer or Sagan.
5. To be more critical of pseudoscience in general and creationism/ID in particular.
6. To visit the creation museum in Kentucky and to spend the entire tour antagonizing whomever is working there at the time.
7. To remind creationists that Jesus would probably frown upon their lies.
8. To remind ID'ers that lying for Jesus by pretending that you are something else is not a sound theological position.
9. To spend more time in public explaining science in venues like Café Scientifique, student groups on campus and anywhere else.
10. To watch Bill Dembski's slide into obscurity as he continues to embarrass the Discovery Institute (as if they don't have enough to be embarrassed about).

I do wish everybody a very Happy 2007 and hope that all the resolutions you make that don't conflict with mine come true!


Joe Meert

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Fall of Faith

It's getting to the end of the year and I started thinking about something that has probably been realized by many others ahead of me. I started thinking about why organizations like Answers in Genesis (AIG), Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Reasons to Believe (RTB) and the Discovery Institute want to be viewed as scientific organizations. I thought about why science figures so prominently in their discussions and propaganda. All three of these organizations are really religious organizations so it seems strange that science should figure so prominently in their apologetics. Then, around 3 o'clock this morning it hit me.
Science has surpassed religion in society as a way of knowing things. Religion played such a central role in how people viewed their lives (giving them purpose and meaning) and now science is threatening that security. Science has shown that we are not at the center of the universe. Science showed us that the Sun and other planets don't revolve around us. While those discoveries happened long ago, religion was able to accommodate those findings by maintaining that we were still somehow special. The, along came Darwin and he showed us that we are just another in a long line of animals. Geologists showed us that the earth has a long history that extends back to 4.5 billion years. Paleontology discovered a wealth of animal life that existed prior to our rather recent occupation of the planet. All of these (especially evolution) obviously shook the foundations of religious folk who (in the beginning) refused to accept that we were not a forethought of some gods. Even with this knowledge, a number of religious organizations came to accept evolution as valid.
Now, astrophysics has shown us that we are a pale blue dot in a vast cosmos whose origins likely came from a quantum fluctuation. The more we learn about evolutionary science, the more we learn about the relationships we share with everything from the snail to the ape. These relationships help us discover our origins and the data are not pointing to formation of humans from dirt in a perfect garden just a few thousand years ago.

Of course some argue that all this knowledge without a god makes life meaningless and I suppose there is no arguing the point with them. I don't see why new knowledge about our place in the cosmos should do anything more than cause us to be astonished and amazed. The very fact that we are able to consider these things should give us pause and reason enough to keep on discovering and learning. For others, knowledge is not enough.

All of these observations are known to most people and none of it is a revelation to me. So, why do I even write this? It hit me over the head that the world is slowy realizing that science has replaced supernaturalism as the best way of knowing things. Everything that human kind ascribed to a benevolent (or not so benevolent), omniscient and omnipotent god is more easily described without the need for a supernatural explanation. So now some religious organizations have turned to science in order to validate their supernaturalism. In what might be called 'sleeping with the enemy', organizations like Reason to Believe, Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute have prostituted their faith in favor of science. They won't admit this of course, but read their pages, they are trying desperately trying to show that science can match up with their views of the bible. They are trying to force science to validate their own supernatural and sometime superstitious view of the cosmos. The fact that they can't agree on simple things like the age of the earth and the history of life on earth illustrates the failure of trying to marry supernaturalism to science. They know that if science can somehow be demonstrated to support their view, it will give them credibility in the eyes of their followers. Some have done this through out and out misrepresentations of science (AIG, ICR and DISCO) while others have attempted to marry modern discoveries to a broad reading of scripture (RTB). As someone once said to me when I questioned him about how the helium argument was being used by AIG and ICR:

"Whatever happened to faith"?



Joe Meert

Friday, December 29, 2006

Science-Antiscience Predictions for 2007

Seems like everyone else is making predictions for 2007, so I thought I'd post a few of my own:

(1) Florida becomes a battleground for the ID/creationism versus evolution argument. The State of Florida has set 2007 as the year for the revision of its state science standards. The DISCO institute and other socio-political and religious organizations have amassed along the borders (so to speak) and are certainly planning action in Florida similar to the efforts they made in Ohio and Kansas. The saving grace in Florida may be that the Dover case hangs like an albatross on the ID'ers necks and the Discovery Institute (head church of the ID movement) is in some disarray over how to proceed given the legal setback of Dover and the political defeats in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
(2) The Creation museum opens in Kentucky to the praise of Answers in Genesis. Millions of visitors will be misinformed about physics, geology, paleontology, chemisty, astronomy, theology and anthropology. That they will pay for this misinformation is the saddest thing of all!
(3) New wars on science will be forwarded by the Bush administration and the republicans.
(4) Global warming will be on the front pages of journals, magazines etc and the controversy will remain largely political.
(5) New evolutionary discoveries will be made by real scientists and then summarily dismissed by the ID/creationists.
(6) We will see no new science from the Discovery Institute.
(7) Bill Dembski will slide further into self-absorbed fantasies about the immminent demise of evolution. He will continue to embarass the Discovery Institute and will likely (quietly) be relegated to a lesser role.

That's a good start.


Joe Meert

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cherry Picking Science

I'm always amazed at people who claim that science has shown the bible to be correct. I'm amazed at people who use science to validate their faith (Hugh Ross comes immediately to mind). At the same time, these people ridicule science when they perceive the findings of science to be anathema to their belief system. Skepticism is healthy, cherry picking modern science to bolster ones faith in God is not. God is a supernatural entity and thus should (if such a God does exist) be outside of our scientific world. Science tests the natural world. If we 'prove God' then what need for faith? I've heard people claim that the Big Bang proves God, but why must this be so? Why even look to see if this may be so? One thing that we know about science is that it is fallible. Science is pretty darn good at describing the natural world, but it's not perfect. If we hang our faith hat on the model of the Universe today, then what happens if the scientific model is shown to be flawed? The logical answer is that if we base our faith on science, then we must abandon our faith if that science is shown to be flawed. If relativity 'proves God', then anti-relativity must disprove God. If the Big Bang model proves God, then the existence of a static universe must disprove God. If the lack of an explanation for the bacteria flagellum must prove an intelligent designer (eg God), then the evolutionary explanation for the development of the flagella must disprove God. Thus, I've never understood people whose faith rests (either partly or wholly) on the findings of modern science. Let science explain what it can, but it is silly for anyone to base their religious faith on science. It is just plain silly to make arguments that 'God is proven by the current scientific model' because if that model changes, then the faith should rightly be abandonded.


Joe Meert

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Are Scientists Really Smarter?

I saw a post on a discussion board making a good point about the number of scientific societies who are in opposition to the socio-political efforts of the Intelligent Design movement. The claim was made that 'these scientists are smarter than you' suggesting that the opinions of posters on that board did not merit consideration. Such an argument "these people are smarter than you" is worthy of a discussion. I want to make several points.

(1) The argument itself is an argument from authority. It's also one that's commonly made by young earth creationists/ID'ers who flaunt their degrees like the male peacock feathers when seeking a mate.
(2) Arguments from authority are not necessarily bad. Authority arguments are used in courts all the time. Experts are called in to testify. In court, the expertise of the witness is established based not solely on the degrees earned (in fact some expert witnesses will have no formal college education), but it is based on the experience of the witness. So, the real relevance of these statements is that they are based on the opinions of experts in their respective fields.
(3) Even experts can be wrong so the statements made by these societies regarding ID/creationism should be given some weight, but should not be considered immutable.
(4) The opinions of these collective scientists can only be overturned if ID/creationists begin assembling scientific arguments and presenting those arguments to the rest of the scientific community. So far, in over 150 years of history both ID/creationism have preferred a socio-political attack on science in lieu of a scientific attack.

The opinions of myriad scientific societies against the socio-political efforts of ID/creationists is an important statement. Because these societies are composed of a cross-section (religiously, politically, socio-economically etc) of the globe, their statements are biased by only one simple idealogy. The underlying premise is that science can learn about the universe through careful and repeated studies. The societies oppose the imposition of any particular socio-political ideology on their work and invite all to partake in the world of discovery.


Joe Meert

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Christmas Clause

It's that time of the year again where those who hold to the Christian faith are mostly celebrating the 'birth of Christ'. Most understand that the early christian church co-opted pagan celebrations into their religion in order to further the growth of the church. So I was thinking about all this while driving through a maze of merchandise seekers on the way to a Christmas party last night.
It seems to me that despite all the church celebrations and well-meaning individuals-- Christmas is all about giving and getting (mostly getting). This same 'give me' philosophy has permeated the Christian church. There are many mega-churches who now preach the message that God promised bounty and to be a rich Christian is fulfilling a promise that Christ made. It has also affected the fundamentalist christian view of science. They feel that science should give them what they believe and that creationism/ID should be awarded the status of science simply because they claim it to be science. That's not how life is and the sooner Christianity returns to its true roots, the better we all will be.


Joe Meert

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Demon Haunted World

This week marks the 10th anniversary of one of the death of science popularizer, Carl Sagan. As a young scientist, I was fascinated with astrophysics in part due to the "Cosmos' series narrated by Carl Sagan. Later, as I became aware of the anti-science movement (most notably ID/creationism), I read his book "The Demon Haunted World". Sagan noted that Americans were becoming increasingly enamored with nonsense posing as science. In the time since Sagan died, the demons have stirred even more and they became emboldened with the election of an anti-science president. The Republican party has waged war on science and faulted science for its tentative nature. The religious right has supported the efforts of young earth creationists and their bastard son "Intelligent Design" to get evolution out of the classroom. They will tell you it's about 'equal time' or 'teaching the controversy'. Others will pretend that it's all about admitting the 'flaws of evolution'. What has really happened here is that these socio-political movements have exploited the tentative nature of science and attempted to portray it as a weakness. To the ID/creationists, tentative science is bad science. One need only look at the propaganda put out by these organizations. No new science is ever conducted, but real scientific findings are sought out and attacked for no other reason other than to convince their followers that if real science is tentative, then ID/creationism is just as valid.
It's time for scientists to start bottling up the demons and to expose these movements for what they are. Intelligent design strives to replace normal science with supernaturalism and a call to invisible designers (but not necessarily the Christian God, of course!). Every gap in scientific knowledge can be filled with a demon or ghost to fill that gap according to ID/creationism. People are turning away from good science because good science leads them to an uncomfortable position. The propaganda teams are telling them that good science leads to atheism and atheism leads to immorality. The demons are not only stirring, they are inventing new demons and leading us further into the gathering darkness of ignorance. As Sagan noted "Science is like a candle in the darkness" and we should work hard to keep the demons of antiscience like ID/creationism at bay.


Joe Meert

Friday, December 22, 2006

The counter attack by evolutionists

I've seen a number of comments on various discussion boards regarding the political activism of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, along with Gould are responsible for the popularization of evolution. Gould viewed science and religion as distinct magisteria and thought that one should not be viewed as a threat to the other. Dawkins, an avowed atheist, seems to have hopelessly intertwined his views on evolution with his philosophical standpoint on atheism. My point here is not to vilify Dawkins, but rather to see his activism for what it is. Although creationism is not nearly as strong in the UK as it is in the US or Australia, Dawkins is still targeted by anti-evolutionary folk because of his stature as a spokeperson for evolutionary biology. Dawkins chose to fight back and to become an activist for atheism and evolution stating that 'evolution has allowed him to become an intellectually fulfilled atheist'. It's too bad that Gould is not around to counter Dawkins activism. In the end though, I see Dawkins activism as a negative here in the US. The US is largely a Christian nation and we ('evolutionists') will always be on the defensive trying to explain away Dawkins activism. It's far better to be allowed to explain the wonderful science behind evolution without the emotional baggage provided by Dawkins' activism.


Joe Meert

Monday, December 18, 2006

Al Gore at the American Geophysical Union

I was one of about 5000 people who went to hear Al Gore speak at the American Geophysical Union meeting last week. The thing that most impressed me about Gore was his transformation from a somewhat boring and dry speaker (During his campaign days) to the very funny and down-to-earth speaker I listened to last week. Although he touched on global warming issues, he largely focused on the need for scientists to become more involved in speaking out on their research. He noted that science is under attack and not just by political leaders. He urged us to get out more and tell the people what science is about. He noted that in the past, scientists were respected by politicians and even sought out for the information they could provide. Now, if scientists are sought out by politicians, it's usually to support a political goal. Hopefully, his message got through to some of us at the meeting and we will continue to push for a greater lay understanding of science.


Joe Meert

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Bill Dembski makes a fool of himself again

One of the major criticisms leveled on the Intelligent Design movement is their lack of scientific research. One wonders about how much time the fellows at the Discovery Institute spend conducting research. I was surprised (well, not really) to find out that William Dembski (senior fellow at DISCO) is spending most of his time blogging and making cartoons. Here?s his latest slam on Judge Jones (Dover judge):


Dembski admitted that this is his voice and, in fact, the site is Dembski?s site. I?m sure that this is sure to be played in any future court cases and illustrates the vacuous and sophomoric nature of the current intelligent design movement. This video should be viewed as an embarrassment to the Discovery Institute and Dembski should be viewed as a liability to the ID movement. He won't be, of course, because the ID institute is about making a political statement and not about conducting scientific research.


Joe Meert

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A conversation with creationist John Baumgardner

I ran into John Baumgardner here at the American Geophysical Union meeting here in San Francisco. He was talking to a couple of people telling them that 'we have new data showing decay rates aren't constant'. They slinked away and John said 'Can we chat for a moment? I've been reading your papers and thinking about how they apply to the flood story. I said please don't misuse my papers and then I said, before we get to my stuff can I ask you a few questions. I list my questions and John's responses:

1. John, I've always been critical of you for signing on to papers that discuss old earth mantle evolution or old moon. In my view these are completely antithetical to your beliefs and I think you are either a hypocrite or you are being deceiving. I know I would not co-author a paper that was so at odds with my own scientific views.

Baum: That has bothered me a bit. In some cases I've asked to be taken off, but my co-authors insist that the work could not have been completed without my input. So, I simply said to myself that 'the physics used in the paper were fine' and I agree with the physics in the papers.

2. But John, the physics in those papers are based on an old earth that you don't believe.

Baum: Perhaps I should have been more careful.

3. It also bothers me that creationists like John woodmorappe (aka jan Peczkis) writes young earth articles under one name and old earth evolutionary articles under another.

Baum: That bothers me too.

4. Can I ask you a question that no young earth creationist will answer?

Baum: Sure.

5. Assuming that the geologic column was laid down in 6000 years, what deposits mark the onset of the flood, the peak flood and the post flood?

Baum: I think that we all agree that the flood started at the 'great unconforrmity'? Somewhere around the Cambrian explosion of life.

6. John, it can't be an explosion of life for you. It's a death event right?

Baum: Right.

7. What about peak and post flood?

Baum: Peak flood would be Paleozoic and post flood is very hard to pin down.

8. I know that, but your group (young earth creationists) have had more than 150 years to figure this stuff out, what's the problem? There are people like Dave Tyler who argues that your onset is his post-flood recolonization.

Baum: Yes, I know. I don't like that model.

9. Northrup argues for something in between Davison and your model.

Baum: I've talked to Northrup about that. It's a shame we can't agree.

10. The bible is your guidebook, surely the answer can be found there and there should be no need for such disagreement?

Baum: The flood story is only briefly mentioned. we have to fill in the gaps and that's why it's hard to answer your questions with specific.

11. So you don't "all agree". I have a different take on why nobody wants to answer these questions, there are things in the geologic record that are anathema to flood advocates. How do you explain the ubiquitous occurrence of paleosols in the geologic record (specifically in the Paleozoic since that's your flood.)

Baum: I think paleosols have been misidentified.

12. On what basis?

Baum: I live in the southwest and I see a lot of rocks that remind me of a flood. Rocks like nowhere else in the geologic record.

13. Let's get back to paleosols. What specifically makes you think that people like Greg Retallack has misidentified paleosols?

Baum: Well I've seen a lot of rocks.

14. So have I and so has Greg. Furthermore, both of us are trained as geologists and spend a lot of time looking at the same rocks you have. Paleosols (http://gondwanaresearch.com/hp/paleosol.htm) have burrow stuctures, root structures etc that make them hard to dismiss with a handwave.

Baum: There are rocks in the Paleozoic that are unlike any at any other time.

15. Ok, paleosols you are not going to answer. What rocks in the Paleozoic are like nothing we've seen since?

Baum: Large bodies of sandstone that cover many many square miles.

16. Have you ever been to Mississippi, Louisiana and parts of Texas? The Mississippi river has left thousands of square miles of sand and silt in those states and in the gulf of Mexico. The rivers draining the Himalayas are creating absolutely huge plains of sand and silt (Gangetic plain and the Bengal fan).

Baum: Well, I've seen things that don't look like anything else.

17. John, you're a great geophysicist and Terra was a revolution in code-writing, but you're not a geologist and perhaps a few courses in geology might help.

Baum: I'm not a geologist, but I see a lot in the southwest. let's get back to the flood. Remember it's going to be very fast movement. The oceans are going to open quickly with lots of eruptions and steam.

18. John, don't you have a heat problem?

Baum: Yes, we know that.

19. John, it's not a small heat problem.

Baum: Yes, we recognize that we have cooling problems to solve. Specifically how are we going to cool all that oceanic lithosphere.

20. I know John, I wrote up a small web page discussing the cooling profiles in the ocean floor that would be generated by your model (http://gondwanaresearch.com/oceans.htm. Have you seen it?

Baum: No, but I'll have a look.

21. So how are you using my research?

Baum: Well, I've got a radical new idea.

22. John, flood geology is a very old idea (more than 200 years old at least), so nothing you propose can be considered radical. Creationists like Agassiz went out and studied the rocks and realized that a global flood was inconsistent with the biblical account.

Baum: Well, yes but think about going from your Rodinia to Pangea in a short amount of time. That's just what inertial interchange true polar wander says.

23. Not really John but it sounds fascinating. Why don't you send me your article and I'd be happy to critique it. I will obviously not agree with the premise, but I might be able to help you avoid some egregious errors in your analysis. It was nice to meet you and i'd be happy to chat further anytime.

Baum: Nice to meet you too.

Note: Any errors in recollection of these events is mine and mine alone. John also told me of some more 'groundbreaking research' coming from ICR, but I promised not to discuss it. I can tell you that it is neither groundbreaking or research. I also reminded him that he knows the science game really well and if he wants to be taken seriously he has to publish his models. He asked me if I'd seen his article in "New Scientist". I haven't, has anybody here? I mentioned that's not exactly a peer-reviewed journal. Anyway, we parted there and i went to get another beer.


Joe Meert

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Hitler, Morality and Evolution

Suppose we accept the premise of young earth creationists that evolutionists must accept the fact that Hitler (and his behavior) are both the product of evolutionary biology. [Note: There are some fallacies about evolution in the remainder of the post, but these result (partly) from accepting the creationist view of evolution].
In effect, the argument is that immorality (however defined) is the product of evolution. The soft version of this argument is that evolution leads to a philosophy of hate, murder and immorality. Let me deal with the hard version of evolution that has also been argued by creationists in a variety of writings. If it is true that evolution must be responsible for all evil, then the logical axiom follows that morality (however defined) is also the product of evolution. That also means that atheism, agnosticism and theism are also the products of evolution. The young earth creationist position seems to imply that evolution is solely responsible for immorality, evil and atheism whereas the more logical conclusion is that if evolution is responsible for one, then evolution must be responsible for all. The hard version is thus logically flawed.
The soft-version of the argument is basically social Darwinism. If you insist on taking this tack, then you are also left with the question as to what philosophy is most akin to evolutionary biology? The young earth creationists want you to think that killing, abortion, rape and genocide are the logical endpoints of evolution. How logical is this conclusion? Young earth creationists would have you believe that evolution is ONLY about survival of the fittest and only the strong survive. The absurdity of this argument can be exposed by noting that there would be no success in life because most young are neither fit nor strong. Some organisms overcome this hurdle by producing millions of offspring with the statistical advantage that a few will make it to adulthood. Others, such as humans and chimps will nurture and care for the young in an effort to assure that the offspring reach reproductive age. Someone claimed that evolution would therefore justify rape. The absurdness of this claim is revealed by the fact that rape, while perhaps adding to the initial gene pool, does not result in favorable conditions for nurturing and assuring the ultimate reproductive success of the offspring. However, such a view of evolution (promulgation of the species) could logically lead to the view that both abortion and murder are anti-evolution. Thus, if one WANTS to argue that evolution must account for morality, then it can be logically and cogently argued that evolution must result in an absolute morality that leads to the preservation of the species. It is certainly an oft-used and successful tact to argue for emotional appeal, but the reality is that the goal of evolution is to make sure that a species survives. Logically, this means that a species will adapt, using whatever mechanism is available to survive. While this may include killing an intruding species, it will also include caring, nurturing and any other morality that results in promulgation of the species.


Joe Meert

Friday, December 01, 2006

ID at the Science Fair

I went to judge a middle school science fair this morning. One of the projects was about the axial tilt of the earth and the control that the moon had on the earth. This was fine.. so far. When I read the ?problem statement?, I noticed that there was an argument that the axial tilt was one of the features of our planet that made it special for intelligent life. My curiousity was more than piqued so I asked the students what their inspiration was for the project. The mentioned that they had watched a film called ?Privileged Planet?. The book is authored by Discovery Institute fellow Gonzalez. Gonzalez is the same person who pushed for showing of his film at the Smithsonian a while back.
The questions we asked were actually simple (I think). Our goal was not to intimidate them for their poor choice of ?inspiration? but rather to see how much they actually knew about the obliquity of the planet(s). To that end, we asked

(1) What is the obliquity of Mars which has two small moons.
(2) What is the obliquity of Uranus?
(3) What was the past obliquity of the Earth?
(3) What is the future for earth?s obliquity and would that be beneficial to life?
(4) Why was your model relevant?

They did not know the obliquity of Mars (ok fair enough, but it seemed to us that one of the obvious investigations would be to look at other planets).
They did know that Uranus has a high obliquity and that is is likely due to a large impact. We asked how the moon formed (good answer) but they could not understand how the answer to that question might relate to present-day obliquity. They had no idea of the past obliquity of the earth or the changes in LOD. They knew the future of the earth?s obliquity in general terms but not what the dominating influence on obliquity would be in the future. Their model consisted of a rubber ball with a nail in it and one without a nail in it which they spun on the table. The nail represented the moon, the other ball represented earth without a moon.

These were 8th graders and all in all they did a fair job with questions, but did not score well because of poor presentation and lack of a detailed analysis of their ?model?. It was spinning of the balls and a qualitative judgement of how well they spun. The winner had a project on how much lime should be added to tropical soils to bring them to a pH of 6.5. The student?s father is a professor of soil science here so she had good access to lab facilities and samples. In general I grow leery of too much parental involvement, but this girl knew the subject backward and forward and answered probing questions. It was clear that although her dad helped, she did the work and understood the relevance. The second runner-up studied the effect of temperature on lithic fragments used to make arrowheads. This girl had minimal parental involvement (from what we could tell) and was excited about her project and also answered tough questions. The worst was a student who studied fog formation by filling one bottle up with cold water and one with hot water and then setting an ice cube on each one to see which one fogged up). There was a photo of her holding ice cubes on each of the bottles and a conclusion that read ?due to temperature differences?. It?s always fun to go to these things. Projects ran the gamut from imaginative and original to dull and boring. If I see one more project about which toothpaste works best or ?how clean is your bus seat? i will gag.


Joe Meert

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