Saturday, January 29, 2005

Some Ideas Are Apparently Too Dangerous To Be Discussed

Or so this news article would suggest. I am always a little skeptical of WorldNetDaily stories, but there are plenty of people being quoted, and specific claims that can be checked for truth or falsity. I don't find these claims terribly surprising, in a politically correct institution like the Smithsonian:
The career of a prominent researcher at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington is in jeopardy after he published a peer-reviewed article by a leading proponent of intelligent design, an alternative to evolutionary theory dismissed by the science and education establishment as a tool of religious conservatives.

Richard Sternberg says that although he continues to work in the museum's Department of Zoology, he has been kicked out of his office and shunned by colleagues, prompting him to file a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

Sternberg charges he was subjected to discrimination on the basis of perceived religious beliefs.

"I'm spending my time trying to figure out how to salvage a scientific career," Sternberg told David Klinghoffer, a columnist for the Jewish Forward, who reported the story in the Wall Street Journal.
The rest of the article would indicate that a witchhunt is under way:
Sternberg is managing editor of a nominally independent journal published at the museum, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. His trouble started when he included in the August issue a review-essay by Stephen Meyer, who holds a Cambridge University doctorate in the philosophy of biology.

Hans Sues, the museum's No. 2 senior scientist, denounced Meyer's article in a widely forwarded e-mail as "unscientific garbage."

According to Sternberg's complaint, which is being investigated, one museum specialist chided him by saying: "I think you are a religiously motivated person and you have dragged down the Proceedings because of your religiously motivated agenda."

Sternberg strongly denies that.

While acknowledging he is a Catholic who attends Mass, he says, "I would call myself a believer with a lot of questions, about everything. I'm in the postmodern predicament."

The complaint says the chairman of the Zoology Department, Jonathan Coddington, called Sternberg's supervisor to look into the matter.

"First, he asked whether Sternberg was a religious fundamentalist. She told him no. Coddington then asked if Sternberg was affiliated with or belonged to any religious organization. ... He then asked where Sternberg stood politically; ... he asked, 'Is he a right-winger? What is his political affiliation?'

The supervisor recounted the conversation to Sternberg, who also quotes her observing: "There are Christians here, but they keep their heads down."
Sorry, but I don't see that any of these questions should have been asked. This is not the reaction of scientists who have confidence that their position is correct, and that Intelligent Design is nonsense--or even just wrong.

UPDATE: A reader tells me that "Chris Mooney has the goods on this guy:"

Significantly, Mooney compares this case to the dispute over global warming--ignoring that there are many reputable scientists who believe that the global warming claims are not all that clear, and a number of peer-reviewed journals have published papers disputing the orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming. If anything, Mooney makes me more inclined to think that Sternberg has been wronged for being a heretic.

I also notice that Mooney's article appears at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims Of the Paranormal. A little history: When CSICOP formed in the late 1970s, I was a charter member of their magazine The Skeptical Inquirer. The first year or two I was very pleased with the magazine. It engaged in careful and dispassionate examination of spoon benders, astrology, UFO enthusiasts, etc. Even in an area where I think there were and are some unanswered questions (UFOs, for example), there were and are a vast swarm of cranks, honest errors, and crooks looting fools. Still, The Skeptical Inquirer was pretty careful not to use too broad a brush.

By the end of the second year, The Skeptical Inquirer's tone had changed. There was an increasing level of passion involved--it had become something of a crusade, to the point where anything that disagreed with scientific orthodoxy--even ideas that were simply unproven, such as cryptozoology claims about Bigfoot--was treated as equivalent to astrology.

I was also disturbed by the dishonesty of some of the people involved--people like Isaac Asimov. Asimove was writing articles that made a point of using a lower case "g" for the title of the Judaeo-Christian God. This was not considered proper English at the time (it still isn't), but it was something that militant atheists did as a childish way of expressing disapproval of theism--rather like consistently misspelling someone's name to try and get a rise out of them. (Yes, I've heard every possible such abuse of the name "Cramer.") At the same time, Asimov published a book that purported to be a dispassionate and neutral examination of Creationist claims--at least, in the first chapter or so, which is as far as I read before I realized that he wasn't telling his readers his true feelings.

Now, if you want to be a militant atheist who insists on a non-standard use of "god," fine. It's not even petty, it's just silly. But to be writing a book where you claim to be a neutral and dispassionate observer of the evolution vs. Creation argument at the same time? That's dishonest. It reminds me of those Creationists who told courts that their "young Earth" theories were not religiously based--and then sent me a fundraising letter that insisted that their campaign was part of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I don't have much patience for dishonesty. (And sad to say, there's gobs of it in the academic community, and not all of it by leftists.)

Not surprisingly, I stopped subscribing to The Skeptical Inquirer at about this time.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

An Interesting Reader's Comment About Evolution

One of my readers who teaches in the biological sciences had this comment about the teaching of evolution. At his request, he is anonymous:
I thought I would draw your attention to three items in the ongoing hoopla

about evolutionary theory (yes, it is a theory).

I send these as one having a PhD in a relevant field and having taught students in evolutionary theory.

1) Whether you are a logical positivist like Popper or a pragmatist like Laudan, you have to accept that all theories are ultimately flawed (think Newtonian versus Relativistic physics). However, many scientists who publicly advocate on behalf of Darwinian Selection do not behave in this way. Consider Richard Dawkins, arguably the most famous advocate and author of The Selfish Gene. Dawkins' ideas are controversial and far from the consensus view in evolutionary biology, but his recent statements to the New York Times are over the top.

It seems that he cannot conceive of any evidence that would reduce his faith in natural selection. In my mind, this disqualifies him, and people like him, from participation in scientific discourse. It's possible that he was merely using NYT as a rhetorical platform, but if he accepts Darwin on faith, he's guilty of all the errors he levels at his opponents.

2) Most people, since the "neo-Darwinian synthesis" fused Mendelian genetics with natural selection, have viewed natural selection as the sine qua non of evolution. Those who accept drift, self-organization, and population bottlenecks as other factors often consider natural

selection as the dominant or most important force in evolution.

Unfortunately, natural selection starts with the assumption of a finite group of organisms with heritable variation in reproductive output. Thus, it cannot explain the origin of life. The theory begins and ends with a population of organisms. Where they came from is not a question Darwin can answer. It is possible that recent advances in self-organization, complexity theory, and thermodynamics might offer a way to explain the origins of life in chemistry, but this is still uncertain.

3) Finally, I should take some pains to defend evolutionary theory (but not natural selection in particular) as the best theory we currently have. Belief in natural selection over the alternatives (Biblical literalism, Intelligent Design) is warranted because each alternative makes testable predictions. Most predictions flowing from Biblical literalism are not supported by the available evidence.

It is possible that God made this evidence as a test of faith, but that is

a subject for theology class, not science class.
I think if evolution were taught more consistently with this approach--one that recognizes the limitations of any theoretical model--there would be a bit less upset from Creationists of many stripes. Certainly, I would have less reason to sympathize with those who are upset.

Friday, January 21, 2005


I'm sure that many of you have already seen this item that my daughter forwarded to me. For the rest, have a laugh--it does feel like we are living in the world of The Jetsons, doesn't it?
You know You're Living In 2005 When. . . . .

1. You accidentally enter your password on the microwave.

2. You haven't played solitaire with real cards in years.

3. You have a list of 15 phone numbers to reach your family of 3.

4. You e-mail the person who works at the desk next to you.

5. Your reason for not staying in touch with friends and family is that they don't have e-mail addresses.

6. You go home after a long day at work you still answer the phone in business manner.

7. You make phone calls from home, you accidentally dial "9" to get an outside line.

8. You've sat at the same desk for four years and worked for three

different companies.

10. You learn about your redundancy on the 11 o'clock news.

11. Your boss doesn't have the ability to do your job.

12. You pull up in your own driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home.

13. Every commercial on television has a website at the bottom of the screen.

14. Leaving the house without your cell phone, which you didn't have the first 20 or 30 (or 60) years of your life, is now a cause for panic and you turn around to go and get it.

15. You get up in the morning and go online before getting your


16. You start tilting your head sideways to smile. :-)

17. You're reading this and nodding and laughing.

18. Even worse, you know exactly to whom you are going to forward this message to.

19. You are too busy to notice there was no #9 on this list.

20. You actually scrolled back up to check that there wasn't a #9 on this list; and now you're laughing at yourself.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Evolution Fight As Proxy

A reader emails me:
Pardon me if I've mentioned this before.

I see the ruckus over evolution as partly a proxy for something else.

Some years ago, Buckley convened a panel discussion between evolutionists and scientific creationists. I don't know what the latter is, but they seemed prepared. I gathered they could have taught a course in evolution if they'd felt like it, which of course they didn't.

On the evolutionists' side of the table sat, as well, Barry Lynn of Americans United for The Separation of Church and State, and the then-head of the national ACLU. As scientists, these guys are probably pretty good golfers. For them to think they had a dog in this fight is illuminating.
My impression, also, is that this is partly a proxy for the whole issue of the ACLU's rather bizarre definition of the First Amendment, and partly a real argument about evolution itself. There are more than two factions fighting this out. There are, at a minimum:

1. Scientists who believe that evolution is a proven fact, right up there with Newtonian mechanics. I think that these people believe this, and they can't imagine why ANYONE would disagree with this. They genuinely don't see that teaching evolution as established fact presents philosophical problems (how do we distinguish a well-grounded theory from an experimentally provable fact?), political problems (a lot of Americans, not all of them Christians, are offended at having their kids encouraged to hold their parents' beliefs in contempt), and free speech problems

(why does only one faction--evolutionists--get to use public schools to promote their agenda?)

2. There is the ACLU, which sees this as an opportunity to continue imposing its anti-religious, but specifically anti-Christian viewpoint on kids in the public schools. My wife had a high school biology teacher for whom the teaching of evolution was part of her campaign of denigrating Christianity. (The teacher had planned to be a missionary at one time, before a crisis of faith overcame her.)

3. There are Intelligent Design advocates, some of whom are respected scientists, such as Dr. Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University. They are raising legitimate questions about the mechanisms of evolution--and suggesting that the evidence suggests that we should at least consider other explanations.

4. There are "theistic evolutionists," who believe that while God could have certainly created every creature in its current form, that He did not, but instead manipulated the environment to evolve life into its current set of forms. I lean this direction.

5. There are Creationists who believe in an old Earth, and that the major structural divisions of life represent God's creation of the different phlya--with evolution (directed by God) taking place thereafter.

6. There are Creationists who believe in an old Earth, but deny evolution.

7. There are Creationists who believe in a young Earth, deny evolution, and insist that the apparent age of the Earth is an illusion. This crowd gets a lot of attention, to the point where #4 through #6 almost don't exist.

I have received an enormous number of emails (mostly polite and friendly) who seem not to understand that being belligerent about how evolution is taught in the public schools is likely to be a Pyrrhic victory--much like Tennessee's decision to prohibit the teaching of evolution back in the 1920s turned out to be. A little humility goes a long ways, and I get the distinct impression that for some Americans, they are about as willing to allow discussion of alternative claims today as Tennessee was willing to allow evolution to be taught in the 1920s.

This is still a democracy, and one where a very sizeable fraction of the population has serious misgivings about evolution. Imagine what the reaction would be if government classes taught that free markets are destructive, and that government exists to suppress them. There was a time, not that many years ago, when the textbooks used in much of the U.S. taught exactly that, and enjoyed overwhelming support from academic economists for that reason.

Try to persuade the population about evolution; this constant need to use force to suppress dissent is making you no friends.

Oh, for those who insist that Newtonian mechanics is just as much a "theory" as evolution, sorry, this isn't going to fly. In physics class, we did repeatable experiments to verify that a lot of the basic equations actually worked as claimed. In freshman physics at USC, we verified that momentum really is conserved by measuring motion in x and y of an air puck, and then the motion of the air puck it ran into. The very small deviation from the prediction (fractions of a percent) were within the range we expected for conversion of kinetic energy into heat, as well as measurement error. In high school, we did experiments with springs, tension, weights, etc., and received plausible results. Freshman chemistry at USC had us doing experiments with measuring pH as we added acids to buffered solution, and the results matched the equations. The exact mechanisms by which some of these events take place are certainly in the realm of theory, but we could experimentally verify them all.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

What Makes Evolution a Theory?

I've received a number of emails from people who are quite upset that I regard those stickers calling evolution a theory to be sensible. Let me explain why.

Hypothesis; theory; fact. Each has a particular meaning in the sciences. Hypothesis is a potential explanation that has little or no evidence behind it. A theory has substantial evidence backing it, and individual parts of the theory may be clearly proven. A fact is something that is clearly proven, by experiment.

FACT: Sodium reacts with water to form sodium hydroxide, hydrogen gas, and gobs of heat. This is a fact. I have personally performed this experiment in the Pacific Ocean, when I was young and foolish. If anyone wants to argue the point, we can perform the experiment, repeatedly. I am willing to bet a pretty substantial sum of money that if I do this experiment 10,000 times, I will get the same results, everytime.

THEORY: Why does sodium react that way? We have an elaborate theory of chemical bonding to explain how this reaction takes place. Over the last one hundred years, the details of that theory have been continuously refined. We used to believe that electrons were in shells around the atom, with the outermost electron for sodium loosely bound to the atom. Refinements to the theory, driven by quantum theory, have turned this from a belief in a "shell" to a electron cloud. The electron's actual position, if I have followed the debate about this correctly, is really more of a probability function than a place.

As one of my chemistry professors pointed out, "We really have no idea what is going on down there at the subatomic level. There could be angels dancing on the heads of pins for all we know. But it's a useful theory for predicting things, and that's what science is all about." (And that's also why Intelligent Design really isn't a scientific theory--how do you predict what an Intelligence is going to do next?) Our current theories of chemical bonding are more than just a wild guess, but they are less certain than a fact. A hundred years hence, our theory of chemical bonding might be substantially what it is today--or it may changed (whoops, "evolved") into something very substantially different.

The theory of evolution includes a number of different components. One of those components is the idea of natural selection: that changes in the environment will put some members of the species at a disadvantage to others, and over time, this can alter the gene frequency within a population. Depending on the severity of the disadvantage, it is conceivable that a particular trait may be entirely removed from the gene pool (not just lowered frequency), although this has to be a seriously disadvantageous trait, and still takes many, many generations. Natural selection may not work with some traits, even those with serious disadvantages, if they are not exposed until after breeding. Genetic diseases like Huntington's Chorea persist in the population because the disease not make its first appearance until the person is usually over 35--and they have generally had children. Even genetic defects such as schizophrenia that would seem to be big disadvantages apparently persist because there are advantages that carriers of the gene have: sisters of schizophrenics seem to have higher rates of reproduction than the general population. Bipolar disorder and Ausperger's syndrome in their extreme forms are a serious disadvantage, but in milder forms, they seem to be useful in a number of occupations, and so persist.

I don't think that anyone (except for a few deranged, Young Earth Creationists) seriously disputes that natural selection changes gene frequency in a population. We can see natural selection taking place, altering characteristics of species, such as the Industrial Revolution changes in the color of the peppered moth. (This website points out that some of the claims originally made for this, however, are not entirely right.) I have yet to see anyone present evidence of a new species being created by natural selection that we have actually observed become a new species; no surprise, speciation should take tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of generations, and we haven't been looking for this for very long.

We can see unnatural selection as well, where humans have bred particular breeds of animals and plants. None of these human breeding experiments, however, have led to different species. Again, there hasn't been the time. Even dogs and wolves successfully interbreed. One of the traditional definitions of species was the ability to produce fertile offspring; by that definition, dogs and wolves aren't really separate species. (There are weird examples such as "ring species" where a series of adjacent subspecies can interbreed, but non-adjacent subspecies are too different to be interbreed. This is evidence in support of the claims of natural selection leading to speciation, but again, it's only evidence, not conclusive proof.)

Another component of the theory is that inanimate matter created life through electrochemical or radiochemical process. While there have been some intriguing experiments performed that suggest that this could have taken place, the big leap--from purely inanimate chemicals to self-replicating life forms--has not taken place. Again, time is a problem. It's hard to get research funding for experiments measured in millenia, and even harder to interest scientists in experiments out of which they aren't going to get a publishable paper. An interesting theory, maybe even correct; but it is not fact.

Another component is the idea that the enormous diversity of structures represent the same sort of natural selection divergence at the higher taxonomic levels. All that I have read--even by those defending evolution--is that the fossil record is maddenly deficient in the intermediate forms that would establish this as being likely. Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould played a major part in advancing the theory of punctuated equilibrium to deal with what he openly admits is a major problem:
The oldest truth of paleontology proclaimed that the vast majority of species appear fully formed in the fossil record and do not change substantially during the long period of their later existence (average durations for marine invertebrate species may be as high as 5 to 10 million years). In other words, geologically abrupt appearance followed by subsequent stability.

But how could traditional paleontology live with such a striking discordance between a theoretical expectation of gradual transition and the practical knowledge of stability and geologically abrupt appearance as the recorded history of most species? Our colleagues resolved their schizophrenia by taking refuge in a traditional argument, advanced with special ardor by Darwin himself—the gross imperfection of the fossil record. If true history is continuous and gradational, but only one step in a thousand is preserved as geological evidence, then a truly gradual sequence becomes a series of abrupt transitions. Darwin staked his whole argument on this proposition:

The geological record [is] extremely imperfect, and will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps. He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory [Origin of Species, 1859].
This resolution worked in some logical sense, but it filled Niles and me with frustration and sadness. We were young, ambitious, enthusiastic, and in love with our subject. We had trained ourselves in evolutionary theory, particularly in the application of statistical methods to the measurement of evolutionary change, and we longed to get our hands dirty with practical applications. Our colleagues had virtually defined evolution as gradual change and had then eviscerated the subject as a paleontological topic by citing the imperfection of the fossil record to explain why we never (or so very rarely) saw direct evidence for the process that supposedly made life's history. This argument did resolve a contradiction (theoretical gradualism with overt punctuation), but at a crushing price for any practicing scientist, for if evolution meant gradual change, we could not discern the very phenomenon we most wished to study.
The punctuated equilibrium theory seems to me to be a legitimate and sensible answer to the problem of a fossil record that is deficient. But again, it simply points out that evolution has some problems that keep it in the category of theory, not fact. Understanding and embracing this is not just about keeping fundamentalists happy; it is also about keeping the teaching of science honest and accurate.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Another Winner

I had posted my review of the Aries Chromacor corrector for converting achromatic refractors into apochromats (or so close that you don't much care) on a while back; I just won the $50 store credit for the best review of the week.

Friday, January 7, 2005

The Telescope Parts Business Is Slowly Growing

I made ten sets of these initially, hoping that they would sell out immediately, and justify going into large scale production. The first couple of weeks were a bit disappointing (no sales), but I think Christmas shopping may have played a part--I've received three orders so far, and I've shipped two sets this morning. (Still waiting for a check from Canada on the third order.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2005


This came off a mailing list that my mother receives:

A guy is driving around and he sees a sign in front of a house, Talking Dog For Sale.

He rings the bell, and the owner tells him the dog is in the backyard.

The guy goes around the house and into the backyard and sees a handsome Labrador Retriever sitting there.

"You talk?" he asks.

"Yep," the Lab replies.

"So, what's your story?"

The Lab looks up and says, "Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young, and I wanted to help the government. So I told the CIA about my gift, and in no time at all, they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping. I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running. But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn't getting any younger so I wanted to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security work, mostly wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals. I got married, had a mess of puppies, and now I'm just retired."

The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.

"Ten dollars," says the owner.

The guy says, "This dog is amazing! Why on earth are you selling him so cheap?"

"Because he's a liar. He didn't do any of that stuff."

Tuesday, January 4, 2005


Some of these I've seen before--others are new. It was forwarded by an old lawyer friend:
Q: Are you sexually active?

A: No, I just lie there.


Q: What is your date of birth?

A: July 15th.

Q: What year?

A: Every year.


Q: What gear were you in at the moment of the impact?

A: Gucci sweats and Reeboks.


Q: This myasthenia gravis, does it affect your memory at all?

A: Yes.

Q: And in what ways does it affect your memory?

A: I forget.

Q: You forget? Can you give us an example of something that you've forgotten?


Q: How old is your son, the one living with you?

A: Thirty-eight or thirty-five, I can't remember which.

Q: How long has he lived with you?

A: Forty-five years.


Q: What was the first thing your husband said to you when he woke up that morning?

A: He said, "Where am I, Doris?"

Q: And why did that upset you?

A: My name is Susan.


Q: Do you know if your daughter has ever been involved in voodoo or the occult?

A: We both do.

Q: Voodoo?

A: We do.

Q: You do?

A: Yes, voodoo.


Q: Now doctor, isn't it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn't know about it until the next morning?

A: Did you actually pass the bar exam?


Q: The youngest son, the twenty-year-old, how old is he?


Q: Were you present when your picture was taken?


Q: So the date of conception (of the baby) was August 8th?

A: Yes.

Q: And what were you doing at that time?


Q: She had three children, right?

A: Yes.

Q: How many were boys?

A: None.

Q: Were there any girls?


Q: How was your first marriage terminated?

A: By death.

Q: And by whose death was it terminated?


Q: Can you describe the individual?

A: He was about medium height and had a beard.

Q: Was this a male or a female?


Q: Is your appearance here this morning pursuant to a deposition notice which I sent to your attorney?

A: No, this is how I dress when I go to work.


Q: Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?

A: All my autopsies are performed on dead people.


Q: ALL your responses MUST be oral, OK? What school did you go to?

A: Oral.


Q: Do you recall the time that you examined the body?

A: The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.

Q: And Mr. Dennington was dead at the time?

A: No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.


Q: Are you qualified to give a urine sample?



Q: Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?

A: No.

Q: Did you check for blood pressure?

A: No.

Q: Did you check for breathing?

A: No.

Q: So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?

A: No.

Q: How can you be so sure, Doctor?

A: Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.

Q: But could the patient have still been alive, nevertheless?

A: Yes, it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law


Saturday, January 1, 2005

Good News Of Various Sorts

I had to put another notch (inward) on my belt. At this point, the next step is going to have to be a new belt. I am very pleased.

We waited a bit long on the property we wanted to buy. We probably could have gotten it for $50,000 if we had made an offer a week earlier, but another offer came in while we were dithering, so we had to offer full asking price to be sure of getting it. It's still a bargain at $55,000 (assessed at $74,000 by Boise County back in 2000). I don't think you could get a parcel this size with these sort of views in Sonoma County for less than $500,000.

Here are some higher resolution pictures of the views from the property.