July 06, 2006

Skepticism is a virtue. I don't like to discourage it. So, if a person is skeptical of a scientific result - evolution for instance, or global warming, (yes, I'm looking at you, RW & Buck), I try (not always successfully) not to be too "in-your-face" when I take up for the scientific side. After all, you guys aren't bought & paid for like a couple of the global warming skeptics, or single-mindedly intent on fleecing a religious flock, like some evolution skeptics.

So, if your mechanic tells you that you need an expensive new fuel pump, then, you have a right to be skeptical. But, if every mechanic in town tells you that your fuel pump is going out, and your car is stalling out sometimes lately, it may be time to be socking away some money and maybe at least checking around at the junkyards, even if you don't plan to buy the expensive new fuel pump your mechanic says you need.

I saw An Inconvenient Truth Friday night. I'm glad the movie is out there, and I'm sorry so many people will not see it, because it will not play in their area, because they don't like the "star", they've been discouraged from seeing it by radio, tv, internet or print personalities who have poisoned the well one way or the other, or they just don't have any interest. The critics have a few fair points - the movie is rarely clear on just how certain or uncertain any particular relationship is between CO2 and any individual element of climactic change, and that makes it easy for a non-skeptical watcher to assume the worst. I mean, not smoking-gun may be a mushroom cloud type stuff... just difficult to analyze finely without having done some prior research on the issue.

The big point of the movie, and one that is made relatively well, is that there is something wrong with the fuel pump in our car, and every mechanic in town thinks so. The flaw in the analogy is that the mechanics aren't selling new fuel pumps... They are just suggesting we start looking in earnest.

I don't want to critique the movie, but I do want to offer some analysis of the various claims and arguments against global warming, where they come from, and whether they have merit. None of this will be original, either the arguments or the responses. I'm not the expert. I'm relying totally on others who have earned my trust by using a method that consistently produces useful results. The first few arguments against, I'm lifting from here, with curtsies and hat tips to my friend RW:

  • "Yeah, I heard that. Something between one and two degrees over the last hundred years, right?"

    Answer: Yes, Farenheit. A little less than a degree Celcius. It doesn't sound like much to me either, but climate scientists give several reasons why it is significant. One is that this change is a global mean, but reflects larger, faster changes at the poles, where we keep most of our ice. Another is that 9 degrees average temperature is all that separates us from the last big ice age: in other words, climate is very sensitive to very small seeming changes in global mean temperature. Another is that 1 degree over a course of 100 years is believed by most scientists to be much faster than natural, cyclical changes that have historically been encountered during this or other periods of relative climate stability. But, the biggest reason is that, at the rate greenhouse gases are being pumped into the atmosphere, every climate model predicts even bigger temperature increases to come.

  • You’d think that with the industrial revolution in the first part of the century & there being virtually zero precautions taken against emissions, and less efficient engines everywhere (taking into account the smaller number, one must factor in the lack of environmental insight at the time) that we’d have been worse a bit earlier.

    Answer: If, 100 years ago, there had been 6 & a half billion people in the world, with a very large fraction of them daily operating two automobiles, running electric air conditioning, watching electric televisions, buying mostly manufactured products from socks to breakfast cerial, disposing of and replacing those manufactured products as frequently as is the case now, and doing so with less efficient engines and zero precautions against emissions, then, yes - the problem would have been much, much worse then. But "taking into account the smaller number" means acknowledging that the the world population has tripled in the last 100 years, and that there was far less energy consumption per capita then than now.

    One of the points in Al Gore's movie was that it took until the year 1800 - ten thousand years after the advent of civilization - to reach a world population of 1 billion. It took another 125 years to add a second billion. And we've added on four and a half more billion people in the last 80 years. These are vast numbers.

  • Forgive me if I don’t take as gospel the temperature gauge readings from the year 1906, where Zeke laid down the foundations for future generations prior to taking a sh!t outside & going to a leeching”. Then again, I won’t deny that we’re warming. I dunno.

    Answer: In fact, temperature observation and recording was less precise one hundred years ago, a fact which is reflected in the greater margins of error from pre-1950 measurements used by scientists calculating temperature change. But, Zeke probably didn't have much to do with it. Neither did Albert Einstein, but it was in 1905 that he published his paper on the photoelectric effect, showing that light energy moved in discrete particles, the special theory of relativity, and used brownian motion to support the atomic model that Dalton and others had set forth a couple of decades before. A hundred years before that, Jacques Charles and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac discovered the relationship between temperature and pressure in a gas - a feat that wasn't accomplished without the ability to accurately measure temperature. The mercury thermometer was invented in 1714, and by 1900 there existed several other means of recording temperature with greater precision.

    I guess the larger point is this: no matter how skeptical you and I may be of the accuracy of 100-year-old temperature measurements, climate scientists, by nature of their profession, have had greater skeptics among them. They seem to have found a way to satisfy themselves that there is useful data to work from, and that the consensus estimates of temperature increase are accurate. I quote from here:

    Annual values are approximately accurate to +/- 0.05°C (two standard errors) for the period since 1951. They are about four times as uncertain during the 1850s, with the accuracy improving gradually between 1860 and 1950 except for temporary deteriorations during data-sparse, wartime intervals. Estimating accuracy is a far from a trivial task as the individual grid-boxes are not independent of each other and the accuracy of each grid-box time series varies through time (although the variance adjustment has reduced this influence to a large extent). The issue is discussed extensively by Folland et al. (2001a,b) and Jones et al. (1997). Both Folland et al. (2001a,b) references extend discussion to the estimate of accuracy of trends in the global and hemispheric series, including the additional uncertainties related to homogeneity corrections.

    The mechanics offer us the choice of accepting their analysis, or checking it for ourselves. We could ignore them altogether, but we may be sorry when we are waiting for the tow truck to come pick us up. One route is to check with several different mechanics. They all seem to agree it's the fuel pump. Even if they disagree on how much failure it has already experienced, or how quickly it will fail completely.

  • [...] the sun has gotten hotter.


    Put very simply, yes. Now this is a decent point, and possibly the best point put forward by global warming critics. Because, on the one hand, the sun has apparently grown warmer lately, and on the other hand, because the phenomenon of variation in solar irradiance, and its effects on climate are not well understood yet. There is little data - in fact, we are in much the same position now with regard to variation in solar irradiance was we were thirty years ago on greenhouse gas based climate change. So, we in fact cannot say with complete certainty that the increase in sun temperature has negligibe effects on climate. We can, however, say with fair certainty that the variation in solar activity (by itself) appears to have much less impact than greenhouse gases (by themselves), according to the data that we do have. I quote:

    The variation of solar irradiance with the 11-year sunspot cycle has been assessed with some accuracy over more than 20 years, although measurements of the magnitude of modulations of solar irradiance between solar cycles are less certain (see Chapter 6). The estimation of earlier solar irradiance fluctuations, although based on physical mechanisms, is indirect. Hence our confidence in the range of solar radiation on century time-scales is low, and confidence in the details of the time-history is even lower (Harrison and Shine, 1999; Chapter 6). Several recent reconstructions estimate that variations in solar irradiance give rise to a forcing at the Earth’s surface of about 0.6 to 0.7 Wm-2 since the Maunder Minimum and about half this over the 20th century (see Chapter 6, Figure 6.5; Hoyt and Schatten, 1993; Lean et al., 1995; Lean, 1997; Froehlich and Lean, 1998; Lockwood and Stamper, 1999). This is larger than the 0.2 Wm-2 modulation of the 11-year solar cycle measured from satellites. (Note that we discuss here the forcing at the Earth’s surface, which is smaller than that at the top of the atmosphere, due to the Earth’s geometry and albedo.) The reconstructions of Lean et al. (1995) and Hoyt and Schatten (1993), which have been used in GCM detection studies, vary in amplitude and phase. Chapter 6, Figure 6.8 shows time-series of reconstructed solar and volcanic forcing since the late 18th century. All reconstructions indicate that the direct effect of variations in solar forcing over the 20th century was about 20 to 25% of the change in forcing due to increases in the well-mixed greenhouse gases (see Chapter 6).

    Reconstructions of climate forcing in the 20th century indicate that the net natural climate forcing probably increased during the first half of the 20th century, due to a period of low volcanism coinciding with a small increase in solar forcing. Recent decades show negative natural forcing due to increasing volcanism, which overwhelms the direct effect, if real, of a small increase in solar radiation (see Chapter 6, Table 6.13).

    Recommended further reading deals with some isolated papers that hype the link between solar variation and climate change, here.

    More... much, much, much, more here (PDF) on the subject, from the 2001 IPCC report.

    So, solar forcing of global temperatures appears to be real, and appears - at this point - to be very small, but that may change. It will not change the fact, however, that our atmosphere is becoming increasingly saturated with CO2 gas and other greenhouse gases. So, yes, if you are sitting in the car with the windows rolled up, you'll get hot faster on a hotter day than on a cooler one. But that doesn't make it smart to keep them rolled up when the temperature is rising.

  • They can't predict the weather a few days ahead. How can they forecast doom & gloom over decades or centuries?

    Answer: Short answer: weather versus climate.

    An amusing hypothetical exercise-analogy here.

    Longer answer: Weather systems are non-linear systems. That means they are sensitive over time to "initial conditions" (or small changes introduced into the system, as the case may be). That's why weather is so hard to predict. It's like a stick in the hornets nest. The stick sets the hornets to flying, but it's hard to guess where the hornets will fly from where you insert the stick, at what angle, or with how much thrust. Climate systems are the cumulative effect of billions of whether changes. A weather system is a stick stuck in a hornet nest. Climate is a billion sticks and a billion hornets nests... You still can't tell where the hornets will fly, but if you know how many sticks are going into how many nests, you can get a fair idea of how safe a walk through the pasture is going to be.

  • Water Vapor traps more heat than CO2

    Answer: Yes, it does, but water vapor does not accumulate in the atmosphere at levels that create much climate change. (link)

  • I remember the '70's when the environmentalists were all warning of doom from an imminent ice age. Why should I believe them now, when they've switched from ice age to greenhouse oven?

    Answer: A few scientists did publish some important and well-publicized papers about the possibility of our interglacial period coming to an end, "before long". Newsweek and other popular outlets did hype these studies, and it didn't sound much different than some accountings of global warming we get from the popular press today. So, skepticism on this grounds is quite understandable, however wrong it may be. Real Climate has a piece about this. The central point is this:

    The state of the science at the time (say, the mid 1970's), based on reading the papers is, in summary: "...we do not have a good quantitative understanding of our climate machine and what determines its course. Without the fundamental understanding, it does not seem possible to predict climate..." (which is taken directly from NAS, 1975). In a bit more detail, people were aware of various forcing mechanisms - the ice age cycle; CO2 warming; aerosol cooling - but didn't know which would be dominant in the near future. By the end of the 1970's, though, it had become clear that CO2 warming would probably be dominant; that conclusion has subsequently strengthened.
    Probably the best summary of the time was the 1975 NAS/NRC report. This is a serious sober assessment of what was known at the time, and their conclusion was that they didn't know enough to make predictions. From the "Summary of principal conclusions and recommendations", we find that they said we should:

    1. Establish National climatic research program
    2. Establish Climatic data analysis program, and new facilities, and studies of impact of climate on man
    3. Develope Climatic index monitoring program
    4. Establish Climatic modelling and applications program, and exploration of possible future climates using coupled GCMs
    5. Adoption and development of International climatic research program
    6. Development of International Palaeoclimatic data network

    Which is to say, they recommended more research, not action. Which was entirely appropriate to the state of the science at the time. In the last 30 years, of course, enormous progress has been made in the field of climate science.

    Most of this post has been about the science of 30 years ago. From the point of view of todays science, and with extra data available:

    1. The cooling trend from the 40's to the 70's now looks more like a slight interruption of an upward trend (e.g. here). It turns out that the northern hemisphere cooling was larger than the southern (consistent with the nowadays accepted interpreation that the cooling was largely caused by sulphate aerosols); at first, only NH records were available.
    2. Sulphate aerosols have not increased as much as once feared (partly through efforts to combat acid rain); CO2 forcing is greater. Indeed IPCC projections of future temperature inceases went up from the 1995 SAR to the 2001 TAR because estimates of future sulphate aerosol levels were lowered (SPM).
    3. Interpretations of future changes in the Earth's orbit have changed somewhat. It now seems likely (Loutre and Berger, Climatic Change, 46: (1-2) 61-90 2000) that the current interglacial, based purely on natural forcing, would last for an exceptionally long time: perhaps 50,000 years.

    Finally, its clear that there were concerns, perhaps quite strong, in the minds of a number of scientists of the time. And yet, the papers of the time present a clear consensus that future climate change could not be predicted with the knowledge then available. Apparently, the peer review and editing process involved in scientific publication was sufficient to provide a sober view. This episode shows the scientific press in a very good light; and a clear contrast to the lack of any such process in the popular press, then and now.

    So, scientists were very carefully avoiding real-world predictions of an ice age, they were also looking at the ice-age cycle for the first time, considering the effects of some known cooling mechanisms (and, some warming mechanisms - including greenhouse gases), and asking questions about how to model all of this to make it useful for climate prediction. And the press was blowing it out of proportion.

    Contrast that with the present day: scientific consensus is making predictions on real-world climate change (some strong, some tentative). In the movie, Al Gore mentioned this survey of 928 randomly chosen papers published between 1993 and 2003 indexed with the words "climate change", and pointed out that none of them expressed skepticism of the consensus view of climate change from human activity. And though I don't have a link to the study, he points out that a similar study from the popular press shows 53% of those articles are skeptical of the consensus scientific view. (Caveat: most of the papers did not explicitly endorse the majority view, though some did, while others implicitly endorse that view, and 25% take no discernable position. However, none from the survey sample reject it. Peiser claims to have cherry-picked found 34 papers in the same database - not part of any random sample, of course, that reject the consensus view. Peiser's critics show that he was a little over-zealous in his count.)

    The point: blame the popular press, not the scientists.

  • Global warming is a pipe dream of socialist liberals who want to tax our right to all the energy we can buy.

    Answer: With the caveat that this report was created as a worst case scenario, it is is worth noting that the Pentagon is looking at the possible fallout from global warming seriously. As is the not-so-liberal World Bank. Secretary of the treasury Paulsen is certainly no liberal. In fact, see the item above. Sure, maybe the majority of climate scientists are liberals - not all of them are. But damn near all of them support the consensus view that humans are causing global warming, and that it will have adverse and costly impacts on us soon enough to be a cause for concern today. If political ideology played into scientific conclusions so much in the first place, one would expect a divide along partisan lines among scientists. But the fact is ideology is not enough to create skepticism within the science community, though in certain rare cases big money from the oil industry can buy some.

Hell, the list can go on and on... but, I can't. I'll leave you with a couple of generic links on questions of warming controversies...
Fact vs. Myth
Global Warming Skeptic Bingo
How to talk to a global warming skeptic

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Flying for a song

from - RSA

Every once in a while you come across an idea that's so simple, you have to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" The latest example is from Oren Etzioni, a professor in computer science at the University of Washington, who built a system to predict the future prices of airline tickets. Very clever, very obvious (once someone's thought of it), and (I hope) very effective.

What most impresses me is that Oren has done this kind of thing--applying computer science theory to real world problems of interest to millions of people--several times before.

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June 19, 2006

Science Video Seminars

from - smijer

Helping the smart get smarter and the dumb feel smart since 2006...
Installment number 1: Examining Natural Selection in Humans. New seminars are published every other week.

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May 28, 2006

Not only that

from - smijer

Funny new anti-Gore ad makes ridiculous factual error, trying to paint Gore as hypocrite; possibly lifting the smear from Greg "The Science Guy Without a Science Education" Easterbrook...

Well, even with the correct numbers, the hypocrite charge doesn't quite stick... From the Media Matters Easterbrook link, quoted originally in Wired:

The Gores and all the employees of Generation lead a "carbon-neutral" lifestyle, reducing their energy consumption when possible and purchasing so-called offsets available on newly emerging carbon markets. Gore says he and Tipper regularly calculate their home and business energy use -- including the carbon cost of his prodigious global travel. Then he purchases offsets equal to the amount of carbon emissions they generate. Last year, for example, Gore and Tipper atoned for their estimated 1 million miles in global air travel by giving money to an Indian solar electric company and a Bulgarian hydroelectric project.

This new ad is from the same group that brought us the ones I mentioned last week, so we can assume that we are probably paying for this ad when we pay at the pump, too.

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May 26, 2006

May 24, 2006

While on a cross-country plane ride the other day, I was reading the New York Times and ran across an article that, in passing, observed that there are no breakthrough movies or TV shows that present scientists as being cool. The article mentions The Godfather and The West Wing showing criminals and politicians as being gritty and cool. I'd add the innumerable shows and movies demonstrating the coolness of doctors, lawyers, police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, cowboys, and even, sometimes, business people. . .have I left anyone out?

Somehow scientists (including college professors like me) are never on such lists. And, really, there should be no expectation that they'll ever be in such highly publicized company. Why is that? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, there's very little in the way of drama in the average scientist's life that's specific to being a scientist. (Forensic scientists on CSI-related shows may seem to be an exception, but imagine if they were using identical techniques to determine the causes of cancer, without specific deadlines, without crimes, without specific bad guys, without overbearing bosses, and without the need to go interview people. . .you get the idea. It's the context, not mention the acting, that makes the stories compelling.) Scientists make incremental progress, occasionally a breakthrough, but if there's any drama, I think it goes on inside people's heads rather than in external events that might make for a good visual portrayal. Second, while the work of many scientists affects people's lives, it's not nearly as immediate an effect as the work of gangsters, cops, doctors, and even lawyers. If I do a good job in my work, no one's going to live or die or even go to jail; I'll write a paper that may gain me the respect of my peers and be possibly incomprehensible to the greater public.

I've become resigned to the belief that I'll never be a media celebrity. Such is life--I'll have to look elsewhere for happiness.

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Yeah, you read that right - we're looking at a movie that has the power to destroy our economy. Go watch it at the peril of our nation.

The image credit, by the way, is kind of difficult. It's an image grab from Fox News, replayed on MSNBC's "Countdown", K-Ol's "Worst people in the world" segment to be precise, and excerpted on a clip at the world-famous One Good Move.

So, the movie doesn't open until next week or something, but it's already created a clean-drawers crisis among the nation's conservative leadership. And Exxon... Apparently, some part of those gas prices that are exclusively determined by the oil futures market goes toward paying the CEI to make hilarious TV ads combatting Al Gore's extreme threat to the economy. Thinking about the risks to the economy, I'm not going to begrudge Exxon the chance to use some of my money to help combat the ill effects of knowing what anthropogenic climate change may hold in store for us.

So, anyway, it looks like - for better or worse - Gore's movie is going to be big news for a while, and a source of heavy duty hand-wringing and sweaty denials from both conservative punditry and some sectors of industry.

But, just to maintain a semblance of balance, I thought I would provide a few links to some of those crazies who, having seen it, like the film.

Real Climate...

How well does the film handle the science? Admirably, I thought. It is remarkably up to date, with reference to some of the very latest research. Discussion of recent changes in Antarctica and Greenland are expertly laid out. He also does a very good job in talking about the relationship between sea surface temperature and hurricane intensity. As one might expect, he uses the Katrina disaster to underscore the point that climate change may have serious impacts on society, but he doesn't highlight the connection any more than is appropriate (see our post on this, here).

There are a few scientific errors that are important in the film. At one point Gore claims that you can see the aerosol concentrations in Antarctic ice cores change "in just two years", due to the U.S. Clean Air Act. You can't see dust and aerosols at all in Antarctic cores -- not with the naked eye -- and I'm skeptical you can definitively point to the influence of the Clean Air Act. I was left wondering whether Gore got this notion, and I hope he'll correct it in future versions of his slideshow. Another complaint is the juxtaposition of an image relating to CO2 emissions and an image illustrating invasive plant species. This is misleading; the problem of invasive species is predominantly due to land use change and importation, not to "global warming". Still, these are rather minor errors. It is true that the effect of reduced leaded gasoline use in the U.S. does clearly show up in Greenland ice cores; and it is also certainly true that climate change could exacerbate the problem of invasive species.

Several of my colleagues complained that a more significant error is Gore's use of the long ice core records of CO2 and temperature (from oxygen isotope measurements) in Antarctic ice cores to illustrate the correlation between the two. The complaint is that the correlation is somewhat misleading, because a number of other climate forcings besides CO2 contribute to the change in Antarctic temperature between glacial and interglacial climate. Simply extrapolating this correlation forward in time puts the temperature in 2100 A.D. somewhere upwards of 10 C warmer than present -- rather at the extreme end of the vast majority of projections (as we have discussed here). However, I don't really agree with my colleagues' criticism on this point. Gore is careful not to state what the temperature/CO2 scaling is. He is making a qualitative point, which is entirely accurate. The fact is that it would be difficult or impossible to explain past changes in temperature during the ice age cycles without CO2 changes (as we have discussed here). In that sense, the ice core CO2-temperature correlation remains an appropriate demonstration of the influence of CO2 on climate.

Lawrence Lessig:

Even if you want to reject the argument, understand it first. This is a perfect opportunity to understand it.


But the film really shines when it focuses on the presentation and Gore methodically and lucidly making the case for us needing to take action on global warming. An Inconvenient Truth opens in the US on May 24...do yourself a favor and seek it out when it comes to your local theater.

Just be careful not to let this thing destroy our economy.

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April 24, 2006

Essay on the future of ride sharing. Don't get me wrong - I like the idea & I hope it will/can be implemented by smart people like the author and such. It could get a decent start with existing technology - however, issues of personal security, liability, etc., would need to be worked out as it moved larger scale.

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April 05, 2006

Is this for real?

from - Buck

When I first heard that a Dr. Eric R. Pianka had proposed that the only way to save the Earth was to eliminate 90% of the human population I just assumed the guy was some poor nut who just happened to be a doctor.

Pianka began his speech by explaining that the general public is not yet ready to hear what he was about to tell us.

I wonder who and what Pianka thinks the “general public” is?

One of Pianka's earliest points was a condemnation of anthropocentrism, or the idea that humankind occupies a privileged position in the Universe. He told a story about how a neighbor asked him what good the lizards are that he studies. He answered, “What good are you?”

Now I can wax philosophical with the best of them but if given a choice between a lizard and Charles Manson I would still give the edge to Charlie.

Pianka hammered his point home by exclaiming, “We're no better than bacteria!”

I was reminded of the ancient joke where The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by hostile Indians and the Lone Ranger says, “Tonto, it looks like we are in a heap of trouble” and Tonto says, “what do you mean “we” paleface?”

We does not always include me.

“And the fossil fuels are running out,” he said, “so I think we may have to cut back to two billion, which would be about one-third as many people.” So the oil crisis alone may require eliminating two-third's of the world's population.

You know Doc. I guess we could consider eliminating only the 300 million that consume 25% of the product and save a few lives.

After noting that the audience did not represent the general population, a questioner asked, "What kind of reception have you received as you have presented these ideas to other audiences that are not representative of us?" Pianka replied, "I speak to the converted!"

Sounds more like religion than science to me. Maybe if Pianka can convince the 9 out of 10 that need to die that they will be happier in a place where 70 virgins turn tricks on streets of gold he can conjure up a larger following.

He spoke glowingly of the police state in China that enforces their one-child policy. He said, "Smarter people have fewer kids." He said those who don't have a conscience about the Earth will inherit the Earth, "...because those who care make fewer babies and those that didn't care made more babies." He said we will evolve as uncaring people

Uh…it sounds to me like you already represent the pinnacle of your evolution.

Meanwhile, I still can't get out of my mind the pleasant spring day in Texas when a few hundred scientists of the Texas Academy of Science gave a standing ovation for a speaker who they heard advocate for the slow and torturous death of over five billion human beings.

Please, somebody chime in and assure me that this is all some kind of inside joke that the “general public” cannot fully appreciate.

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March 16, 2006

I've recently come into some funding for research in artificial intelligence and robotics, so I tend to pay attention to how robots are presented to the public. The NYTimes has an article on The Shape of Robots to Come, which is interesting enough, except that the gadgets they describe don't really seem to be robots in any meaningful sense. For example, the article describes a Scoty as follows:

Chief among [Scoty's functions] are managing a personal computer's communication and entertainment abilities, finding and playing songs by voice request, recording television shows, telling users when they have e-mail and, again by voice request, reading the e-mail aloud. It takes and then sends voice-to-text e-mail dictation. It takes pictures, and gives the time when asked.

So how exactly is the Scoty different from my laptop, loaded with appropriate voice recognition software? It might rotate itself to take pictures, but that's not mentioned, and in any case would add no more value than a computerized tripod for a modern camera. The article later describes a real (though simple) robot, the Roomba, but for the most part it's just talking about computers in unconventional housings, perhaps with a few servo motors that let them rotate in place. I like robots, and want to see more of them, but not if that means hearing, "Don't call it a Debbie Diaper-Wetter doll; it's a robot."

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February 20, 2006

The Right Stuff

from - RSA

Wonder of wonders: A Bush administration appointee talks sense about science policy. National Economic Advisor Al Hubbard, in a White House press gaggle says,

And basic research will -- you know, the market doesn't -- the marketplace -- the free marketplace doesn't work for basic research, because you don't get the returns on basic research like you do in applied research. And so companies won't put the money into basic research. And that's why it's imperative that the federal government do it with taxpayer money.

Traditional small-government conservatives argue that endeavors that are capable of funding themselves should fund themselves. One of the targets of this argument is sometimes scientific research: why should we spend so much taxpayer money on activities that don't lead directly to results that everyone can appreciate? The difficulty is that it's often very difficult to predict what exactly will be useful in the future, and how. This translates into risk, which industry tries to avoid by focusing on short-term results of applied research. While much of this research is very good, it leaves questions about the long term wide open; government funding seems to be the only practical way of exploring important basic research ideas that may have no immediate impact but may also have an eventual chance of changing our lives enormously.

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February 17, 2006

Algebra for all

from - RSA

Richard Cohen has a strikingly anti-intellectual column in the Washington Post, on the value of algebra. He writes a number of things that a self-respecting adult should be embarrassed to say in public. I'll focus on just three passages.

You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it.

I think Cohen is being a bit of a dolt here; he would probably recognize the source of this analogous comment: "Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now, I've been speaking in prose without knowing it!" For example, if you ever ask yourself how much more money you'd need than you have now to buy something, you're using elementary algebra. Basically, if you're able to deal with unknown values without completely coming apart, you can do some algebra. If you hear that your friend John has a brother Jim who is two years older, do you say, "That doesn't make any sense, because I don't know how old John is!" No, of course not. John's age is a variable that you're perfectly comfortable with.

Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.

Oddly enough, Cohen does not seem to understand the difference between fact and opinion. (I would say, for example, that writing is not the highest form of reasoning--it is not a form a reasoning at all, but rather the expression of reasoning.) Diving further into incoherence, Cohen bases a proof on the poor writing skills of math whizzes in his high school. (I didn't know logical reasoning was so easy! Let's see what I can prove based on memories of my high school classmates!)

Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit.

Computers can certainly write thank-you notes, and they actually can reason even a little bit. Does Cohen use a computer program to do his taxes? Does his mechanic rely on a computer to diagnose problems in his car's engine? Has Cohen ever played chess against a computer? I'll make no claims for general computational intelligence, but these kinds of tasks have certainly been associated with reasoning abilities in the past.

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February 06, 2006

In a Washington post column, Sebasian Mallaby tells the science lobby (I'm not exactly sure who that is) that concerns about our national competitiveness in the sciences are overblown. He makes some good points and presents an optimistic picture for the future, but he gets a few things wrong.

Science and math advocates have been harrumphing about national competitiveness for at least a quarter-century. In the early 1980s the National Science Foundation predicted "looming shortfalls" of scientists and engineers, . . .

Part of the shortfall issue is that the proportion of students in graduate science and engineering programs who are U.S. citizens has not been impressive in the past few decades. In 2003, for example, some 55% of the Ph.D.s awarded in engineering went to foreign students with temporary visas. One aspect of the shortfall is that the influx of good foreign graduate students is not really under our control; as of 2001, visa problems for foreign students skyrocketed. Is this a problem for our national technology engine? Hard to tell, but it's a possibility certainly not to be dismissed.

There's no dividing wall between academic labs and commerce, and scientists surf from one world to the other on waves of money and cultural approval.

A couple of years ago my students and I published a short paper describing an interaction technqique to speed up text entry on mobile communications devices. A company became interested, and we collaborated for a few months, with a view toward putting together a new, possibly niche product. Eventually, however, we discovered an extremely broad patent had been granted to one of the giants in the mobile technology field. It wasn't clear that what we were doing could work around the boundaries they'd established. All fine and good---but do we see the technique described in the paper my students and I wrote? Nope.

There may be only weak barriers between academic labs and industry, but they certainly exist, and they're not to the benefit of consumers, at least in the small picture.

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February 05, 2006

Peer Review

from - RSA

In another forum I've been arguing with a Creationist about evolution, and I came to the realization that not everyone understands the idea of peer review. This is scary in that some of the people who are running the nation's scientific and regulatory agencies also seem to have no grasp of the idea.

From the LA Times:

Cal/EPA's air pollution epidemiology chief, Bart Ostro, charged during the teleconference that the EPA had incorporated "last-minute opinions and edits" by the White House Office of Management and Budget that "circumvented the entire peer review process."

In principle, peer review is easy to understand. Scientific results generated by Researcher X are not taken on faith by the scientific community, but rather are reviewed by X's peers before they make their way into the literature. When you read a peer-reviewed scientific article, you know that it's been vetted by scientists who have looked at the claims in the article and found them sound.

One might think that this is an authoritarian, faith-based approach to science, that the high priests of science must give their imprimatur to some piece of work before it can appear, but this is not the case. The keys are transparency and appropriate incentives. For an analogy, suppose that you and your roommate are going out for the evening. He's been out earlier, so you ask him, "Is it raining outside?" He says, "No." Is it a matter of faith for you to believe your roommate? Not at all: he's been trustworthy in the past; he has a stake in telling you the truth (he'll get wet too, if he dresses so as to mislead you); his answer can be checked directly, if you look out the window.

The same applies to scientific research. Reviewers have a track record in their area, or they wouldn't be viewed as competent for reviewing new work. Because reviewers tend to be chosen from the same area as the work they're reviewing, they have a stake knowing whether they'll be able to rely on the results or not. Reviewers usually want enough information to be able to reproduce the results they're reviewing. All this means that, if I trust the peer review process, I can trust the results that come out of it.

Now we come to the Bush administration, which has not been a friend to science in general. They seem to take the shallowest view of scientific research: It's just a bunch of opinions by people who think they're smarter than we are, and what's more, they're people who tend not to vote Republican, so screw 'em. Is this a fair characterization? I think it's consistent with the Bushies' preference for politics over policy, appearance over substance, and happy talk over hard truths. I should probably spend some time documenting this, but others are already doing a fine job, including Chris Mooney at the Intersection and Tim F at Balloon Juice.

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February 01, 2006

I didn't watch the State of the Union address, but I did pick up on this portion from various commentators:

First, I propose to double the federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years. This funding will support the work of America's most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology and supercomputing and alternative energy sources.

From other sources, I understand that this is a plan to double basic research funding over the next ten years at the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE). Wonderful if true.

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January 09, 2006

Experiencing design

from - RSA

For the past couple of years I've been writing a column for Interfaces, the quarterly newsletter of the British HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) Group. My column is called Experiencing Design and is aimed at people interested in HCI practice and education. I try to make the material accessible to a non-technical audience; for anyone who might be interested, below are a few introductory paragraphs from my latest effort, with a pointer to the complete column at the bottom.

Experiencing Design: Fearful Symmetry

With his wonderful book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman ensured that a generation of interaction designers would be acutely aware of the layout of. . .stove tops. The concept of a natural mapping is now a familiar one: if the spatial arrangement of the knobs on a stove matches that of the burners, it is easy to see which knob corresponds to which burner. The correspondence between a square of burners and a line of knobs, on the other hand, is ambiguous and can lead to potentially disastrous usage errors.

My students offer comparable everyday examples of mapping problems:

The clothes dryers in the laundry rooms here on campus are poorly designed. They are arranged in pairs, with a single coin slot and controls between each pair. More than once, I have put in money and pressed the button to start the wrong dryer. If the other dryer is already being used by someone else, it is impossible to move your own clothes into it. I have ended up paying for other people's clothes to dry by mistake at least twice this semester!

One of the elevators I use has a "walk through" design, with two sets of doors opposite each other. The elevator buttons are in two columns on a panel beside one set of doors. On the bottom row of the panel is a pair of buttons, side by side, for opening and closing one set of doors; the row just above controls the other set of doors. The problem is that there's no easy way to tell which row of buttons is for which doors, so when someone is running to catch the elevator as the doors close, and I reach out to push a button, I can't tell which is the right one.

(continued. . .)

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November 17, 2005

It's rare that I give good advice to partisan GOoPers to help them keep their electoral majorities, but I agree with George Will and John Cole, and if you are a Republican, you should, too.

October 17, 2005


from - Buck

Looks like we have gone and done it.

We have recreated the Spanish Flu.

Of course the thought of anybody but “us” having this creation has gotten Krauthammer’s panties in a knot.

What if “they” turn it loose on “us” before “we” can turn it loose on “them”?

I am sure Charles is wondering right now how we can turn the flu into a morally acceptable weapon in the fight against terrorism.

We have recreated it. Now let’s see if we can control it, use it and more importantly sell it (to our friends only of course)

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September 19, 2005

Forget Katrina...

from - Buck

Scared-stiff astronomers have detected a mysterious mass they've dubbed a "chaos cloud" that dissolves everything in its path, including comets, asteroids, planets and entire stars -- and it's headed directly toward Earth!

Exactly how does a story like this wind up in the Entertainment News and Gossip section?

Speaking under the condition of anonymity, a senior White House official said the president's top science advisors are taking the findings in stride.

"This is a lot like global warming, where the jury is still out on whether it's real or not," said the official.

"The existence of this so called chaos cloud is only a theory. Americans shouldn't panic until all the facts are in."

I guess I'll never understand theories.

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September 13, 2005

Is evolution a theory in crisis? Is Intelligent Design the coming paradigm?

We all have our opinions about this, but opinions are like you-know-what. And most of them do stink. But what about a professional? Via Jeff Blogworthy, I discovered that an enterprising blogger supportive of the Intelligent Design movement had found and interviewed a scientist friendly to the cause. So, I found one, too, to speak in favor of science. He asked me to keep his identity confidential due to his covert activity for the Evil Atheist Conspiracy. But I can tell you this much: It is PZ Myers, currently of the University of Minnesota at Morris. He agreed to an interview, and here it is:

smijer: Thanks for speaking with me, Prof!

Myers: Any time.

smijer: So, is there any debate within the scientific community about the
general validity of the body of theory referred to generally as
neo-darwinian evolution? What about among the fringe crackpots in the
scientific community? Lawyers? Mechanical Engineers? Preachers?

Myers: There is general agreement among all informed scientists on the
validity of common descent, and that natural selection is one of the most
important processes in evolution. There are also many rather
fierce disagreements among many. For instance, here is debate on the
relative importance of neutral hanges (which some think of as mere noise,
while others reasonably regard as the major source of variation) vs.
selection (which all agree occurs, and is essential for adaptation...but
there is more to organisms than just adaptations.) Down at the base of the
tree of life, common descent gets messy and rather syncytial, with
opportunities for horizontal gene transfer that may have been very important. Many of us also think that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is showing signs of its age, is getting a bit creaky, and is failing to encompass many important processes in evolution. For instance, the synthesis says little about
development, my field, because relatively little was known about it at the
time Dobzhansky and Mayr and Simpson and many others were assembling it.
The combination of genetics, molecular biology, and development that has
occurred during the last several decades, though, is fueling a real
revolution in our thinking. The field of evo-devo is going to radically
change how scientists think about evolution (as far as I'm concerned, at
least. There are some who think evo-devo is a minor issue. This is one of
those things we're fighting about.) Scientists are constantly pushing at the
boundaries of what we know, and are always wrestling over something.

smijer: I hear it darkly whispered that "dissent", in any of its various forms,
is tantamount to career suicide. My cousin is a plumber and he says
evolution is a crock. Will he lose his job?

Myers: That's absurd. Bucking the status quo can be difficult, it's true -- pursuing unconventional ideas can make it difficult to get grants and get published, and that can kill a career -- but scientists are always trying something new. It's part of the job. They have strategies for doing this. There's always the project that's safe and generates a steady stream of interesting results and brings in funding for the lab, and some of that funding is used to run pilot experiments on new ideas. If they work out, they form the basis for new grants and an expanding investment. That's the key thing, though: something has to work out. There has to be some grounds for continuing a project.

Doing 'research' that is a dead end, gets no results, is poorly executed and based on flawed and unscholarly ideas...that is career suicide. As it should be. Incompetence is a skill rewarded with promotion only in the Republican party.

Your cousin the plumber is probably safe. I've never asked my plumber his views on evolution, and it's not relevant to his work. Now if he told me he didn't believe in water pressure, then I might stop calling him.

smijer: All due respect, prof, but didn't this dude, Richard Sternberg, get creamed by his colleagues at the Smithsonian just for publishing a paper on ID that, while very inept and in some ways ridiculous, still made it through a legitimate peer review process? This James McVay fellow from the Office of Special Counsel seems to think so... Since that happened to one guy, maybe that's what they mean about the "career suicide" thing. So, did Sternberg get a bum rap, or get what was coming to him? Hint - if you say he got a bum rap then you are confirming all the dark suspicions about the dogmatism of the Darwinist orthodoxy, but if you say he got what was coming to him, you're pegged as part of the conspiracy to repress scientific dissent.

Myers: It wasn't legitimate. It was an article published in a taxonomy journal not appropriate for its subject, shepherded through by a creationism-friendly acting editor (Sternberg). It was highly suspicious. Sternberg didn't get any kind of rap at all -- he's still working, he's still affiliated with the Smithsonian. I think he
didn't get what was coming to him; he's a creationist (oh, excuse me, a "baraminologist"), which brings his competence into question. I'd never trust anything he's written, and if I had the power, I certainly wouldn't ever hire him to teach students...but if are a repressive conspiracy, we're sure not very good at it.

Also, ultimately what counts in a publication is what your peers think of it. The article Sternberg slipped through is a forgettable and empty bit of vacuous fluff that would fade away uncited, except that the Discovery Institute sees it as a PR opportunity.

smijer: Is there sort of a whisper campaign going on? A sort of secret society of
dissenters? And, when I say "dissenters", do I really mean "creationists"?

Myers: Hah. No. Evolution is a topic that routinely comes up in our department, and believe me, there's no one who thinks there is any credibility to creationism. We teach aspects of evolutionary biology at all levels of our curriculum, and someone who dissented would stand out prominently. He or she would probably trigger even more discussions about the subject.

I think the reason we have no creationists in our department is that we don't hire crackpots or ignorant incompetents. Those kinds of policies do make it difficult for creationists to advance in academia, I will concede.

smijer: Would dissenting against evolution... ah hell... would being a creationist be most like dissenting against string theory, the standard model of quantum theory and relativity, classical newtonian physics, or the heliocentric model of the solar system? I apologize in advance for asking you questions about fields for which you don't claim professional expertise.

Myers: I would say that rejecting evolution is nearly equivalent to rejecting heliocentrism. It's an observation that has been reinforced over and over again, and only a real nutcase tries to argue with it anymore. The neo-Darwinian synthesis is sort of like classical Newtonian physics: something that put a set of observations on a sound mathematical basis and accounts for most of what we see in the world, but also has limitations that mean some aspects are not well
covered, and there are phenomena that need incorporation in a more complete theory. Biology hasn't yet had it's Einstein.

And no, our Einstein isn't going to come from the ranks of those clowns at the Discovery Institute.

smijer: Are you one of the Steves? (note, I'm referring to the document known as "Project Steve")

Myers: I'd have to be Psteve for that to work.

smijer: Aw, Pshaw. Apropos of nothing, can you tell me which is most useful to the average workaday scientist in his or her research, evolution, Intelligent Design, or black coffee?

Myers: Did you have to throw coffee into that list? Now the message is all
mangled, because coffee is awfully important. At least I can state
unambiguously that Intelligent Design is dead last. Nobody uses it --
it would be like postulating ghosts spitting in your reagents when
you weren't looking to explain some results.

smijer: One guy said that he had been told that the discovery of a fossil rabbit in the Precambrian would debunk descent with modification. Wasn't the original quote about (plural) rabbits, i.e. enough to rule out such possible errors as inaccurate dating of the strata? And don't you think he meant that it would debunk the evolutionary understanding of natural history more than just the mechanism of "descent with modification"? And, to the best of your knowledge has anyone ever found such a thing as a Precambrian rabbit? And do you think they would have still tasted like chicken?

Myers: I think he said just "rabbit", singular, but what is implied is a well-confirmed, unambiguous out-of-sequence specimen, which would require some level of verification by replication. Such a discovery would mess up a lot of things in biology, and would make a hypothesis about some kind of artificial intervention by an unknown agent tenable. No such anachronism has been found, although there are lots of dangling lineages where we don't have evidence of a beginning. Intelligent Design proponents like to point to those unknowns and
claim their designer is lurking there, but as we all know, it's actually the Flying Spaghetti Monster--he loves those tangled strands where the beginnings and ends are ambiguous.

If there were a pre-Cambrian rabbit, it would precede chickens, so we'd also have to revise our conventions and say that everything tastes like rabbit.

smijer: In your opinion, do Behe or others provide a falsifiable theory that can be "debunked"? If not, would it be proper to say they have been, or can be "debunked"?

Myers: Behe, in Darwin's Black Box, said that irreducible complexity was a property that could not evolve. That was debunked; of course it can. But if nothing else, the Intelligent Design creationism movement has proven itself oblivious to criticism. You will still find people who claim that Behe discovered some phenomenon that makes evolution impossible. The same is true of Dembski and his mangling of the "No Free Lunch" theorem.

So yes, they can and have been thoroughly debunked scientifically, and ID is a joke in the scientific community. However, their entire strategy is not about science -- it's about PR and politics.

smijer: Since, as you say, so much of this controversy lies outside the lab and in the media and popular publications, do you think books like Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God bring much to the table? Why do you think that someone sympathetic to ID would be familiar with Behe's book but completely unfamiliar with Kenneth Miller?

Myers: Yes, I think we need much more outreach to people outside our narrow
disciplines. Miller's book is excellent, even if I did find the Christian apologetics insipid, personally.

It wouldn't be at all unusual to find a professional cell biologist who had not read Miller's book -- the professional is not in the target audience. However, it would be extremely unusual to find that same professional, who is remote from the popular press, reading Behe's tripe. Further, finding a professional who reviews Behe *approvingly* is stretching credibility to the breaking point. I'm tempted to invoke Dembski's "Universal Lower Bound" of 10-150 and say it couldn't possibly be, except that I know stupidity flourishes on both sides of the professional fence.

smijer: My personal knowledge of science is what I remember from a very instructive high school course some 15 years ago and what I've read on the internet. I pimp tractor trailers for a living. Nevertheless, I understand quite well why fossil rabbits from the Precambrian would falsify the evolutionary understanding of natural history. What do you think about the credibility of a person who holds a PhD in biochemistry from a Big Ten university, teaches cell biology for a living, and has been published in scientific journals, but who, when asked the question about the rabbits and the Precambrian answers, "that is a hard one. I honestly don't know"?

Myers: He's right: there are scientists out there who don't use evolution, who don't think about evolution, and who don't THINK, period. Every job (except maybe tractor trailer pimping, which I hear is a lively occupation held by no one other than the bright and well-informed [note: flattery will get you everywhere]) is populated with some number of placeholding deadwood, even biology, so it's never hard to find some few incompetents and get dumb answers out of them -- just don't hold them as representative.

Alternatively, your clueless biochemist could also be a fiction
invented by an equally clueless layman.

smijer: Once more, since I asked the question in a silly way before, approximately how often are core darwinistic principles - those disputed by most
creationists or even those not disputed by many, employed in doing new research in other fields of biology?

Myers: "Darwinistic" means something very specific -- it refers to a
particular mode of evolution, as described by Darwin. If one is a
population geneticist, then the tools of Darwin and the neo-Darwinian
synthesis get used all the time. Any time one looks at a population,
those models are implicit in the analysis.

In my own field of developmental biology, it's a little different. We rarely look at selection. However, rules of common descent are essential in any kind of comparative analysis. The theory of evolution is part of the background for any study. Years ago, when the lab I was in was just starting to use zebrafish as a model, we did so with considerable discussion and study of the fish's place in
phylogeny. We specifically pursued it because it was a vertebrate model system that would complement flies; Christiane Nusslein-Volhard, who won a Nobel for her work in Drosophila, apparently agreed with that, since she's now also doing a lot of work with zebrafish.

I take evolution for granted. In the past, I've tried assaying the evolutionary content of journal articles, and was surprised that explicit discussion of evolutionary relationships was fairly high, approaching 100% in a couple of the developmental journals I surveyed. It was much, much lower in clinical journals, which only discuss human cases, and also lower in a few neuroscience journals I
looked at, where the topics of the articles were sometimes clinical, and often focused on a single molecule. Basically, whenever your work involves two or more organisms, evolution is essential; if it's narrow enough to only deal with a single species, evolution may not come up.

smijer: If you think there is a place at all for it, how should Intelligent Design be taught in a responsible public school curriculum?

Myers: Not as a science, period. Preferably, it would be taught as history -- ancient history -- and regarded as brief, pathological aberration.

I'm not going to make the error of suggesting it be taught in comparative religion or philosophy courses, either. It's bad theology and even worse philosophy (and as biology, it's total crap). Unless it's being used as an example of laughably bad science, it shouldn't be used at all.

smijer: Is there anything you would care to add?

Myers: One of the important attributes of any good science class is that it
has to discuss the evidence. We teach evolution because it has good
evidence and has lead to productive research programs. The greatest
failure of ID is that it has no evidence and suggests no path to
obtaining any, and that's why it doesn't belong in the classroom.

smijer:: I can't say that I could not agree with you more. If I had some extensive training and practice in biology and sciences related to your field, I could express legitimate agreement. As it is, I can only say that an anonymous cell biologist who expresses disagreement with you has much more right to his opinion on the subject of evolution than I do to mine. And yet, somehow, I think my assent to the nearly-unanimous view is more correct than
his dissent from it. Thanks very much for your time.


What are the differences between the consensus set of scientists who have accepted the facts of evolution and have gotten on with trying to gain a better understanding of it and the diversity of life that has resulted from it, and those who are desperate to return to a TheoCentric model of biology?

Several differences stand out... One is that the first group is backed by mountains of well established data, and works from principles that are constantly being fleshed out and refined in the lab. From Darwin's Finches, to a magnificent fossil record of natural history; from the laboratories where fruit fly species diverged and the viral strains were seen to evolve to the analasys and sequencing of the genes and genomes of entire species, those who are dedicated to real science in biology have a vast reservoir of data to support their work. On the other side, Intelligent Design theorists have yet to produce one novel result in a lab, or discover a single bit of evidence that unequivocally supports their view.

Another is that the way scientists and IDists talk about themselves. Myers pointed out in his interview several areas where older Darwinian ideas are being challenged, and where the importance of Darwinian mechanisms for evolution are being questioned in many areas. Yet, these scientists are not making grandiose claims about the revolutionary new paradigm that will overthrow the dogma of the past 150 years. At least, mostly they are not. It seems to me that, with the the ID proponents, what is lacked in evidence is made up for in bluster. Relatively small slights to their cause from the scientific "establishment" are painted as a conspiracy to crush "dissent". They work the press relentlessly to create a favorable public opinion environment in which to advance their political agenda. And, they compare themselves favorably with such folks as Galileo.

The remaining difference is the composition of the groups. The pro-science crowd runs the gamut... you got your evil atheists, and your pious Christians, your Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintos, and everything else. ID is entirely composed of people with a religious investment in denying evolution.

I'm going to quote a little bit now from the epilogue that Mr. Dawn Treader included with the interview that inspired this one:

Good, old-fashioned pragmatism. If functioning under the rubric of design produces faster, scientific breakthroughs, from discoveries to cures, then I think we will see a faster adoption of design as a metascience. If not, then we will be left to slug out a debate about concepts in a tool-driven, results oriented world. (note: the question is, who will step up to create a research program that will permit research to flourish using a design framework?)

I have a hard time imagining this. ID at present exists as a large body of rhetoric. There is the argument that there are "Gaps" in our knowledge of the history of life that evolution cannot explain, even in principle, and that some sort of Intelligent Designer (God, of course) fills those gaps. There are the arguments that ID, or the "controversy" surrounding it, should be taught in public school. There are popular appeals meant to gain sympathy from Joe Sixpack (that's me & you). But there are no mechanisms with explanatory power. There is no data. There is no research program. How the heck can anyone use this body of rhetoric to guide research? I just don't see how it would be possible. If the Discovery Institute comes up with a plan for doing it... well more power to them. We'll see if their program produces useful results. And if it does... well then, maybe we'll start seeing the seeds of paradigm shift. I won't hold my breath.

To quote again:

What role will worldviews play? A huge one. Most Christian's think that naturalism is what keeps evolution alive. Naturalism (as a worldview), however, is on the way out, in my opinion. As Hugh Ross boldly predicts, naturalism is dying of natural causes. As James Herrick points out, in his book The Making of the New Spirituality, the void is being filled by what Herrick terms the New Religious Synthesis (basically religious syncretism). Herrick demonstrates how critical evolutionary theory is to many neo-religious thinkers. So, whether Ross and Herrick are right or wrong, worldviews will continue to play a vital role in keeping evolutionary thinking entrenched.

The very premise of this contention - that it is philosophical naturalism that keeps evolution alive - is vacuous, and excusable only because it comes from a layman who is unfamiliar with the science. It is the data that keeps evolution alive, and very healthy. If it were naturalism instead, well, then we wouldn't have an abundance of scientists who reject naturalism but still contribute to and support the science of evolution.

World-views are important - but more for life at large than just the practice of science. Again we hear the language of "God of the Gaps" theology: that naturalism leaves a "void" that can be filled with theological speculation. And, in my personal view, philosophical naturalism does provide an incomplete world-view. And for purposes of leading a fulfilling and useful life, one must supplement that view with values derived from culture and from a commitment to humanistic ideals, and one must explore the aesthetic of living - not just the mechanics of it. But, when we are talking about methodological naturalism rather than a world view that consists of or includes philosophical naturalism, we are talking about the one single tool that has been helpful to us for understanding the world we live in. So far, no one has found a replacement for it that produces anything close to the results that we have from science. And I won't hold my breath for that to happen, either.

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