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Monday, December 22, 2008


I think an important point to make is that evolution by natural selection is not a very effective search algorithm. Even in gene space with realistic fitness functions, I would suspect that significant improvements could be made to the algorithm. Sure, it's a pretty robust algorithm, but I think its primary advantage is that it emerges without a creator [smirk].

On Dembski, my understanding was that he didn't merely trace the source of biological complexity to cosmic fine-tuning -- which would be a tacit admission of biological evolution. I thought he was saying that specified complexity could be found there as well as in biological complexity. While it takes a philosophical argument to tackle the question of cosmological fine-tuning, on biological evolution, we can just say he's wrong and be done with it. Am I wrong?

In a related attack on Dumbski, I have long thought that if "Specified Complexity" had any merit, it could be useful in other fields. A way [even if only in principle] to detect design! Plenty of intelligent mathematicians and engineers agree with me about the significance of such a claim, but are unable to get anything meaningful out of Dembski's work. Dembski just declares himself smarter than all of us, and wipes his hands. Does he really care so little about those other fields? If his ideas had any merit, wouldn't a meaningful, positive contribution to some other field enhance his standing and help to spread an understanding of his ideas much better than a full frontal assault on biology? It would certainly convince us skeptics that there was actually some clothing on his emperor.

To me, this behavior is the most damning evidence against him. He has this mathematical theory that claims to detect design, and if you try to make sense of it, he claims you got it wrong, he won't try to explain it because you aren't as sophisticated a mathematician as he is [unless you share his religious views, in which case you don't need to have even a basic understanding of algebra to understand his research] and then he won't even begin to discuss the factual evidence for biological evolution; instead he points back to his mathematical proof that evolution is impossible.

Did I mention that I have a mathematical proof that any and every personal attack you can make against Dembski is factually correct, even [no, especially] those that are not internally consistent. I call it "specified douchebaguery"...

Oh. I'm just getting started on Dumbski.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How Dare We Assume That There is Actually a Rational Debate Taking Place!

What is it with these idiots at the deceptively named Discovery Institute trying to say that evolution isn't supported by evidence? They say that mainstream scientists "consider scientific evidence to be only a secondary consideration to metaphysical considerations" when in fact they are the ones demanding a change to the teaching of evolution but not the practice of applied scientists! If that's not putting metaphysical considerations before real evidence, I don't know what is. Where are the calls to have medical researchers and professional biologists at companies like Monsanto and ADM stop considering the theory of evolution in their work? No! It's the educational curriculum they are trying to change. I don't see Monsanto lobbying the school boards to weaken the evolution curriculum. Metaphysical? I think not! Last time I checked, Monsanto only cared about one thing: MONEY!

I hope one of my paragraphs isn't taken out of context as the "only evidence offered for evolution". But if they must pick one I hope it is this one because it has links to massive quantities of evidence, much more evidence for evolution, and a compilation of such a ridiculous quantity of evidence organized in such a way as to demonstrate the beauty and grandeur in this view of life such that it can only be denied by someone who is willfully ignorant, below average in intelligence, and mean spirited. Aside from references to thousands of scientific papers, that last site, the tree of life web project, provides hours/days/years of fun for anyone interested in nature, and it helps to demonstrate that not only is there ample evidence, but there is more solid evidence than any one person can learn in a lifetime. If you can't find enough solid evidence for evolution to fill several books, then you didn't spend enough time exploring it.

But more interesting and relevant to me than the bulk of those mountains of physical evidence is my personal story. Once upon a time, I was a high school student. Naturally, the topic of evolution came up in biology and it sparked a little debate among a few students. We had it out and that was that. As time went on, my interest in evolution grew and then later began to dwindle again. I assumed that if I went into biology or geology or chemistry , I would learn more about evolution, but I was more interested in math and physics and computer science. I eventually ended up in computer science, and what should I find? Computer Science alone has more than enough evidence for evolution to fill a few books. Hah! And now, I can hardly go an hour without accidentally seeing evidence for evolution everywhere I look -- what kind of mindset do these people have that makes them not see the evidence? Do they really see irreducible complexity everywhere? Because everywhere I look I see the emergence of complexity from relatively simple components acting locally. Like a revelation, I can now see things emerging through a process of evolution -- and I know that it is true as much as I know anything else that I can see with my eyes. And I'm an engineer! If anyone should believe in "intelligent design", it should be me!

Still, biologists haven't yet gotten around to documenting the majority of the potential pieces of evidence for evolution coming from biology. I assure you, if the primary goal of biology was to collect unique forms of evidence for biological evolution, the quantity of evidence would be even greater. Biologists: get cracking! Just kidding, I know you have more important things to do, like apply the theory of evolution to real problems like curing disease or otherwise fiddling with life to make it better for us humans (or perhaps just to make money), and if the results work, that's more evidence that the theory was correct, but who cares about new evidence for a fact that was solidly established as strongly as anything else in science by well over 50 years ago?

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bored of Education?

I have about fifty posts started, and some old ones to post-date, but I had to spit this one out.

An article appearing in the Florida Baptist Witness by a member of the Florida State Board of Education states the issue as clearly as it could be said:

"Even though I am one of the seven members of the SBOE, I was unaware of the inclusion of evolution in those standards until ... last fall with my dad ... and my mother. She was reading from a local newspaper and in her own special way pointed out an article stating that evolution would be taught in Florida's public schools."

She immediately contacted the Department of Education to get a copy of the standards with every instance of the E-word flagged so that she could judge for herself. I don't doubt that the documents in question are unwieldy. But if the standards are to actually have any influence over the how science is taught, then someone with a legitimate interest in science and science education should be able to navigate them to determine how any particular subject is to be taught! What an idiot! She hadn't even read them -- a member of the board that commissioned the standards! Her interest in "science" must be pretty shallow for her not to have even skimmed the document for areas that interested her. Obviously, her interest is in science only extends to taking advantage of its fruits and stopping the dissemination of findings that seem to contradict her beliefs -- even when they correspond to the same findings.

This reminds me of a snide remark I made at the beginning of an evolution debate that didn't actually happen. A friend introduced me to another guy at a party and then she said "you two should talk about evolution" before walking away. I might have been interested in a discussion of interesting science, but at the time, I didn't really feel like debating the definition of science, so I started the talk. "So, did you major in biology?" I asked. "No, she's just trying to get me started" he said. I pretended not to understand him and continued "Did you study a lot of math?... physics? chemistry? geology? computer science? What?" He looked away for a minute and then repeated "No. She's just trying to get me started." So I said in as non-confrontational tone as possible, as if wondering to myself aloud "why would you be interested in evolution? Huh." And that was it.

All this raises the question: should evolution really be taught in high-school biology? Maybe not, as suggested by microbiologist Carl Woese in a recent article in Wired. Comparing it to quantum mechanics, he says "what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teachers don't understand." While this may be true, this could be said of most of high-school science, and at its core, evolution is one of the interesting areas of science that most high school students actually can truly understand in a fundamental and useful way -- very much unlike quantum mechanics.

That said, in my opinion, the push of the creationists to "teach the controversy" might be reasonable if done right. Obviously, it would not be in a biology class, because evolution is not a controversy in biology, but it is a controversy between science and certain people with beliefs based on non-scientific criteria. A single-semester class on the meaning, purpose and philosophy of science would do just fine. Evolution is a perfect case for study in such a class. Unlike high-school-level biology, however, such a class would actually have something to offer a student whose religious beliefs forbid them from believing the fundamental principles underlying modern biology. Some less controversial scientific findings would be important starting points [such the round-earth theory or that the earth revolves around the sun]. Rather than just passing over them as mere facts or historical curiosities, an entire week could be spent on such facts to go through all the details of what makes a piece of knowledge "science." This would allow such students to understand what science is rather than just trying to cram something down their throats.

Tune in next time when I reply to a Texas school board member who complains about the teaching of the atomic theory of matter as though it were a "fundamental concept underlying all of chemistry" when, as we all know "the atomic theory of matter is just a theory."