Pharyngula

I get email

Here we go again. Ross Olson is sending more patronizing email, so I guess I’ll have to be mean and tear up his prior argument.

November 18, 2009

Dr. Myers,

Thank you for posting my comments and promising to comment on the questions
I raised. Here is the introduction I gave to your debate with Dr. Jerry
Bergman on the topic, “Should Intelligent Design Be Taught in the Schools?”
on http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/11/i_get_email_47.php

Although many of us on the ID side did not think our arguments were clearly
presented, we were pleased with the civil tone and actual intellectual
interaction that took place, just as I asked for below:

*****************************************

Introduction to the Debate

Thank you, on behalf of Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists, Christian
Student Fellowship and Twin Cities Creation Science Association, for coming
to this debate which can serve as an example for dealing with explosive
issues in a courteous, intellectual manner. I am Ross Olson, serving on the
Board of TCCSA. I was educated at the University of Minnesota for both
undergraduate and medical school and never heard any evidence against
evolution. It was 10 years later that I discovered a powerful case against
it and I changed my mind, although it took a long time to do so.

Perhaps some will change their mind today, one way or the other, but even
for the vast majority who do not, a new respect for the other side may be
developed. You may be sitting next to those who you consider enemies
tonight. Those of us coming from a Christian perspective know that we are
told to love our enemies. And from my interactions with Nick Wallin, leader
of the Student CASH, I sense that he follows a very similar principle.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a gathering chaired by Matt Stark,
former head of the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU. Introducing me he said,
“Unlike theists, we do not believe in revelation. So we have to arrive at
truth the hard way; we have to listen to everybody.” And they did listen and
of course they questioned and argued, but they did listen.

I hope you will take one of the pre and post debate surveys, fill out the
first section now and the second section at the end. This will help us
evaluate the event. We also hope to have a DVD of the entire debate
available through the sponsoring organizations within a few weeks.
I would now like to introduce Dr. Mark E Borrello, Assistant Professor,
Ecology, Evolution/Behavior, UMN Twin Cities who will introduce the debaters
and explain the format.

*****************************************

Dr. Myers, when you do answer my questions, which you refer to as
“creationist fallacies,” could I ask you to send a copy to my e-mail
address? I do not have the time to sift through the chaff of the Blog to
find the occasional grains of wheat.

It is ironic that the characterization of creationists by Carl Sagan as
“armies of the night,” mindless groupies and sycophants, could be applied to
the Blogosphere. I asked you to raise the level of the genre but I get the
impression that you have no desire or intention to do so.
One retired professor began by e-mailing me some barely comprehensible trash
talk in the language of the blog but shifted into normal English and
actually interacted for several exchanges. When he concluded that interlude,
however, he said this, “You are too delusional to continue with…I must
return to PZ’s blog to get my sanity back.”

OK, I have studied the dialect and can try to speak broken “Blog-talk.” Dr.
Myers, you criticized Dr. Bergman’s academic credentials and publication
record as a cover-up for insecurity. May I ask you what you have published
in peer-reviewed journals? Or in edited journals? I find many references to
your blog entries.

And by the way, a blog is not instant peer-review. You would admit — indeed
insist — (as did Superman) that you have few peers and that most blog
entries are not even reviewed by the minds of those who post them. The blog
is combination of mutual admiration society with occasional piranha-like
attacks on any outsider who wanders in.

Ross Olson

Sneer harder, little man.

No, I’m not going to mail him a reply. If he can’t find this, tough. He made a number of ludicrous claims yesterday in a kind of one paragraph Gish Gallop that I’ve broken up here, and I’ll address each one, briefly, with absolutely no expectation that he’ll be able to comprehend the concepts, since he’s shown no such capability before.

To be addressed is your claim that evolution adds information. That needs to be supported.

Of course evolution adds information: it’s a process driven by random variation of a string of information, with subsequent filtering to find viable and more fit variants. My children are not identical to my wife and myself; they contain novel combinations of genes and many new mutations.

I’ll add that development is also a process that adds information. The adult multicellular organism that is PZ Myers is a concentrated node of complex information of much greater volume than the fertilized single-celled zygote that my parents made in 1956. As individuals and as a species, we extract energy and information from our environment to increase our personal information content.

Your closing remarks about evolutionary research into the beak changes of Darwin’s Finches need to be answered with the point that they are still finches and the changes cycle with changing environmental conditions.

No, because that point is stupid.

What do you expect, that finches in the Galapagos will evolve into monkeys? Over the timescale examined, they will change slowly, and any changes we see will be incorporated into our concept of the finch clade. This is what evolution predicts.

I’ll add that we are seeing speciation in Darwin’s finches. Some of the latest work shows the emergence of a new finch species in the populations studied by the Grants. This is what we expect: slow shifts over time, punctuated by the separation of populations into emergent species, and they’ll all be members of the reptile clade, the bird clade, and the finch clade. They branch, they don’t leap categories as creationists demand.

The nonsense about how the changes “cycle with changing environmental conditions” is creo-speak for “they didn’t change directionally!” Again, that’s not what evolution predicts. Populations will drift genetically, and will also to some degree track changes in the environment. That’s what was predicted, and that’s what was seen in the Galapagos.

The only point at which the crowd got rowdy was with the mention of evolution’s influence on Hitler. Actually, that issue is not solved by shouting because there is a strong case that the desire to improve the race leads to eugenic and ethnic cleansing policies.

The shouting and disgust with Bergman was prompted by his dishonesty.

We are very familiar with these facile and ahistorical attempts to pin the blame for the Holocaust on evolution and atheism. It’s not true; Hitler was a Catholic (I will concede that he was a very bad one, one who was attracted to paganism and who also used religious fervor to support his policies), his horrors were supported by many German churches, and by far the vast majority of the German population — you know, the people who ran the death camps and fought the war — were Catholic and Lutheran.

Owlmirror found this very interesting quote in Mein Kampf.

Walking about in the garden of Nature, most men have the self-conceit
to think that they know everything; yet almost all are blind to one of
the outstanding principles that Nature employs in her work. This
principle may be called the inner isolation which characterizes each
and every living species on this earth. Even a superficial glance is
sufficient to show that all the innumerable forms in which the
life-urge of Nature manifests itself are subject to a fundamental
law?one may call it an iron law of Nature?which compels the
various species to keep within the definite limits of their own
life-forms when propagating and multiplying their kind.

That’s creationist thinking; Hitler could have been a baraminologist. Don’t try to blame evolutionary biologists for the actions of an obvious creationist, like Hitler. Darwin and Haeckel were not such important influences on Hitler as the creationists would like you to think; far more important was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who basically laid out the entire Nazi philosophy for Adolf — and Chamberlain openly despised evolution. (By the way, my colleague Michael Lackey is writing a book on Hitler’s philosophy, which he argues was actually a theology derived from Chamberlain’s work. Look for it sometime next year, I’ll definitely be posting a review.)

By the way, “desire to improve the race” is not a part of evolutionary biology. Some individuals may feel that way, and they may see the tools of biology as useful for carrying out that process, but it’s not implicit in the theory.

Indeed, your claim that morality comes from our culture needs to answer the question, “What if my culture is the Mafia?” Other evolutionary apologists have candidly pointed out that the only morality that can come out of evolution is that I leave my genes, as many of them as possible, to the next generation.

If your culture is the Mafia, you grow up with Mafia morality. Isn’t that obvious? God doesn’t step in and zap you with Buddhism, you know.

It’s the same with Christians. They are brought up with Christian morality, so their beliefs and biases are a product of their culture, which is no mark of shame, although you wouldn’t know it to hear how they deny it. Similarly, my morality is a product of my culture, which I will freely admit was shaped by Christianity and other influences. We have beliefs that have worked to maintain our society, so they’ve been shaped by a kind of natural selection, too — the morality of the Bible has evolved over time. Again, they hate to admit it, because that would be an admission that right and wrong aren’t absolute…but Christian morality is itself a testimony to that fact.

Also, a truly interactive academic blog would allow posting of the studies on the academic success of students exposed to both evolution and intelligent design. You have consistently claimed that those students who do not get pure evolution will fail, but without offering any experimental or observational data.

Well, they will fail my classes, obviously. I ask questions about radiometric dating methods, about allele distributions in populations in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, and about the effects of the environment on the frequency of traits in a population. If you can’t answer those, you’ll fail biology courses. It’s a truism, like pointing out that students who can’t add will fail basic mathematics.

But once again, Olson gets the spirit of the idea entirely wrong. Contrary to his claims, I’ve mentioned repeatedly that creationist students can be quite bright, and the problem is the wasted potential of indoctrinating them into the lies of creationism. I’ve also had a number of creationist students who not only pass my courses, but do quite well: they can learn the concepts even if they don’t believe them. The point I made in the debate was not that creationist students were doomed, but they were handicapped — they didn’t get the background that would have been helpful for freshman biology and had to work harder than students who did get the basics.

And to claim that evidence against evolution does not represent evidence for intelligent design needs closer analysis.

Nope. It’s another stupid claim. Arguing that there are weaknesses in evolution (which are typically bad arguments, anyway, but that’s another matter) does not mean that Genesis is right; obviously, there are many other alternatives. Creationists like Olson want to make a badly performed sleight of hand in which they disagree with some minor technical point in the science, and therefore we’re supposed to swallow the whole bloated, elaborate theology of Christian fundamentalism instead. Nuh-uh, that’s transparently false.

There is a logical dichotomy involved. Life either has a natural origin or not. If not, then the origin must come from outside natural mechanisms. You can claim that we just don’t know, but while waiting, need to entertain the possibility that there is a cause outside of nature. To say there can be no such thing is not a scientific statement or even a logical one but an a priori elimination of one whole field of inquiry.

And there he goes. Don’t trust him; he wants an admission that a supernatural agent is merely possible, and then he’s going to pretend that you’ve admitted that the entire intricate structure of Christianity is a scientific enterprise. I’m not going to fall for it, and no one else should be that gullible, either.

I do not say that there can be no such thing as a supernatural agent; I say that the creationists have not provided any credible evidence for such a thing, which is a very different argument altogether. As I said in the debate, if you want an idea to be scientific, show us the evidence. It’s possible that the elves have been guiding evolution all these years, but it’s not a possiblity I have to seriously consider in the absence of evidence for the existence of elves.

Your redefinition of vestigial organs as reduced function may get some traction but is not the way they were presented 100 years ago,

No, it is precisely the way Darwin presented it. Darwin did not claim that vestigial organs had no function (Bergman’s bizarre and erroneous definition) but that the appendix was reduced compared to the homologous organs in non-human relatives. The word Darwin used was “rudimentary,” not “non-functional.” The only people redefining terms here are the creationists, and Bergman’s peculiar series of bizarre distortions was a perfect example.

but there is no doubt that “Junk DNA’ was clearly touted as evolutionary leftovers and delayed the search for function, which was predicted by Intelligent design.

There is no doubt that Olson is spouting complete bullshit here. At the debate, I recommended T. Ryan Gregory’s website, Genomicron, as a good source for factual information on the history and meaning of junk DNA. You might start with his “best of” post; scroll down to all the links on junk DNA. As he explains, the default view, biased by a strongly adaptationist stance, was that all DNA was functional (creationists thought likewise for different reasons—why would god load up our genomes with junk?). These views did not hold up to scrutiny. The idea that much of our DNA was junk arose from understanding of genetic mechanisms and was further supported by comparative genomics.

If ID predicts that there is little junk in the genome, then ID is wrong. Roughly 95% of the human genome is repetitive sequence, pseudogenes, and random debris. A few percent is coding sequence (not junk), and a somewhat larger percentage is regulatory (also not junk, and never regarded as such — much of the defense of non-junkiness nowadays comes from a bogus appropriation of regulatory DNA as evidence of function, but such regulatory sequences were never part of the ‘junkome’…to coin an ugly new word that Jonathan Eisen can scowl at, righteously, I think).

Most of your genome is junk. Get over it. A small part of the non-coding DNA is intensely interesting to biologists, but not because ID had anything to do with predicting it.

And that’s enough of that. Creationist misrepresentations of science are so ridiculous that you want to slap them down hard, but they also take way too much time to criticize…especially since superficial kooks like Olson love to flit over these claims with so little depth, tossing out a dozen lies instead of addressing a single point with some seriousness, since that would expose their con far too obviously.

He was right on one thing: we do make piranha-like attacks on people like him. The implication of that analogy, of course, is that that makes him dead meat ready for shredding. Bon appetit, my ravenous school!