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Archive for the ‘Pseudoscience’ Category

With Florida deciding if they should adopt good science standards or insert nonsense from the usual suspects, I think a quick reminder of my previous “turtles all the way down” essay is in order. Despite the age of this and that it’s a fairly common anti-ID argument, I’ve never really seen it adequately refuted. One particular argument (well cop-out really) is that aliens that could design us don’t need to be complicated themselves and could have evolved elsewhere. Of course, when asked what these aliens could look like, what ID predicts the environment they evolved in should be and what methods they could have used (being ‘simpler’ than us, who must have been designed you see) usually results in the crickets chirping. I still stand by that ID is nothing more than creationism redressed to make it more palatable to being inserted into American classrooms after creationisms heavy defeats in key court cases in the early and late 1980s. Ultimately, any ID proponent that wants to argue space aliens has to somewhere demonstrate where these space aliens may have come from and why they were able to evolve by natural means, but life on earth could not (again, another question that is merely greeted with the sound of crickets). In any event, this repost is for you Florida ❤

Turtles all the way down.

Around the net I’ve seen this expression come up called ‘turtles all the way down’, usually referenced to intelligent design. The term comes from a story, of unknown source as it seems to come up often from different people, where essentially a famous lecturer was giving a talk on astronomy. After he was finished a little old lady came down and told him he had it all wrong.

“The world is really on the back of a giant tortoise” the woman said to which the scientist asked, in an attempt to stump her most likely, “Well then, what is the tortoise standing on?” To this the lady triumphantly replied “You’re very clever young man, but it’s of no use – it’s turtles all the way down”.

In many respects this is the problem that intelligent design faces when it proposes a ‘designer’ is natural. For example, when we take Dembski mathematics, fancy as they are and apply it to the designer we find, unsurprisingly, that the designer must himself be designed. If we do the same thing again, we find that each designer in turn requires another designer. Eventually, we have an infinite regress of designers, each one designing the previous one; turtles all the way down in other words.

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Dr. Simmons, who is the man best known for his hideously terrible arguments he put forward against PZ Myers in their recent debate, is apparently doing a Black Knight. He accuses PZ Myers of a variety of things, such as not paying attention to the points he raised, bearing in mind that Dr. Simmons never raised any points that were actually valid or not easily contradicted. Simmons opined:

Before the recent KKMS (MN radio) debate, Dr. P.Z. Myers blogged on Pharyngula that he would decimate me. Within minutes of the shows conclusion, he blogged that he accomplished his goal, never conceding a single point from an hour long show. It is worth ones while to read his blogs and those that follow as they readily speak to the character of these folks, much moreso than I could ever do. Richard Dawkins was also quick to compliment the professor and add to the feeding frenzy. Again, no concessions. They had their hearing aids turned off before the show even started.

Of course, we should point out at this point that even diehard ID supporters believed that Dr. Simmons came off looking completely clueless and indeed got ‘decimated’ by Dr. Myers. When even your own side believes you performed horribly and not just those opposed to your viewpoint, that probably means you did a terrible job: not that your opponent didn’t listen. Dr. Simmons goes through with another howler about the current state of understanding about whale evolution:

Could it be the five or so fossil pieces from dog-size animals that represent intermediate species between land animals and the quadrillion-cell whale with unexplained tons of blubber, communication skills that span thousands of miles, a windpipe separate from the esophagus (unheard of in land animals), segmental decompression, a heart the size of a Volkswagon, ability to dive thousands of meters deep or eat a krill diet?

Starting off with a factual inaccuracy is not a good way of making a point, clearly demonstrating that Dr. Simmons has never actually bothered to look into whale fossils at all or he would be familiar with many larger transitionals like Basilosaurus, which is around 15 meters in length. If he was trying to demonstrate he learned absolutely nothing from his debate with PZ Myers, he has certainly gone out of his way to prove that. He then adds the standard creationist fallacy of an argument from improbability/argument from incredularity, which is basically him stating that “I cannot see how this evolved, therefore God/Design/whatever”. This isn’t even an argument really and he continues it onto his developmental argument, which again boils down into “I can’t see how you developed, therefore God!!! I R IRREFUTABLE!!” etc. I’m sorry, but that’s not even an argument at all.

I think that the criticism Dr. Simmons suffered from his own side, the hammering he got on air from an opponent that actually knew what they were talking about and the subsequent bizarre post have caused him to lose some of his grip on reality.

Edit: It’s worth noting that Dr. Simmons in his whale rant never actually finishes whatever he was trying to say. He never refutes that there are actually early transitionals in the whale fossil line, he just brings up the point and then goes into a rant about how complex modern whales are (while simultaneously forgetting to address the original mentioning of transitional fossils, fossils he claims don’t exist at all).

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There is a further update on the discussion the other day about Casey Luskin using the research blogging icon inappropriately on the official research blogging news site here.

I talked privately with science ethicist Janet Stemwedel, and she agrees that the blurring of the distinction between what’s supported by the article itself and what constitutes the blogger’s personal opinion is problematic. In this case, when Luskin refers to “the evidence,” what evidence could he be referring to, if not the evidence supposedly offered in Orgel’s article? Yet Orgel does not present any evidence that “the complexity of life requires an intelligent cause.” The blog post itself should make it clear that this final assertion is Casey’s alone, not Orgel’s. We shouldn’t have to wait for Luskin’s assertion that this was only his personal opinion, especially when he still hasn’t modified his original post to make that clear.

Which is pretty much what I think as well.

 

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Recently, there has been some discussion over a post by the discovery institutes Casey Luskin over the use of the research blogging sites icon for “blogging on peer reviewed research”. This spawned some discussion over at the associated news blog for research blogging, particularly over if Casey followed the relevant rules and appropriately represented the paper he was presenting. Even more recently, Casey then chose to remove the icon, which is fair enough, but instead of apologising for the incident or the misuse of the icon, he instead posts a large series of excuses and hopes nobody notices his Sgt. Shultz defence doesn’t quite work. In one case, he’s simply ignorant because the icon has the website for research blogging clearly listed on it, which should promote most rational people to at least check the URL to see what the icon is about to begin with and in the other case he’s simply dishonest. What’s drawn my interest in the discussion, because creationist organisations misrepresenting some aspect of science is about as surprising as ducks being found near water (here is a good analysis of the original post and how it twists the original article) is the resulting debate over simply presenting evidence from papers or discussing it (the author presenting their opinion).

From the blogging research news blogs discussion about Caseys post, one of the users Olorin caught my attention with the following proposed rule:

Another rule might be to prohibit the review from expressing any opinions or conclusions that are not at least inherently contained in the reviewed article itself, and that they be labeled as such.

I disagreed with this statement, responding:

I don’t mean to hijack for a bit, but:

“Another rule might be to prohibit the review from expressing any opinions or conclusions that are not at least inherently contained in the reviewed article itself, and that they be labeled as such.”

Then what’s the point really? If the author isn’t able to give their own opinion on the article and perhaps even bring up other research (perhaps not addressed by the original paper). Someone might summarise a paper that is in their field and perhaps want to point out shortcomings or criticisms. Such things are to be welcomed, not stymied, but they do need to have a basis in reality.

To which Olorin further responded:

J. O’Donnell, I’m inclined to retract a proposed rule against expressing outside opinions or editorials. But, would you agree that the main purpose of the program is to inform rather than to editorialize?

Which I’ll begin to respond to now, not wanting to hijack the discussion there away from the issue of if Casey had appropriately used the icon or followed the rules (which the original thread is about, this is a different issue, even if related). Firstly, I’ll note that the mission statement (so to speak) from the original research blogging site is:

Research Blogging helps you locate and share academic blog posts about peer-reviewed research. Bloggers use our icon to identify their thoughtful posts about serious research, and those posts are collected here for easy reference.

In my opinion, this leaves open both the concept of summarising papers from the literature and also, to summarise a paper and present an opinion on the research in question. The question should really be as to how much of an opinion should the individual blogger have about the research and how the original research should be presented in support or against that opinion. For example, I see the current issue with the original discovery institute post by Casey being less about the unfair use of the icon and more about if Luskin has fairly represented the paper while presenting his opinion. The piece Casey wrote certainly isn’t a very good summary of the original paper, because Luskin only uses the paper to mine out a couple of quotes to use to support his position, while failing to describe what the paper was about, the author of the papers actual opinion and summary of the papers evidence for the authors opinion. Had Casey done these things and then presented evidence for his position on why the paper supports intelligent design, I would have viewed that at least a fair use of the paper but in reality, Caseys piece seems designed, haha little in joke there you see, to make it appear Orgel supports intelligent design when the paper has no such connotation.

However, just because the icon and goal of the research blogging site has been misused in this case, it doesn’t mean that an author should simply be confined only to summarising and presenting the authors opinion from the paper. I think that would be a disservice to people who read such posts and it would make blogging about peer-reviewed research in this manner a lot less interesting for the person writing the post. I for example, will want to pick papers that I had some degree of interest and that I felt I could add a worthwhile opinion towards, not just pick a paper for the purpose of summarising it. Additionally, in the case where the blogger is comparing research between two groups or papers, it would be very useful for the blogger in question to present their opinion (so long as evidence supports it) as to who they may think is correct. Adding your own opinion to such a post also encourages debate, particularly from other commenters who would have an idea or starting point for a discussion beyond the original paper as well.

I am all for adding ones opinion and commentary to a post about research being blogged, but if someone does this in my opinion, the original authors opinion must be clearly described, their support for their ideas discussed and then the blogger can add their opinion and commentary. This is because the original author of a paper often isn’t going to know about the blog post or what is said in many cases, so isn’t going to be actively able to defend themselves or their research. So it is only fair that the authors opinion be given a completely fair shake first before any opinion given on it should be presented.

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So, after some assistance from Dr. Gary Hurd from the antievolution boards, I’ve since found the article that Dr. Simmons referenced in his debate with PZ Myers. It turns out that to support Dr. Simmons opinion, it requires either not actually reading the article or just ignoring what the article says. For example, it is not a detailed summary on whale evolution at all, it’s just a news article about a new transitional form that has been discovered, which adds a piece to the existing knowledge we have about whale evolution. The article itself immediately contradicts Dr. Simmons ideas straight off the bat! Further, the article also clearly states:

Over the past 15 years, researchers have uncovered a series of fossils intermediate between whales and land animals, but were still missing a link to landlubbing beasts, which Thewissen says Indohyus now provides

Which fairly conclusively answers Dr. Simmons non-existant objections.

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PZ Myers radio debate

I got a lot of pleasure from listening to Dr. PZ Myers completely rip this fellow from the dishonesty institute apart on a Christian radio show (Mp3 is at the link, it’s around ~30 megs or so). Particularly amusing was when Dr. Simmons managed to get caught with his pants down about his knowledge of whale transitionals. While I found it difficult to make out from the audio during the part about the whale transitionals, I believe that Dr. Simmons says something about no transitional fossil with a blow hole and Dr. Myers interjects immediately with some name, that I presume is exactly such a fossil. From listening to the audio, it’s pretty clear that Dr. Simmons manages to come off as completely clueless and gets pretty battered around by Dr. Myers. I had to admire Dr. Myers for sticking to his guns, particularly at the beginning where he was heavily critical of the stations decision to switch the debate topic around on him a bit.

Edit: On a search of Scientific American, because I got curious as to what Dr. Simmons had read (or most likely didn’t pay any attention to) I went searching for the article from Scientific American in question. After fruitlessly searching the back archives on Scientific American, I turned to pubmed for assistance in the matter and surprise surprise, I don’t think there was an article on Whale Evolution in Scientific American from 2007. The last article written on the topic as near as I can tell, is from 2005 and is Rooting the River Horse, in March 2005 by K. Wong. There is a bit of a gap in the time line from an article “six months ago” to 2005 as I’m sure Dr. Simmons may appreciate. Of course, it may be possible as I haven’t set up my proxy that the article may not be immediately present on the archives for Scientific American and that Pubmed may not be able to find it. Can anyone else find this article?

Incidentally, the search terms I used on pubmed were “Scientific American Whale Evolution” and then variations on that general theme.

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