Thursday, August 25, 2005

Americans trust their press to guide them. And they can, because the press tries to be objective. Its reporters never add its own opinion to anything.

As an example, The New York Times recently published a front page story by Kenneth Chang on "Intelligent Design" vs. evolution. It started off with several paragraphs which gave the "Intelligent Design" position in the debate, and every criticism of that position in the rest of the article was preceded with some conjugation of "scientists say". Biologists howled all over the net that what "scientists say" is, in fact, the truth, that the "Intelligent Design" side consists of demonstrable misinterpretations, and that the "even handed" presentation in the Times created the appearance of a legitimate debate where none really exists.

What makes this case unusual is that the reporter himself showed up, in more than one comment thread to defend himself. Which he did by presenting the "scientist say" paragraphs from his article. He feels comfortable leaving to the reader the judgment of which side of this debate is the sober thinkers, and which the screaming moonbats, even if it gives the reader no basis at all for making that judgment. Because even if one side of an argument is obviously right, and another is obviously deluded or lying, a journalist can't say so. You can't state that kind of fact and still be "objective".

Some cynics might observe that when the press has these standards, any fact, no matter how well established, can be made to seem the object of legitimate debate just by paying some sober-looking fellow to utter statements which could only be believed by someone utterly ignorant of the actual evidence, or failing that, a screaming moonbat. They might even suggest that that's what the oil companies have been doing by stirring up a false debate on global warming, and what the funders of innumerable right-wing think tanks have been doing on social issues.

Why cheapen your life by listening to these cynics?


Blogger michael said...

Scientists say the Earth is round and revolves around the Sun. But the Bible says it is flat and the center of the universe.

Who knows what the truth really is?

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some college textbooks may assert that pi equals 3.1415926, but God's own word clearly shows that pi equals three (1 Kings 7:23).

Who knows what the truth really is?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just looked up that 1 Kings 7:23 - Wow! God failed Geometry too!

I'm down with that. Geometry is HARD WORK, don't ya know. Hard work is hard!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Cathie from Canada said...

One bright note for today's teenagers, as the Poorman points out. Think of how much easier it will be to write the midterm when the answer to every question is "Because it is God's will".

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, who knew God's geometryizing would be so intelligent? Awesome.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Kop said...

First, 1 Kings 7:23 only used one significant digit in its measurements, thus pi=3, not 3.1415926. Funny how twisting the facts is so tempting to make a point.

ID is EXTREMELY suspect and probably bunk. Teaching it is along side science is ridiculuous, especially if the supernatural is given as an alternative. However, I am not sure if science can yet rule out that naturally occuring intelligent structures (maybe DNA or RNA or something else) that possess functionality similiar to or analagous to the cortex, which produces what we generally consider intelligence, possibly making some steps in evolution less radom and chaotic and more like an intelligent design than a mere chance occurence through natural selection. This is at least a scientifically testable hypothesis. If it is falsified, then ID is bunk. Admittedly, this is not what most proponents of ID are arguing. Although, my hypothesis above is consistent with what they are arguing, so maybe we shouldn't pompously laugh too hard at them just yet.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kenneth Chang's goal is to be the Judy Miller of the NYT biology beat. Never mind the lack of any actual experience in a biology course or understanding of evolution. So long as he gets to be the Queen of All Intelligent Design, he's more than happy to spin it his way.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I guess God rounds to the first whole number.

That means that we may have the 10.2 Commandments (Masturbation might be that 2/10ths of a sin). And of course, there's the Trinity+1/2, the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and MiniJesus.

And we all know that creating the earth in seven days was bunk. It was actually 7^999999999999 days.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Mike M. said...

Some characters in Neil Gaiman's new novel, Anansi Boys, believe that all the lands of the Earth were shat out by a crow. I think that idea needs to be taught in geology classes. Let the students make up their own minds.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karl Popper is probably howling in his grave.

Dr Ray Scott Percival's essay on Popper clearly helps inform one of the laughbable nature of the "science" behind "Intelligent Design" and "Creationism."

...Thus the term "immunizing stratagem" arose in connection with Popper's attempt to solve the problem of distinguishing scientific from pseudo-scientific theories - the so-called demarcation problem. Popper's solution was the methodological rule to allow into science only empirically falsifiable hypotheses, and subject these to severe criticism. In addition, theory development was to proceed from less to more testable, i.e., more informative theories. If a theory is refuted and an alternative sought, it had to be more testable, not less, and the more testable the better. For to reduce testability is to reduce knowledge, but in science we desire the growth of knowledge. An immunizing stratagem is a development in theory that reduces testability.

In other words, ID and Creationism invoke "God" to systematically plug up their untestable logical and theoretical holes, which are all over their ideas; this invoking of God to replace testable (and hence possibly refutable) ideas is clearly an example of Popper's idea of an immunizing stratagem.

Any scientist worth his or her salt knows and understands this basic epistemological principle of science that Popper proposed, and THIS is why ID and Creationsim are a joke the scientific community.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having read the NYT article, I thought it came down squarely on the side of evolution. The upshot was that every ID claim was shown to be rebutted, while further on in the article the DI was shown to be a socio-political policy think tank and not a serious scientific institute. The fact that he attributed scientific arguments to scientists is, IMO, irrelevant. When I argue in defense of evolution I also refer to what "scientists say" (not being one myself).

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't quite parse what Kop is proposing about intelligence of DNA like a cortex. Is there a specific concept of what intelligent DNA might be, or just a general "maybe there's something magic behind the mechanism"?

From athe perspective of an evolutionary ecologist who uses CS, I see a fundamental difference between information and information processing, with intelligence being the latter.

DNA is a data structure, it contains but does not process information. [Transcription, translation, etc., are mechanisms for decoding or applying the information, but don't process it in the sense of modifying it.] Natural Selection is a branching process, which across generations of replication and differential survival, "operates on" the information in the DNA. [And is a pretty efficient process/algorithm: think about B-trees & searching & sorting.]

Neural networks (cerebral cortex being one complex example) _process_ information (externally generated signals). Perhaps I'm unfairly excluding the limbic system (memory), because again I don't consider memory

Yes, there is information in the NN in terms of which neurons are connected to which, and in positive or negative feedback, but the primary behavior is processing external inputs of information to output signals/information. How a bunch of neurons organize themselves into useful signal-processing configurations (aka one form of learning) is a very active part of neurobiology.

Given that framework, a statement that maybe DNA or something is intelligent (naturally-occurring intelligent structure) doesn't parse. What am I missing?

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This is at least a scientifically testable hypothesis. If it is falsified, then ID is bunk. Admittedly, this is not what most proponents of ID are arguing. Although, my hypothesis above is consistent with what they are arguing, so maybe we shouldn't pompously laugh too hard at them just yet."

How do you test that hypothesis scientifically? What is the If...Then...part of that statement and how does it support or debunk ID? I read that as assigning similar functions to structures like DNA and the cortex. I don't see where the stable storage of information (DNA) is functionally similar to a network of cells that form the basis for intelligence (cortex) on anything more than a fundamental level. A CD-ROM stores information in a logical, intelligent manner as well. I wouldn't attribute intelligence to a CD-ROM any more than I believe that a superior being created CD-ROMs. Maybe when they start self-replicating they become objects of ID?

I must confess that it sounds to me more like trying to push the creationist angle further and further into the areas of science that are still not fully understood. My feeling is that once the "naturally occurring intelligent structures" are shown to exist by a strictly natural mechanism (amazingly similar to evolution, I predict)beyond even unreasonable doubts (which is where the bar keeps getting set) that proponents of ID will next choose the semi-atomic particles (quarks, muons, gluons, etc.) that make up all of the atoms of each molecule to become the "intelligent particles" through which the "divine creator" has worked his magic. I fear that this will continue until:
A) The existence of a divine being is debunked, or
B) The Rapture

2:09 PM  
Blogger Horatio said...

10 and 30 both have two significant digits.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm bothered more that the ID hypothesis, though it may be falsifiable (by demonstrating an instance whereby life _does_ spontaneously arise), it is in no way illuminating to discovery. ID reduces to an unnecessary thorn in the side of scientists pursuing the origin question (which by the way, has only passing relation to evolution). And in the meantime, it constitutes an infuriating political football for the scientifically deficient... sigh.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question is not whether ID is falsifiable; that is, whether some motivated and knowledgeable person can show some aspect of it to be wrong. The question is, is it provable; by which I mean can the theory be used to produce predictions which can (experimentally, using the fossil record, or by some other means) be verified to be true?

To my knowledge, this has not yet happened. In my opinion, it is not bloody likely.

4:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kenneth Chang needs to read's excellent set of resources, including the article "The Lost Meaning of Objectivity."

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

michael: "Scientists say the Earth is round and revolves around the Sun. But the Bible says it is flat and the center of the universe."

For the record, the Bible nowhere says the Earth is flat or is the center of the universe. It implies geocentrism, as in the tale of Joshua commanding the Sun to stop. It implies flatness, as when Jesus can see all the kingdoms of the world from a high mountain (presumably not on the Moon). The sphericity of the Earth was known in antiquity; anyone reading flatness from the Bible was simply projecting their own ignorance.

As for "scientists say," I confess that as a newswriter I would easily fall into using that construction. It's factually correct (they do say it, don't they?) and it attributes knowledge which the writer may not possess first-hand, as Anonymous 1:49pm said.

It comes down to a credibility contest: who ya gonna believe, Discovery Institute or some "scientists"? Weirdly, DI's ultimate agenda is to undermine the credibility of scientists.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a local news story this week about a guy who killed himself doing a bike stunt on an outdoor stairway. "Police say he would likely have survived if he had been wearing a helmet."

Does that stand as a plain fact, or does it need attribution? Is the writer implying that there's a debate as to whether helmets save lives?

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Having read the NYT article, I thought it came down squarely on the side of evolution. . . The fact that he attributed scientific arguments to scientists is, IMO, irrelevant. When I argue in defense of evolution I also refer to what "scientists say" (not being one myself)."

Yes, but you accept science, either on faith or out of an understanding of the various mechanisms that make science a imperfect (being human) but fairly reliable way to understand the natural world. You also probably realize that virtually the entire scientific community thinks ID is bunk. For people who have less of these understandings, it might sound like a valid debate. For folks who feel that science is taking away their God, barring their beliefs from public school, or just being so gosh-darned soulessly reductionist - maybe not. Would anything change this? Dunno. Gee, I'm helpful . . .

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean, for that last group of folks, it might seem like a bunch of mean, pompous ol' scientists - what makes them think they know it all? - beating on some perfectly reasonable ideas . . .

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'm bothered more that the ID hypothesis, though it may be falsifiable (by demonstrating an instance whereby life _does_ spontaneously arise)"

Actually, no. Even if a life form spontaneously arises, the basic shape of 'Intelligent Design' isn't falsified. The claim will be some form of, 'The designer designed the universe such that when these circumstances occur life is created.'

And this is the problem with 'Intelligent Design' as a theory. There is no prediction that it makes that can be tested. None. It presupposes a creator that created the universe (and the things in it) the way they are (by which I mean the way they behave, not that they don't possess the ability to change/evolve). There is nothing in 'Intelligent Design' that says, based on these axioms/postulates of ID, x, y, or z follows. Instead, it looks at the empirical evidence we have and says, 'the designer is the root cause of it all.' It says that and nothing more.

It is not science. It doesn't propose anything that will move forward our knowledge of the world (many scientists believe in God, and all have heard of the idea of a God/gods, so you can't even claim that the idea of a designer is new to scientists). It doesn't explain anything beyond what science already explains. It simply looks at the edge of the scientific world and says, 'Beyond this point lies God.'

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two Words describe this, "False Equivalency", it's something that should be repeated over and over again to elevate the phrase into the public consciousness, just as "False Dichotomy" should be invoked everytime some jackass says, "You're either with us, or with the terrorists!" Critical thinking needs to be stressed, by all of us, to expose the lies of the Republican Right.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Kenneth Chang said...

I disagree the article says or implies an equivalence between I.D. and evolution unless you want to willingly ignore what the words actually say.

There are phrases and sentences like "claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research" and "So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories." and "Despite its use of scientific language and the fact that some design advocates are scientists, they say, the design approach has so far offered only philosophical objections to evolution, not any positive evidence for the intervention of a designer." that are meant to give guidance to the reader. (I can see why you might feel that the "they say" in that last sentence is unnecessary, but almost all of the other "scientists say" refer to ideas of "what is science?" and "why is I.D. not science?" and those are better attributed to scientists than just coming out of my mouth, yes?)

Below is the section from the article, some 430 words, that describes evolution and its successes. If you read it, you will notice there is not a single "scientists say" attribution in the whole bit, because as you correctly assert, a straightforward telling of what is known does not require attribution:


Darwin's theory, in contrast, has over the last century yielded so many solid findings that no mainstream biologist today doubts its basic tenets, though they may argue about particulars.

The theory has unlocked many of the mysteries of the natural world. For example, by studying the skeletons of whales, evolutionary scientists have been able to trace the history of their descent from small-hoofed land mammals. They made predictions about what the earliest water-dwelling whales might look like. And, in 1994, paleontologists reported discovering two such species, with many of the anatomical features that scientists had predicted.

Darwin's Finches

Nowhere has evolution been more powerful than in its prediction that there must be a means to pass on information from one generation to another. Darwin did not know the biological mechanism of inheritance, but the theory of evolution required one.

The discovery of DNA, the sequencing of the human genome, the pinpointing of genetic diseases and the discovery that a continuum of life from a single cell to a human brain can be detected in DNA are all a result of evolutionary theory.

Darwin may have been the classic scientific observer. He observed that individuals in a given species varied considerably, variations now known to be caused by mutations in their genetic code. He also realized that constraints of food and habitat sharply limited population growth; not every individual could survive and reproduce.

This competition, he hypothesized, meant that those individuals with helpful traits multiplied, passing on those traits to their numerous offspring. Negative or useless traits did not help individuals reproduce, and those traits faded away, a process that Darwin called natural selection.

The finches that Darwin observed in the Galápagos Islands provide the most famous example of this process. The species of finch that originally found its way to the Galápagos from South America had a beak shaped in a way that was ideal for eating seeds. But once arrived on the islands, that finch eventually diversified into 13 species. The various Galápagos finches have differently shaped beaks, each fine-tuned to take advantage of a particular food, like fruit, grubs, buds or seeds.

Such small adaptations can arise within a few generations. Darwin surmised that over millions of years, these small changes would accumulate, giving rise to the myriad of species seen today.

The number of organisms that, in those long periods, ended up being preserved as fossils is infinitesimal. As a result, the evolutionary record - the fossils of long-extinct organisms found preserved in rock - is necessarily incomplete, and some species appear to burst out of nowhere.

10:28 PM  
Blogger charles said...

Nice excerpt. But to my tin ear, at least, it's indistinguishable in tone from your presentation of the views of "Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University" in the opening paragraphs of the piece:

In one often-cited argument, Michael J. Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a leading design theorist, compares complex biological phenomena like blood clotting to a mousetrap: Take away any one piece - the spring, the baseboard, the metal piece that snags the mouse - and the mousetrap stops being able to catch mice.

Similarly, Dr. Behe argues, if any one of the more than 20 proteins involved in blood clotting is missing or deficient, as happens in hemophilia, for instance, clots will not form properly.

Such all-or-none systems, Dr. Behe and other design proponents say, could not have arisen through the incremental changes that evolution says allowed life to progress to the big brains and the sophisticated abilities of humans from primitive bacteria.

These complex systems are "always associated with design," Dr. Behe, the author of the 1996 book "Darwin's Black Box," said in an interview. "We find such systems in biology, and since we know of no other way that these things can be produced, Darwinian claims notwithstanding, then we are rational to conclude they were indeed designed."

There are two things to say about this. First would be to cite the word count -- a bit under 200 words, as opposed to your 430. You seem to do this a lot. Rather than count the words in the passage you quoted, it might be more significant to note that it occurs 1400 words or so into the article as a whole, which means (as you're surely aware) that a whole lot of readers will have quit by that point, and won't ever see it.

More to the point, you do go on to say that the evolutionary sequence of proteins has been unraveled, and DNA analysis backs it up. But look at the way you do that: you begin by quoting the views of one professor, Behe, who sees "evidence" of "design", and then quote another, Doolittle, who sees evidence for a different story --- giving the two equal weight. (If anything, Behe has pride of place). In fact, the evidence cited by Doolittle is definitive, and knocks Behe flat. But the tone and substance of your article presents Behe as a serious professor advancing a serious argument, who happens to disagree with another professor with a different argument, and not as a spuriously credentialed moonbat spouting nonsense. Thus creating the appearance of a legitimate debate where none exists -- which is my problem here with your article, and your profession.

12:01 AM  
Blogger Kenneth Chang said...

Hey, you wrote, "every criticism of that position in the rest of the article was preceded with some conjugation of 'scientists say.'" I just showed that this was not true.

You wrote that the article "gives the reader no basis at all for making that judgment." I gave examples of lots of sentences in the article that were intended to give the reader basis for making judgment.

If you feel there was too much I.D. stuff at the top, fine. The order of the paragraphs were shuffled around innumerable times. I know why it's up there, and I can see why some wished it had been farther down in the story.

As I've written elsewhere, you're under no obligation to like the story. If you hate it, go ahead and hate it. I won't call you stupid or ignorant or say you are wrong to hate it.

And as I've also written elsewhere, if a large fraction of readers indeed succumbed to an impression that there is a scientific controversy and that I.D. and evolution are equally valid theories, then I would completely agree with the criticisms.

But I have not heard or read any anecdotal evidence of this. You figure, with all these howling biologists, that someone would have a good story, "I was talking with a non-scientist friend of mine who read the Times article and then started asking why we biologists are so dismissive of intelligent design. Sheez!"

This, after all, is a testable hypothesis.

I, meanwhile, offer a counter-anecdote. Another reporter -- not a science person, just a very good reporter -- came up to me today and told me that he really liked the article. He said the explanation of Behe's blood clotting example was very clear, and he could see how weak the argument was. He said the text made it clear that evolution and I.D. were not equivalent, and he said he now felt informed about an issue that he had not followed closely.

This is *exactly* the response you want. And this reporter is exactly the type of person you would want to draw in -- intelligent, but not scientifically inclined.

I don't know if this reporter's reading was typical. I do know that most of the feedback I've gotten from non-biologists has been along those lines.

Finally, I strongly suspect the reason you think Michael Behe is a "spuriously credentialed moonbat spouting nonsense" is not that Ken Miller or Russell Doolittle said so, or that some publication said so, not even if it had been the New York Times. It's because you listened to Behe and thought about what he said.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Bill from Dover said...

One is system of belief.
The other is a system of discovery.

1:20 AM  
Blogger Reb Yudel said...


Was the structure of the article (claim, response) set by you, or by the assigning editor?

Was the assigning editor at the national desk, or the science desk?

How do your Discovery Institute sources feel about the story?

Would the New York Times use such a story to discuss the claims of Holocaust deniers?

For me, the story has created a tremendous crisis of faith.... in the Times.

9:43 AM  
Blogger charles said...

Well, your excerpt begins by noting that "no mainstream biologist today doubts [the] basic tenets" of evolution --- but the article itself began with Behe calling their judgment into question. And much of the rest is the attributed views of a particular scientist, Darwin, who variously "observed", "realized", "hypothesized", and finally "surmised" elements of the chain of reasoning he's known for today --- the last two words being five-dollar synonyms for "guess".

(Which isn't obviously wrong, as a historical statement of Darwin's activities -- he didn't have all the modern evidence that makes his hypotheses a lead-pipe cinch. Which is why it's more important to consider that evidence, when deciding what we ought to believe today, than to consider what one Brit did in the Galapagos during Andrew Jackson's presidency, whatever that Brit's historical importance. But your consideration of the modern evidence is even more explicitly tit-for-tat).

As I said, the tone of your excerpt does not strike me as being much different at all from your description of Behe's views -- and Behe does get pride of place, which is hugely important in newspaper writing. (I rarely read a Times article all the way to the end; excluding your professional work, how often do you?)

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Reb:
1) The structure of the story was the result of my writing followed by editing of several editors.
2) I got the assignment from the science desk.
3) The initial posting on Discovery's Evolution News blog was titled "New York Times Science Section Dismembers Strawman of Intelligent Design" and it started, "When you can no longer ignore intelligent design, distort it. This seems to be the approach of in the Science section of The New York Times by Kenneth Chang." Later in the day, Jonathan Witt modified it and took out these sentences, thinking it overly harsh. I think it's fair to say they had mixed feelings. (I asked him for a copy of the original posting and he obliged in sending it to me.)
4) The reason we're writing about I.D. is because they have already managed to get onto the national stage and influence education policy around the country, and if you're writing about it, you have to explain what it is. Similarly, if there were a holocaust denier who was, say, running for mayor, then yes, we would write an article describing his (or her) views followed by the appropriate denunciations and perhaps a clarifying passage indicating there is no historical dispute that the Holocaust occurred. It would have a similar back-and-forth structure, and no one would come away with the impression that the Times approved of holocaust denying simply because that view was presented first. Rather, I would expect that most people would appreciate that these views had been exposed and they could easily judge for themselves how offensive they were.

7:30 PM  

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