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Doubt is our product

One of the remarkable things about the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster is their denial of the existence of underwater plumes of oil. It seems odd, inexplicable really, for BP to deny what’s been confirmed by independent scientists. It ceases to be odd though, when you try to put it in context.

I am reading Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent book Merchants of Doubt. In it, they trace the history of the marketing doubt and undercutting science, from tobacco, to SDI, acid rain, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, global warming and finally to the recent revisionist attacks on Rachel Carson. From that context, BP’s outright denial of the science seems terribly familiar. It’s not important whether your position is defensible or not. You simply have to repeat it, over and over, and depend on the pro-business media, politicians and “experts” to take up your case. So far, no one but Rand Paul is defending BP. But give it some time. You’ll soon hear about the “junk science of oil plumes”.

How to write an intelligent design book

Yeah, I’m still working on my review of Darwin’s Dilemma…which is how I end up on these tangents.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk at OU last week, I commented on his fruitful use of the model that Michael Behe had used in Darwin’s Black Box.  Abbie disagreed with me, pointing out that

Meyers choice of ‘origin of life’ was a bold choice. Meyer is not a biologist. I mean, hes got some earth science degree, but ‘Origins’ research is dominated by virologists, astrophysicists, biochemists– waaaaaaay beyond Meyers knowledge base. Waaaaaaaaay off. Behe could bullshit biochem, cause hes a ‘biochemist’, but for a geologist/philosopher to try to bullshit astrophysics… thats bold!!

[Resisting the urge to add apostrophes…]

While what she says is true, it assumes that IDists are out to bullshit scientists.  I don’t believe that’s true.  The goal of ID is apologetics – science and scientists are just props, convenient or inconvenient foils.

The first work attributed to the “intelligent design” movement is Davis and Kenyon’s 1989 “textbook” Of Pandas and People, but as Barbara Forrest and Nick Matzke demonstrated in the Kitzmiller trial, Pandas was written as a “creation science” text, and only slightly modified in the wake of Edwards v. Agillard.

Over the next 13 years the ID movement produced four important books – Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (1991), Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996), William Dembski’s The Design Inference (1998), and Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution (2002).  Both Johnson’s and Wells’ books are primarily anti-evolution books, and they draw upon the creationist tradition of using “problems” with evolution to attempt to discredit the entire endeavour.  They follow the lead of Michael Denton’s 1985 book Evolution: A Theory in Crisis – their arguments are, for the most part, specious, and are only effective if you don’t understand (or disbelieve) the self-correcting nature of the scientific endeavour.

Behe’s and Dembski’s books, on the other hand, blaze new ground.  Together they give intelligent design it’s core argument – “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”  Rather than attacking evolution, Behe chose to advance the idea that evolution was “insufficient”, that there were thinsg that couldn’t be explained by natural processes, and hence must be “designed”.  Dembski, on the other hand, tried to come up with a means of detecting design.

While both works have been effectively debunked, they were successful in reaching their target audience.  They were works of apologetics, works designed to reassure believers in an age of science.  Behe’s book had the added benefit of being something that the average reader could understand.  But the very design of the book was its greatest weakness.  In making his case that crucial areas of research were non-existent (and, he implied, impossible), Behe ignored many active fields of research.  The “irreducible complexity” of the bacterial flagellum is considerably more reducible today.  Behe’s arguments only held togetherby studiously ignoring a growing scientific literature – a literature he was forced to confront in a very real sense when it was piled in front of him in the witness box during the Kitzmiller trial.

In my review of Stephen Meyer’s talk, I noticed similarities with DBB, but it was only while writing a review of Darwin’s Dilemma that I discerned what it took to write an intelligent design book.

One of the key distinctions between an intelligent design book and a general anti-evolution book is that ID books need to lappear to be pro-science.  And it seems like the most popular literary device to convey his message is to start off with a sympathetic angle on Darwin.  Style over substance, of course.  Your next task is to pick a topic that’s “best explained by an intelligent cause”.  Bonus points if you can pick a topic that Darwin pondered.*  Meyer picked the origin of life.  The writers of DD picked the Cambrian explosion.  While you might be afraid that the field is played out, never fear.  There are lots of topics still out there, especially if you’re a brave soul who’s willing to venture beyond On the Origin of Species. The origin of angiosperms would be a great topic.**  It’s just as “sudden” as the Cambrian explosion.  And it’s got as name every bit as impressive as “Darwin’s dilemma”…Darwin’s abominable mystery.***

The next element in writing an ID book is to find some irrational exuberance to smack down.  The 1950s are a good time to find things like this (though there are probably  other equally good periods).  In the wake of the discovery of the double helix, it seemed like reductionism would solve every question.  Then contrast this with a more dismal outlook.  The early 1980s are a good time for pessimism.  Stagflation and the American defeat in Vietnam robbed American society of its sense of invulnerability, and the DNA revolution was still flew under the radar.  Faced with the realisation that reductionism couldn’t answer every question, problems loomed large.

Use that sense of despair to characterise your problem.  Feel free to ignore more recent science – most people can’t tell the difference between 1980s or 90s science and modern science.  Even biologists are often unaware of what’s happening in fields just outside their own.  And remember – ignore the last decade to three of progress.

Then run with your idea. Don’t think of it as “formulaic and lacking in originality”.  Think of it as something more akin to…fanfic.

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*Because, of course, science isn’t a progressive enterprise; we simply sit around and ponder the wisdom of the ancients.
**Although, of course, you’d have to write about plants.  But look on the bright side – the field of people who know enough about plants to show you up would be miniscule.
***OK, some people would think you’re talking about the Yeti.  But look on the bright side – you could build links between two groups that feel shut out by academic science – the creationists and the cryptozoologists.  Synergies!

Making sense of the DI

Writing about last week’s evens at OU, intelligent design proponent and Discovery Institute fellow Jonathan Wells wrote (with reference to Abbie)

Despite her earlier threats to expose publicly how “stupid” Steve is, Smith left abruptly after the lecture and did not stay for the Q&A

What? Let’s see…Abbie blogged the Q&A.  Wells linked to her blog, but someone missed the fact that everything after 8:01 refers to the Q&A.  After the Q&A ended, we stood at the back at talked to some of the IDEA Club people.  Rich and Vic where there for a good while; Abbie, David and I were there until they kicked everyone out of the auditorium.  I even spoke a few words to Stephen Meyer after his talk, enough that he recognised me (“you’re the botanist”) the following night at the museum.  And Abbie hung around as long as I did.  The only reason I bothered to come to Meyer’s talk was that she passed and picked me up.

I could take Wells seriously.  After all, I might have imagined that she and David were over on the other side of the entrance to the auditorium, speaking to ‘Rhology’ and several others…after all, I was across the aisle talking to 2 or 3 other people.  I might have imagined walking out of the Union with her and David.  I might have been so inspired by Meyer’s talk that I might have mistaken my 1.5 mile walk home for a ride in a car.  I might have.  Or maybe Wells is just making things up.  Invoking the rule of parsimony, I’m inclined to go with the latter hypothesis.  Since this is not the first time I’ve read Wells’ stuff, I’m inclined to go with the latter hypothesis.

It is, in fact, a perfect encapsulation of intelligent design.  A DI fellow tells you something that sounds plausible, but if you bother to check the facts behind their statements it’s readily apparent that what they’re saying is simply untrue.

“Darwin’s Dilemma”, part II

This is part of a review of the intelligent design movie “Darwin’s Dilemma”, which was shown by the University of Oklahoma IDEA Club. See part I.

The first part of the movie was “mostly harmless”.  Some factual errors, some odd constructs, and a few quotes from Darwin which, given the context, probably misrepresented his thought.  Bad enough, but no worse than you’d encounter on the average documentary of cable tv.  But things began to take a turn for the worse.

With the introducion of Chengjiang fauna, the underlying arguments began to slip more to the forefront. Although the Chengjiang fauna is about 10 million years older than those of the Burgess Shale, it is described as being more diverse. This, the movie argues, narrows the window of time in which these distinct groups of species could have evolved.  The shorter the window of time, the less likely it is that these groups would have evolved “by chance”.  But why should this matter?  Why do a few million years here or there matter?  This is where they bring in Paul Chien.

Paul Chien is a marine biologist at the University of San Francisco and Discovery Institute fellow.  According to the USF website, “Prof. Chien is interested in the physiology and ecology of inter-tidal organisms. His research has involved the transport of amino acids and metal ions across cell membranes and the detoxification mechanisms of metal ions”.  While the movie presents him as someone who has “done research in the renowned fossil beds of Chengjiang, China”, there’s no evidence to suggest that Chien is a palaeontologist or that he has published any of this findings (outside of Discovery Institute publications).  In the movie, Chien is shown visiting the Chengjiang site.  If you listen carefully to the what is said, it appears that he did so simply as an interested member of the public, not as an involved researcher.  But the viewer is left with the distinct impression that he worked at the site.  The movie’s website goes further, claiming that “Dr. Chien has done research in the renowned fossil beds of Chengjiang, China”.  While this is possible, I saw nothing in the movie that actually supports this assertion.

Through Chien, the movie introduces the existence of a layer of phosphatised microfossils of Precambrian origin which lie between the Burgess Shale-type fauna and the older Ediacaran fauna.  Since these fossils are older than the Chengjiang fauna, and since they lack the sort of morphological complexity that characterises the Burgess Shale-type fauna, the implication is that these fossils were deposited before the evolution of complex body plans.  The existence of 600-million-year-old microfossils is pretty amazing, especially when you realise that these aren’t just impressions – the individual cells are preserved.  Chien describes these microfossils as “sponge embryos”; it is later stated in the movie* that sponges are not thought to be ancestral to triploblastic metazoa.(i.e., most animals other than sponges and cnidarians).  The interval between these fossils and the Chengjiang fauna, the movie argues, provides the window in which all the evolution of modern phyla could have occurred.  I don’t recall an actual interval being given, but based on what Meyer said they seem to be thinking of something along the lines of 10-20 million years (as best I recall).

All in all, a pretty good gambit.  Not only have the addressed the “what about the Precambrian fossils?”,** they have actually used their existence to constrain the time frame for the “explosion”.  Very convincing.  Convincing, that is, until you take a closer look at the facts that they have chosen to spin (something that most people who see the movie will never do).  The last time I got a haircut, a History Channel documentary about Bigfoot was on tv while I waited.  It was very convincing, complete with scientific-looking analysis of the Patterson-Gimlin film and that casts of footprints that left no doubt that none of them could be made by humans or any other known species.  I also remember seeing Chariots of the Gods? when I was a child.  That, also, was totally convincing.  Of course, in both cases, I was unable to evaluate the evidence myself.  And films like this depend on that fact.

The first issues are subtle, and it’s hard to know whether they are intentional omissions or just sloppy production.  While it’s clear that the phosphatised fossils are of Chinese origin, the locality was not named.***  I was left with the clear impression that the microfossils underlay the Chengjiang site – they didn’t say so, but the implication was present.  After all, Chien never claims that he worked on the Chengjiang fossils, only on the phosphatised microfossils, but the movie’s website clearly states that Chien had “done research in the renowned fossil beds of Chengjiang, China”.**** So I started looking.  As is often the case, Wikipedia provided an excellent entry-point to the scientific literature.

As best I can determine, Chien is talking about the Doushantuo Formation which is located not in Chengjiang, but in the neighbouring province of Guizhou.  It’s apparently about 40-45 million years older than the Chengjiang fauna, rather than 10-20 million, but Meyer made it clear that they didn’t think that differences of a few tens of millions of years were all that important to their argument.***  Nonetheless, the fact that the Doushantuo Formation appears to be a somewhat singular environment means that you can’t conclude with any certainty that the fossils represented there represent the whole range of life forms or body types that existed at the time it was being deposited.  In fact, since the Doushantuo Formation overlaps with other Ediacaran assemblages, it’s pretty safe to say that it’s not a representative sample of life on earth 590-565 million years ago.  But the real problem arises with Chien’s insistence that the microfossils aren’t ancestral to modern metazoans.  Although most of them appear to be sponges and cnidarians, others have been described as being bilaterally symmetrical organisms like Vernanimicula.  While the identification of Vernanimicula as an early metazoan has been disputed, it isn’t something you can simply ignore, especially if you are trying to use the Doushantuo fossils to make the case that Cambrian metazoans could not have evolved from Precambrian organisms.   (A Google Scholar search for recent articles about Doushantuo shows that there is ongoing debate about the nature of the Duoshantuo fauna, including reports of “annelid-like” fossils.  While there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of claims like these, it’s pretty clear that the study and interpretation of this field is active and dynamic.)

While the movie spends a lot of time on the Doushantuo microfossils, little is said about the remainder of the Ediacaran fauna.  They’re basically characterised as outliers, unusual organisms that bear little relation to the groups of organisms present in the Cambrian.  And they were said to have disappeared before the beginning of the Cambrian.  Not knowing much about the Ediacarans, I found it hard to evaluate the movie’s claims.  But there’s a vast scientific literature out there, just waiting to be discovered (though, apparently, not by the creators of Darwin’s Dilemma).  A review article published in the January issue of Trends in Ecology & Evolution***** discusses the presence of bilaterally symmetrical organisms among the Ediacaran fauna, and identifies them as likely members of the ‘stem group’ that gave rise to the modern bilateral metazoans.  Despite what the movie suggests, the Cambrian fauna did not appear “as if out of nowhere”.  The presence of the ancestral forms among the Ediacarans appears to be fairly well-established.

Beyond this point the movie stops wandering along the fringe and steps boldly away from modern science.  (More to come).

– – – – – – – – – –
*One of the interviewees says this.  I believe it was Chien, but I’m not 100% certain that it was.
**In addition to the phosphatised microfossils, they also discussed – and dismissed – the Ediacaran fauna.
***As best I can recall.
****There’s no reason to assume that this information is intentionally meant to be misleading.  Rather, that whoever put together the web site for the movie got their information from the movie, and assumed that the microfossils came from “the renowned fossil beds of Chengjiang, China”.
*****Xiao, Shuhai and Mark Laflamme. 2009. On the eve of animal radiation: phylogeny, ecology and evolution of the Ediacara biota. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24 (1): 31-40

Movie night at the Sam Noble – “Darwin’s Dilemma”

Intelligent design advocates are fascinated with Darwin.  Granted, anyone who knows a little about the man probably is, and all creationists appear to fixate on him just a little.  They spend a lot of time arguing with Darwin, as if any perceived “victory” over Darwin somehow undermines evolutionary biology.  But while people like Phillip Johnson and William Dembski exude a real dislike of Darwin, it seems like the trend these days is to make positive comparisons with Darwin, to suggest that they are following in his footsteps and taking his ideas to their logical conclusion.  In his talk on Monday, Stephen Meyer spent a lot of time making the point that he was inspired by Darwin (and Lyell, of course).  In Darwin’s Dilemma, this theme seems to continue (although this may simply reflect the role that Meyer had in shaping the film).

The OU IDEA Club (Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness Club) hosted a screening of Darwin’s Dilemma last night at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History on the University of Oklahoma campus.  The screening was followed by a Q&A with Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Wells.

Ostensibly, the movie focuses on the “problem” of the Cambrian Explosion, the  apparently rapid radiation of complex animals during the Lower Cambrian, about 530 million years ago.  The presence of a large number of well-differentiated fossils in the Cambrian, coupled with the apparently lack of fossils in the Precambrian, was identified as a potential obstacle for the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin.  It is to this dilemma that the name of the film alludes.  In the first two thirds of the movie, much of the focus is on the discovery of the Burgess Shale in Canada, and the Maotianshan Shales in Chengjian County, Yunnan Province, China.

The start of the movie was innocuous enough.  The animations of the Burgess Shale fauna was pretty enough, although it was cartoony and felt rather dated.  The story of the discovery of the Burgess Shale was interesting, although once again, their animations (explosion on the mountainside to represent Walcott‘s investigation of the formation; fossils pulled out of the rock face when they were being discussed, and then re-inserted) were a little distracting – they felt dated, like an old video game.  (But it’s rude to complain when the movie’s free…)

There were problems with their treatment of Darwin.  The NCSE’s factsheet points out several errors that suggest a sloppy treatment of factual matters.  The movie claims that Darwin worked with Adam Sedgwick in Wales on Cambrian rocks prior to his voyage on the Beagle.  The factsheet says

In fact, according to Michael Roberts, Darwin and Sedgwick never observed Cambrian rocks together.

In addition, the footage of Wales is apparently of Ordovican volcanic rock, not Cambrian rock.  Does it matter?  Not a whole lot, but it does suggest a certain flexibility with the facts.  But does that really matter in a movie that sets out to mislead its audience?  Probably not.  The movie also repeats the common misconception that Darwin’s ideas about evolution were born while he is in the Galapagos.

But the first hint of what’s to come surfaces in the discussion of Walcott’s ideas about where Precambrian fossils might be found.

According to the movie* Walcott (the discovered of the Burgess Shale) suggested that the transitional Precambrian fossils might be found beneath the ocean floor.  I have no idea whether this was a serious prediction or not, but the movie treats it as if it were.  They say that Walcott’s hypothesis remained untested until deep-water drilling for oil has brought lots of drill cores from the bottom of the ocean, and none have revealed Precambrian fossils.  They then go on to say that ocean-floor mapping has revealed that the rocks of the ocean floor are relatively young, and the ocean floor is an entirely unsuitable place to look for Precambrian fossils.

Taking all this at face value* still leaves me puzzled.  Oil prospecting??  Why would anyone expect oil companies to drill for oil in Precambrian deposits?  Oil is a fossil fuel.  Given the paucity of Precambrian fossils, what sort of petroleum geologist would look for oil in Precambrian rocks? Why spend so much time building up a strawman, only to admit it’s a strawman?  Is it meant to convey a sense of superiority over these “poor dumb materialist geologists”?  Did they have some stock footage of an oil plantform that they had to use before it went bad?  Or was it just bad editing?

Beyond this point, the movie went sharply downhill…

– – – – – – – – – –

*Treat that with whatever skepticism you think is warranted.  It is, after all, an ID production.

Stephen Meyer at OU

Intelligent design proponent and Discovery Institute Fellow Stephen Meyer spoke at the University of Oklahoma last night.  And hilarity ensued.  Meyer is best known for his role in the Sternberg peer review controversy; a paper by Meyer was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a real-life peer-reviewed journal.  The journal later withdrew the paper due to the improper way in which the peer review process was handled by Richard Sternberg.  While Meyer’s talk was considerably better than Dembski’s talk two years ago, it still boiled down to the old ID canard – “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”

Meyer was in town to hawk his new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design.  Based on his talk, Meyer is attempting to revive the magic of Darwin’s Black Box; in 1996 Michael Behe argued that there were too many ‘gaps’ in our knowledge of molecular biology, and that these gaps were too big to fill.  Behe’s arguments have not aged well; undaunted by his doubts, science has filled many of his gaps, and left his broad generalisations looking rather silly.  Nonetheless, Behe’s book provided a very fruitful model – it created the illusion that there was something to the ID argument.  Behe’s model was much more successful that the one that Jonathan Wells used in Icons of Evolution (rehash old, debunked ideas and hope no-one notices) or Dembski used in his books (be utterly incomprehensible so that it’s almost impossible to debunk you).  Although he seems to have gone for the Behe model, Meyer’s selection lacked Behe’s originality – while Behe blazed new ground for creationists when he addressed molecular biology, Meyer went with an old creationist favourite, the origin of life.

The origin of life is a difficult problem.  Unlike evolution, which goes on all around us, the origin of life lies in the distant past.  It occurred under conditions that are very different to those that are present in the world today.  And, most probably, it was an improbable event.  It is, at all levels, a very difficult problem.  This means that Meyer’s attempt will probably have a longer shelf-life than Behe’s.

Abbie’s account of Meyer’s talk captures the key details of his argument, I think.  There really wasn’t much substance.  For another take, check out the IDEA Club’s liveblog.  The essence of Meyer’s argument appears to be the old assertion that the origin of life is too improbable to have happened by chance.  And if you dispense with the chance argument, what’s left is design.**  But if the underlying construct was bad, the supporting “evidence” was not apparent.  Granted, Meyer referred to Douglas Axe’s work, and mentioned various chapters in his book, but if this had been a presentation of science, I would have expected to see the evidence presented and discussed.

The IDEA Club’s liveblog captures a sense of the beginning of Meyer’s argument.  Lots of stuff about Darwin, Lyell, Huxley, Watson and Crick, Ayala, Dobzhansky, A.G. Cairns-Smith and Jacques Monod, in which he seemed to be trying to make a case against “blind chance” in the origin of life.  Lots of talk about probability, lots of talk about “information”.  And therein lies much of the problem with both the presentation and ID as a whole.  Much of that discussion feels like a more sophisticated version of the “tornado through a junkyard assembling a 747” argument.  He used a six-sided dinosaur toy to illustrate the improbability of “information” (protein sequences) assembling by chance.  The toy is a puzzle of a sort, divided into four segments – head, upper torso, lower torso and tail (or something like that – I couldn’t actually see what it looked like, only that it had four parts).  Meyer talked about the difficulty of getting it right by chance – if you wanted a velociraptor you’d have a 1 in 6 chance of getting the head right, a 1 in 6 chance of getting the upper torso, 1 in 6 for the lower torso, and 1 in 6 for the tail.  Multiply the probabilities and you have a 1 in 1296 chance of getting it right “by chance”.

The problem with that analogy is the problem that seems to underlie all of these improbability claims.  You don’t need a specific dinosaur, you need any dinosaur.  You don’t need one specific protein, you need one that works.  Why does that matter?  Well, to begin with, whichever head you pick will be fine.***  So that cuts your chance down to 1 in 216.  The second point is that you aren’t interested in probability, you’re interested in expected outcomes.  When someone tells you that you’re “one in a million” they mean that there are 300 people just like you in the United States, 6500 people like you in the world.  So “improbability” isn’t as important as “expectation”.

More to come…

– – – – – – –
*this gave Sternberg great martyr cred with the anti-science crowd, claiming that he was fired from his job at the Smithsonian…despite the fact that he was neither an employee, nor was his appointment as an unpaid associate terminated.
**OK, he actually talked about chance, necessity and chance + necessity.  But the problem with that argument is that it assumes an “if not A, then B” construct, instead of a “if not A, then notA”.
***Of course, this only works if you believe that life isn’t teleological.  If you believe that evolution must end up with us, with humans “made in the image of God”, then it gets more difficult.  But that isn’t a claim that evolutionary biology is making.

Taken as a scientific talk, Meyer’s presentation fell pretty flat.  But if you look at it as part of a book promotion tour, it’s not such a bad deal.  You get your potential audience interested, you add a little spice through controversy.  It’s probably smart marketing.

Gov. Henry vetoed Sally Kern bill

Via the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education mailing list

Governor Henry’s message on his veto of HB 2633:
“This is to advise you that on this date, pursuant to the authority vested in me by Section 11 and 12 of Article VI of the Oklahoma Constitution to approve or object to legislation presented to me, I have VETOED House Bill 2633. Under current state and federal law, Oklahoma public school students are already allowed to express their faith through voluntary prayer and other activities. While well intended, this legislation is vaguely written and may trigger a number of unintended consequences that actually impede rather than enhance such expression. For example, under this legislation, schools could be forced to provide equal time to fringe organizations that masquerade as religions and advocate behaviors, such as drug use or hate speech, that are dangerous or offensive to students and the general public. Additionally, the bill would presumably require school officials to determine what constitutes legitimate religious expression, subjecting them to an explosion of costly and protracted litigation that would have to be defended at taxpayer’s expense.”

Henry could have waited a day and let this bill die as a pocket veto. It is important that he decided instead to veto it directly, thus sending an important message.

I would like to extend my heartiest thanks to Governor Henry.