Vox Day, who has commited himself to an indepth exchange of views next month on evolution, has a revealing little piece on his blog called "Talk Origins, talk fast". He raises an interesting little muddle when he remarks that:

"But I have to say, the more I read on the pro-evolution side, the weaker their case looks. I mean, economists know that they don't understand everything about how the economy works, even though we have a pretty good understanding of certain processes. We have no problem admitting some of the things that we don't know... but I've never read more weasel phrases like "may be caused" and "might explain" and "could be attributed to" than in my recent perusal of various evolutionary papers."

I left a little response for Vox in the comments section that I thought might provide some badly-needed context, and I thought I would share that here as well:

With respect to the term 'weasel phrases', I'm afraid these are pretty typical of science writing, especially parts which discuss the merits of a hypothesis. Scientific generalizations are always held tentatively----even a statement previously regarded as a 'law' (such as, say, Mendel's principle of segregation) may be modified or rejected in the light of new data.

A failure to appreciate the tentative nature of scientific claims invariably leads non-scientists (including journalists) to make all sorts of errors in evaluating scientific claims. But here's some striking examples of that tentativeness, from one of the most important scientific papers ever written,
the original Nature article by Watson and Crick. Key expressions of that tentativeness are highlighted by yours truly.

The article begins with: "We wish to suggest
a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.)."

A bit later, it remarks: "The previously published X-ray data on deoxyribose nucleic acid are insufficient for a rigorous test of our structure. So far as we can tell, it is roughly
compatible with the experimental data, but it must be regarded as unproved until it has been checked against more exact results."

Finally, in the well-known conclusion: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated
immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Wow, look at all the 'weasel words'! Let me suggest
that some posters here might have habitually misread such statements, possibly due to a lack of understanding of the nature of science.



My distaste for this man grows day by day. Ruben Navarette has been busy carving out a career as a contrarian Latino, and he does have the distinction of being a local boy (Sanger High) who made good, earning his master’s at Harvard and writing a book, in part to explain why he didn’t, ultimately, finish a doctorate there. He’s accomplished and syndicated in nearly 200 papers nationally, so he needs no further accolades from me.

He goes too far, however, in this column, wherein he not only generously describes the disaster which is NCLB as "educational reform" but tips his increasingly-conservative hat to the desirability of including vouchers in future revisions of that law. Of course, his take is that teachers oppose this because we are afraid of being accountable.

That’s nonsense, Mr. Navarette. I’m not afraid of being accountable, but I want the community as a whole to be accountable for poor academic performance, rather than just teachers. I want students who are held accountable by parents. I want parents who are held accountable by community leaders. As a member of my community, I am concerned that sacrificing increasing chunks of instructional time to test preparation may actually detract from, rather than improve, educational performance. How can I call myself an effective science educator when I spend less and less time actually doing science?

To put it another way, Mr. Navarette, should individual members of the media be held accountable for the largely-unreported story of widespread teacher disenchantment with NCLB? Frankly, I have a test I’d like to give you. You’re a Harvard man, so I’m sure you can guess that if you had to spend more and more time taking tests that this might actually take time away from being a journalist.



Like the proverbial 'eye of the storm', the worldwide Harry Potter fan base doubtless moves toward a moment of relative calm: after a whirlwind week in which the film accounted for 90 percent of Fandango's weekly ticket sales, the most devoted of fans no doubt had their thirst for all things Potter slaked by the midnight premiere.

(ahem) I'm afraid that I don't count as excessively devoted, inasmuch as I didn't wear a costume or attend the mad affair with a horde of shriekers. However, I did arrive home after 3:00 in the morning, so my thoughts on the film are fresh.

The film begins unsettlingly: not only is the dementor's attack on Harry sudden and unnerving, but it is in a gritty visual style very different from past films. This creates a sense that, at any moment, anyone could be attacked again. The comic touches which have typically defined the opening set pieces of past HP films are almost entirely lacking; in fact, the reactions of the Dursleys evoke a genuine sympathy for characters who have mostly served as contemptible comic foils.

Action as the film moves back to Hogwarts is at a faster pace, and more heavily-telescoped than in past films, which no doubt reflects the difficulty of adapting the longest of Rowling's works. Many treasured subplots and details are omitted or referred to so cryptically that only devoted readers of the books will notice them. Much of this works beautifully: an extended montage of the growing dictatorial powers of new villian Dolores Umbrage framed by a series of ever-more imperious decrees from the Ministry touches just the right note, and a similar whirlwind treatment of the education and development of 'Dumbledore's Army' is similarly effective.

I would say, however, that the film would've benefited from a more deliberate pacing after the initial shocks in the first hour. Opportunities for fuller character development were set aside, particularly in the conflict (now largely implied) between Snape and Sirius. A few minutes more of the tense, beautifully done ensemble work of the Order attempting to pull its headquarters and its spirits together would have provided important context for the revelation (during Occlumency lessons) that Snape was victimized by Harry's father. This could've led to a more intelligible account of the Sirius/Harry relationship, which seems hurried and a bit glib.

Finally, I regret the film's ending. The book ends with a rather distinctive symmetry, when the team of Aurors that rescues Harry in the beginning returns him to his relatives, implicitly recognizing his growth in their estimation. This would've been tricky, as there would've been a danger of an anti-climatic thud, but by focusing attention on the Order itself this would set the stage for the war that is coming. Instead, a new scene is crafted on the Hogwarts grounds, where Harry acknowledges the power of love and friendship that has pulled him through. The camera zooms out to reveal the many members of 'Dumbledore's Army' following the Trio (Harry, Hermione and Ron) to the train station, with the implication that they will continue to follow Harry's leadership---and that Harry is no longer alone. It's a good scene, but perhaps one that hints more as to what might be revealed in Book Seven than in setting up the mystery, heavily padded with backstory, of Book Six.

Speaking of which, this feeling of relaxation in the Potterverse is temporary. Tension will build to an even greater pitch within days, as the final Book is released. My (ahem) copy has already been ordered. This tension, the way that Rowling has drawn so many people into a world with characters that you desperately care about, beggars similar fan interest in fantasy films: remarkable!









Today is July 10, and it marks the 82nd anniversary of the beginning of the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' in Dayton, Tennessee.

The trial would run for just 15 days, but during that time it gripped the imagination of the public, markedly so for a contest that had little personal consequences: the defendant, John Scopes, was merely a 'cats paw' for the ACLU, which recruited the substitute teacher to deliberately violate the state's Butler Act (passed earlier that year) which forbade the teaching of evolution, and his conviction led to a paltry fine ($100) and no jail time.

The consequences for the culture at large were considerable, however. The stakes had been greatly raised by the interjection of two celebrities who shared considerable ego and an eagerness to place their reputations on the line in behalf of their ideology: Three-time presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Williams Jenning Bryan, an avowed critic of Darwinism, weighed in for the prosecution, while the celebrated attorney and non-believer Clarence Darrow took up the case for the defense.

The circus atmosphere of the trial was greatly aided by various publicity stunts, many of them associated with the town fathers of Dayton, who saw the trial as a gold mine for the local economy---indeed, some of them had privately encouraged Scopes and the ACLU from the beginning. They got their wish, as Dayton was flooded with the curious and the committed. Eventually, the sheer number of spectators and the summer heat led to the trial to being moved outside, like a Greek tragedy with a roped-off 'bullpen' of spectators.

(The high theatricality of all this has not escaped notice: every year there is a dramatic reenactment of the event during the (I can't make this up) Scopes Trial Festival, now celebrating its 20th anniversary next weekend. It certainly was not lost on playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, who based their 1955 play 'Inherit the Wind' on the proceedings. This play was more of a veiled critique of McCarthyism than a historical account of the 'monkey trial', and it and especially the 1960 Stanley Kramer film version tinker with the facts for dramatic purposes.)

As it happened, Darrow made a monkey of Bryan by putting him on the stand and ridiculing his beliefs---which, while it garnered the most favorable publicity for evolutionists, also was irrelevant to the statute in question. Scopes was convicted and fined. The ACLU probably thought that this defeat on tactics would lead to a victory in the court of public opinion, but they were sadly mistaken. The Butler law remained on the books for decades to come, and the publicity attended the trial roused fundamentalists in many other states to pass similar anti-evolution laws. The 'monkey trial' was an enormous setback for science education in the United States.

There is a wonderful site that embeds the Lawrence-Lee play in the context of the Scopes trial, available here. The most authoritative book on the subject of the trial is almost certainly Edward J. Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion".

Larson, who is both a lawyer and a historian, occupies an interesting position in the contemporary struggle between advocates of 'intelligent design' (ID) and evolutionary biology: on the one hand, he is a pretty enthusiastic advocate for evolution, a former student of Ronald Numbers, whose work speaks for itself; on the other hand, he was at one time a Fellow of the pro-ID Discovery Institute (DI), but dissented from the 'Wedge' document produced by the DI and asked that his name not be associated with it.

Chris Mooney, since I'm pretty sure you know more about this that I do, there's an article here: a first-person account by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's of their past involvement with the DI, and gradual disenchantment with same, would be interesting reading matter, I think!



On today's date, in 1836, a not-entirely callow youth named Charles Robert Darwin wrote a letter to his mentor, the Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow. At the time, Darwin and the rest of the crew of H.M.S. Beagle were provisioning at St. Helena, well known as the place of Napoleon Bonaparte's final (1815-1821) incarceration.

With apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, it really was (ahem) 'a dark and stormy night' when Darwin was composing the letter, whose main purpose was to entreat Henslow (and, perhaps, his colleague Adam Sedwick) to sponsor him for membership in the Geological Society. But, alone in that fantastic setting, Darwin also felt free to indulge his imagination:

"I am at present living in a small house (amongst the clouds) in the centre of the Isld. & within stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb. It is blowing a gale of wind, with heavy rain, & wretchedly cold: if Napoleon's ghost haunts his dreary place of confinement, this would be a most excellent night for such wandering Spirits . . . . . . ."
At the time, just a few months from his expected return from a five-year voyage around the world, Darwin might well have felt like a wandering spirit himself! And, speaking of spirits, the Friends of Charles Darwin are trying to rouse a spirit of appreciation for all things Darwinian: remember, only 584 days to go until Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (12th February, 2009)!


I've responded, in effect, to a challenge put up by Vox Day on the blog Vox Popoli. I left the following on his blog:

"Hey, Vox! I will be happy to debate the evidence supporting evolution or creation with you on-line at your blog, or mine, or both. I'm an enthusiastic Darwinian and a serious Christian.What terms would you like for the debate? Be prepared, I think, to provide citations and evidence from the scientific literature, because that's what I'll do while I'm attempting to wipe the floor with you....:) Cheerfully....Scott Hatfield"

Vox, to his credit, accepted, requesting that we begin the actual exchange after August 15th (he has a book project that is pressing). His last sentence suggests that we should have a lively exchange:

"Since biology is entirely outside my areas of both interest and expertise, I think this should be an interesting experiment as to whether decades of science is enough to trump raw intellect."

You can't say that the fellow lacks self-confidence!