Been a few days since I last posted. But I've been busy....

1) Had two recording sessions (Monday and Wednesday) at Maximus Media on the seemingly-interminable CD project (at last count, 11 'songs' with transitional instrumental material and much audio manipulation). Was kind of proud of the first session: I took a very short loop of some female background singers previously recorded and then run through an amp simulator back home, extended the loop, then used the Roland Vari-Pitch to gradually lower the fundamental of the distorted, harmonic-rich chord from 'G' to 'D', in the process turning it into something very much like a civil defense siren. Imagine a pop song influence by Varese's 'Ionisation', and you'll have the general idea.

We then transferred various versions of this audio concept to locations back in Pro Tools. My engineer complemented me on how well it had gone off, and having worked with him for some time, I felt it was pretty high praise. We also created audio montages for various points in the projects: a boxing scene, an evolving and effected Steve Reich-ish treatment of a tenement fire, various 'robot' sounds from popular culture. It's coming along. Now if I can just get that Ives fragment I'm looking for to set 'OK' in side one of the instrumental mixes.....

2) Transitioning into new role at church, giving up the traditional choir director job (and taking a cut in pay) in order to free up more time on weeknights and focus more on the 'Imagine' (contemporary, with a band) service. This will allow me to spend more time working with groups in the community, such as the Interfaith Alliance of Central California, Central Valley Cafe Scientifique and The Academy. I'll have more 'flex time' to do science education and finish my CD project, and (last but not least) more time to find a new house and attack the various 'honey-do's' associated with married life!

3) Continuing to work on my new room at Bullard, finding new storage, reconfiguring the classroom environment, writing a new syllabus, and in general doing long-range planning for the new semester. It's been very difficult to maintain the desired pace of instruction this year due to the various delays and handicaps incurred by 'modernization.' I would like to believe that the general decline in student work ethic has been produced by the same process, but my colleagues paint a different picture: the unwillingness of the average student to do any work outside of the classroom setting appears to have increased generally. It's a systemic problem. You can get an idea of my frame of mind by reading this note on my class blog.

4) Assisted my colleague Charlie Oliver on Thursday with Bullard's Academic Decathlon Team. The Super Quiz topic this year, you see, is Evolutionary Biology. Right up my alley!



Or, to put it another way, what is the quality of the evidence and why should anyone care?

Over at Stan's place, he's got a couple of posts that are worth checking out. The first is a sly list of 'atheist's commandments for God', which (since Stan is essentially trying to engage atheists on philosophical terms) seems to be about one part humor, one part frustration. Definitely got me thinking: after all, if you put enough conditions on the possibility of God's existence, you can definitely rule out that possibility up front....sort of like what ID types like Philip Johnson claim we evolutionary biologists do!

More seriously, Stan has for some time made much of the fact that evolutionary biology, as a discipline, relies more upon inferences from the data than from 'proven' facts, as in engineering (Stan's background). This is very similar to Vox Day's argument, that he was skeptical of evolutionary biology because of its failure make predictions akin to those in economics (Vox's field of expertise). No doubt I will soon have a plumber explain that he has his doubts about evolution because, you know, Darwin never wielded a pipe wrench.

Anyway, Stan's latest in this vein can be read here. Now, my snap reply is that this is like some hoops fan claiming we could greatly improve the quality of football by requiring those players moving downfield to dribble the pigskin. Apples and oranges! The sort of problems that confront an engineer and a paleontologist are often entirely different problems, and you may need to employ very different mental tool kits to make them tractable.

That's not how Stan sees it, though. He thinks that evolutionary biology is, well, inferior:

The standards of evidence that are used and enjoyed by evolutionary biologists are far, FAR below the standards of other sciences. These folks are so accustomed to such low standards that they cannot comprehend why others object to their mantras of TRUTH based on inferences that are claimed "scientific".

Owch! Them's fightin' words, podnuh! Obviously, this is a rhetorical gambit similar to Philip Johnson's schtick. Johnson essentially argues that evolutionary biologists have rigged the playing field of science to exclude non-natural explanations, and in his best courtroom summation mode asks the 'jury' which places 'Darwin On Trial' if that is any sort of way to run a railroad. But, of course, science is not a court of law, so again the whole business is premised upon an 'apples and oranges' business. Stephen Jay Gould explains why in a review of Johnson's original book on the thesis:

....I accept the enlightenment that intelligent outsiders can bring to the puzzles of a discipline. The differences in approach are so fascinating—and each valid in its own realm. Philosophers will dissect the logic of an argument, an exercise devoid of empirical content, well past the point of glaze over scientific eyes (and here I blame scientists for their parochiality, for all the world's empirics cannot save an argument falsely formulated). Lawyers face a still different problem that makes their enterprise even more divergent from science—and for two major reasons.

First, the law must reach a decision even when insufficient evidence exist for confident judgment. (Scientists often err in the opposite direction of overcaution even when the evidence is compelling, if not watertight.) Thus, in capital cases, the law must free a probably guilty man whose malfeasance cannot be proved beyond a doubt (a moral principle that seems admirable to me but would not work well in science). We operate with probabilities; the law must often traffic in absolutes.

Second, there is no "natural law" waiting to be discovered "out there" (pace Clarence Thomas in his recent testimony). Legal systems are human inventions, based on a history of human thought and practice. Consequently, the law gives decisive weight to the history of its own development—hence the rule of precedent in deciding cases. Scientists work in an opposite way; we search continually for new signals from nature to invalidate a history of past argument.

The sort of 'evidence', the standard of 'proof' that a jurist like Philip Johnson would accept in a court of law is not the same as the evidentiary standards within science, and when we allow someone to make this sort of argument without pointing this out we are doing little more than enshrining a turf war. There is no guarantee that following Johnson's notions of 'proof' will give us a better outcome than the biologist's idea of what counts as evidence: raise your hand, friend, if you think the jury got it right in the original Simpson case!

Now, Stan is not making quite the same argument, but it's pretty close. The similarities between his 'take' and the author of the Wedge Strategy is striking: he is what Gould would call an 'intelligent outsider' raising a question not so much about the work that evolutionary biologists do, but about the logical assumptions by which we operate. Gould says (and I agree) that there is no reason why such outsiders can not make a vital contribution to the enterprise, even to the point of overturning a paradigm, I suppose. But Gould also concludes:

But, to be useful in this way, a lawyer would have to understand and use our norms and rules, or at least tell us where we err in our procedures; he cannot simply trot out some applicable criteria from his own world and falsely condemn us from a mixture of ignorance and inappropriateness.

I think the same thing could be said about any expert from outside evolutionary biology who fails to appreciate why we do things the way we do in the 'historical sciences'. Stan's habit of denigrating inference in and of itself seems to miss the point of why we rely more heavily on inference from the data, as when Stan writes:

If one takes the revered "mountain of evidence" and separates it, piece by piece, into two sub-mountains, one of inferential evidence and one of hard, empirical, reproducible fact, one will still have only one mountain: the inferential evidence mountain.

Now, it is not (as some might have you believe) necessarily the case that reasoning from inference is easier, less thoughtful or less rigorous than following the 'cookbook' version of scientific method that a lot of doctors and engineers learn. Gould, in the article I cite above, mocks Johnson for holding such views, describing them as a 'narrow and blinkered caricature of science' and 'a silly restriction' that would be fatal to much scientific enterprise.

Now, why is Gould so scornful? Because, as a historian of science, he was well-aware of many counter-examples. You don't have to look at ancient history, or some 'historical science' like evolution to see this; in fact, even the 'hard' sciences* often employ a chain of largely inferential reasoning: Einstein's original theory of relativity is an outstanding example. No one would say that Einstein's chain of inferences were 'easy' or lacked 'rigor'. However, Einstein's chain of reasoning did eventually lead to testable predictions, and the fact that they have survived such tests is a good reason for physicists to take the theory seriously. There is nothing inherently inferior about inferential reasoning.

I further disagree with the claim that there is a real dearth of empirical evidence. In a previous post to Stan, I pointed out that evolution through natural selection has been documented many times, up to and including speciation events. There is massive direct evidence for the fact that populations evolve, and that one possible result of evolution is speciation. There is also massive direct evidence from multiple sources that the Earth is very old, that life has been around for a long time, and that thus there have been ample opportunity for evolution to occur. There is a massive and ever-growing literature on the fossil record reveals a pattern of change that occurs in a definite chronological sequence.

No inference is required to accept any of these points. Populations evolve. New species come into existence from time to time. The Earth is very old. The fossil record is a chronology.

But let's say, for the sake of discussion, that I'm fundamentally off-base here. Let's say that these above points are trivial when compared to the chain of largely-inferential reasoning that supports the rest of evolutionary biology. Let's return to Stan's conclusion:

If one takes the revered "mountain of evidence" and separates it, piece by piece, into two sub-mountains, one of inferential evidence and one of hard, empirical, reproducible fact, one will still have only one mountain: the inferential evidence mountain.

Well and good. Then, my questions for Stan are these:

Where is the inferential reference mountain for a young Earth?

Where is the inferential reference mountain for millions of separate acts of creation?

Where is the inferential reference mountain to account for the (presumably false) appearance of common descent?

Where is the inferential reference mountain for a non-evolutionary explanation for homologous structures, vestigial organs, common biochemistry, common embryological features, the fossil record, the origin of sex, neoteny, Hox genes, pseudogenes, mutualisms, ecological niche occupation, the origin of the eukaryotic cell, adaptive radiations, haplodiploidy in social insects?

In fact, forget inference! I'll accept scientific evidence of any sort on behalf of a non-evolutionary account of any of these items. See, the reason why we follow the chain of inferential reasoning is because the inferences are consistent with an extremely large amount of observations, and the inferences are considered useful to the degree that they lead to new findings or testable predictions. (These things are typically lacking in creationist accounts.)

Anyway, my 'beef' with Stan's argument seems reducible to a parable:

Suppose a customer charges into the kitchen of a restaurant and examines their supply of top sirloin. Pronouncing the supply inadequate, the customer asks the staff to hand over their knives, or at least to turn off the slicer for a moment to consider their deficiencies. "Why," the customer says, "I have ten times as much top sirloin in my fridge at home!"

"That may well be," the chef allows, "and I thank you for pointing it out. But you have to admit, that doesn't make you a cook, much less a chef. You may think this is all a matter of following a recipe that anyone can read, but I assure you much of what we do happens up here," pointing to his head, "and involves, yes, a little imagination. Now, we can't invent 'meat' that we don't have. If you prefer a different cut of 'beef', would it be too much to suggest that you supply it? In the meantime, until you can whip up a better meal with the same ingredients, I suggest you stand aside and let those who know how, cook!"




A comment on a previous post about the machinations of "Expelled" financial backer Walt Ruloff got me thinking about the general willingness of Hollywood to repackage films to their audience, often to the point of being misleading.

A good example is the Roger Corman movie "The Terror" (1963) which starred an aging Boris Karloff and young up-and-comer Jack Nicholson. Karloff only appears in about a third of the movie, which is a mishmash of footage shot by different directors and only later assembled into something like a story line by Corman himself. It's a pretty bad movie, and has been released under more than one title. When it was originally sold to the American audience, it featured a poster of Boris's head lurking menacingly behind a stylized spider web. Nicholson's name is buried at the bottom of the poster, but it is in fact a young and energetic Nicholson who carries the action as the film's protagonist. People who were looking for a starring vehicle for Karloff were probably disappointed.

Later, after 'Easy Rider' (1970) made Nicholson a star, the film was re-released to video with a cover that shows Nicholson kneeling over an ingenue, receiving equal billing with Karloff, whose visage is now reduced to (apparently) a set of eerie eyes. But, again, any young person who was looking to see another movie with the characteristic Nicholson sensibility (rakishly sly and iconoclastic) would've been terribly disappointed if they rented this film. Nicholson at this stage of his career is no different from (this is gonna hurt) Kerwin Matthews or John Kerr.

That's Hollywood!
That's Hollywood!
That's Hollywood!



Over at PZ's place there is a note, referring to a post by the philosopher John Wilkins, linking to a Vancouver paper's interview with Walt Ruloff, shown at right. Ruloff is the main money man behind the odious and misleading film "Expelled". Wilkins seems to think, and PZ agrees, that Ruloff has admitted acting deceptively.

Well....John, I hesitate to correct you, since you are a far more accomplished scholar than I will ever be where evolution is concerned. I really don't have a candle on you in that department. I have, however, kept close tabs on this Ruloff character. In fact, back in March I was one of the first to 'connect-the-dots' where Ruloff and Premiere Media were concerned, in this post.

However, on this topic, both you and PZ are overstating the degree to which this interview is an 'admission' of anything. If you read it, Ruloff is extraordinarily coy about his private life, including his private views on religion. The interviewer did not confront Ruloff about how a film ostensibly called 'Crossroads' was pitched to Dawkins, etc., so there is in fact no direct admission that they 'lied' to those interviewed. The fact that they were intending to make an anti-evolution screed from the word 'go' doesn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the original 'Crossroads' wasn't as advertised.

Now, do I believe the above? Hell, no! It's obvious to those of us on the inside that this amounts to an off-hand admission of their true intent, and thus by extension, an admission that they acted deceptively. The intended audience of this film is not, however, likely to 'connect-the-dots'. They are not going to see any admission of deception. Sadly, even if we spelled it out for them, many of them would not be impressed. They would just assume that using deception is part of the standard journalist bag of tricks, and 'all's fair in love and war', etc.

In other words, they have the dreaded plausible deniability.