Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Phone Courtesy

Here's an oddity of modern life that perhaps someone might be able to explain. It seems that whenever people talk on their cell phones they speak much louder than they would to people who are physically with them.

I don't know why this is, but it's especially noticeable, and bothersome, in restaurants where a diner who gets a call will share the conversation with everyone in the establishment. As soon as he, or she, hangs up, however, you can't hear a word he says to the others at his table.

Why is it that people think their phone conversations interest the rest of us?

Pinkerton Gets it Wrong

Jim Pinkerton writes an essay on Intelligent Design and manages to get much of it wrong. For example, he states that:

Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and author of Darwin's Black Box, argues that it just isn't possible that random evolution could have produced the flagellum -- the propeller/tail -- on a bacteria. Such an organ, he concludes, is "irreducibly complex," which is to say, only a Master of Complexity could have created it.

But it's a fallacy to argue that just because one person -- or even all the people of an era -- can't figure out how something works, therefore such mysterious workings are beyond any human comprehension, ever. To take one humble example, years ago I saw Siegfried and Roy perform their tiger-based magic in Las Vegas, and was frankly astonished at some of the illusions they generated at the aptly named Mirage casino. I had no idea how they did their tricks, but since I knew that they employed mechanics, not metaphysics, to do their show, I was content just to enjoy it, marveling all the while at human ingenuity. And of course, if one waits long enough, he will get a peek behind the conjuring curtain, learning how tricks are done and also that like the rest of us, Siegfried and Roy suffer from Murphy's Law, too. And so it is with science: eventually, some scientist will figure out how the "trick" of the bacteria's flagellum is done.

This is an odd argument even if we ignore the inapt comparison to a magic show. Consider four reasons why:

1) Behe isn't saying that the bacterial flagellum is designed simply because no one can figure out how it works or how it evolved. He's saying that it shows evidence of having been designed because it has the property of irreducible complexity which is a typical characteristic of intelligent, intentional manufacture.

2) The problem isn't just that no one can produce a reasonable account of how a flagellum could have evolved by purely natural processes. The problem is that Darwinian theory itself provides no plausible developmental pathway for the gradual accumulation of parts necessary to have a functional flagellum. To offer hope, as Pinkerton does, that the explanation will be forthcoming at some time in the future is an intellectual cop-out. If the mechanisms posited by a theory do not allow for a plausible schema for the evolution of certain systems and structures then that should be allowed to count as evidence against the theory. If at some later date the difficulty is resolved then the theory will be rescued, but to posit future contingencies as justification for ignoring present difficulties is lousy philosophy of science.

3) Pinkerton undercuts one of the chief arguments against ID with his suggestion that we should just be patient and that someday we'll find out how nature accomplished its wonders. The undermined argument is that no one has proposed how the designer could have accomplished its work. In lieu of such an explanation, we're told, ID is insufficient as an account of biological complexity, but if Pinkerton's assurance that an explanation for the evolution of structures like the flagellum is a legitimate response to the difficulty of accounting for irreducible complexity, then it should be equally legitimate for the ID theorist to invoke the same reply about the mechanisms employed by the designer of living things. If ID theorists ever replied to the complaint about the lack of a creative mechanism in their theory with the retort that someday we might find out how the designer did it, they'd be justly hooted out of town.

4) Pinkerton's dodge also undercuts those who wish to argue that Darwinism is science and ID is philosophy. If biological phenomena that cannot be explained in terms of the theory are nevertheless to be accepted essentially on faith, that is, if no evidence is allowed to count against the theory, then Darwinism is not falsifiable and is outside the realm of science.

Having urged us to abandon empirical science and just trust that an explanation for how the flagellum could have evolved through purely mechanistic forces will someday be found, Pinkerton then makes this astonishing pronouncement:

And that's the problem with ID: it's simplistic. To argue that complex biological phenomena are "irreducibly complex" is to abandon the scientific quest. As Richard Dawkins, who boasts the bold professional title of Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explains in The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design,

To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like "God was always there," and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say "DNA was always there," or "Life was always there," and be done with it.

So the better mission for the ID-ers, should they choose to undertake it, would be to identify the Intelligent Designer.

This is another dodge. Pinkerton and Dawkins seek to deflect attention away from the manifest design of biological systems and structures and focus our scrutiny instead on the identity of the designer. ID theorists, however, need not accept the bait. To be successful they merely have to demonstrate that at least some biological systems and structures show evidence of intelligent input, and that it's more plausible that intelligence was at work in their creation than that they resulted from merely mechanistic forces and chance. If they succeed in that enterprise they will have effected a revolution in the science of biology which, we suppose, would be a good day's work regardless of whether they can identify the source of the intelligent input or explain how this agent accomplished its task.

Dawkins and Pinkerton are simply wrong when they assert that unless we can "explain" the original designer we have accomplished nothing in demonstrating that biological structures are designed. We need not understand the cause of something in order to study the effect. We don't have to be able to explain what causes gravity in order to study the consequences of it. We need know nothing about the causes of the Big Bang in order to examine the effects of those causes.

If it turns out that we find irrefragable evidence that man has been intentionally designed that would be an enormous discovery in itself whether we were ever able to identify the designer or not. The task of the ID theorist is to determine whether certain structures in the biosphere resulted from intelligent agency or whether they can be adequately explained mechanistically. To declare ID null and void simply because it cannot identify the source of the intelligence or the means by which the intelligence did its work is absurd.

If opponents of ID should have learned any lesson over the last ten years it is that it's not very helpful to their cause to rely on the arguments of Richard Dawkins.

Set 'Em Loose

Mark Steyn has two great columns on Gitmo. Here's an excerpt from the first:

Just for the record, some 15 million to 30 million Soviets died in the gulag; some 6 million Jews died in the Nazi camps; some 2 million Cambodians -- one third of the population -- died in the killing fields. Nobody's died in Gitmo, not even from having Christina Aguilera played to them excessively loudly. The comparison is deranged, and deeply insulting not just to the U.S. military but to the millions of relatives of those dead Russians, Jews and Cambodians, who, unlike Durbin, know what real atrocities are. Had Durbin said, "Why, these atrocities are so terrible you would almost believe it was an account of the activities of my distinguished colleague Robert C. Byrd's fellow Klansmen," that would have been a little closer to the ballpark but still way out.

In the second he writes that:

[T]he more one hears the specifics of the "insensitivity" of the American regime at Guantanamo, the more many of us reckon we're being way too sensitive. For example, camp guards are under instructions to handle copies of the Koran only when wearing gloves. The reason for this is that the detainees regard infidels as "unclean". Fair enough, each to his own. But it's one thing for the Islamists to think infidels are unclean, quite another for the infidels to agree with them. Far from being tortured, the prisoners are being handled literally with kid gloves (or simulated kid-effect gloves). The US military hand each jihadi his complimentary copy of the Koran as delicately as white-gloved butlers bringing His Lordship The Times of London. When I bought a Koran to bone up on Islam a couple of days after 9/11, I didn't wear gloves to the bookstore. If that's "disrespectful" to Muslims, tough.

Steyn's point here is well-taken. Why are our troops required to debase themselves by acceding to the Muslims' belief that they are unclean? It's even more absurd that taxpayers must purchase the gloves to cover the "unclean" hands of their infidel sons and daughters. Our troops should not deliberately mistreat the Koran but neither should they be required to abase themselves in order to avoid giving offense to a bunch of semi-literate savages.

Nor should taxpayers be required to pay for the humiliation of their young men and women. Tax dollars buy the Korans, the prayer rugs, beads, Koranically-approved meals and all the rest. If American troops insisted that taxpayers cater to their religious preferences in such a fashion they'd be pounced upon by the ACLU and hectored about their need to develop a greater sensitivity to the doctrine of separation of church and state. Why does the same doctrine not apply to Muslim terrorists?

Recently, in Knoxville Tennessee, a Karns Elementary School principal named Cathy Summa prevented several ten year-old students from reading their Bibles at recess. They were told to put their Bibles away and not bring them back to school. Reading at recess is permitted in tax funded schools, of course, but evidently reading the Bible is not. Yet American taxpayers are required to subsidize five daily calls to prayer at Gitmo as well as all the other religious observances the killers are permitted. The terrorists have more religious rights than American school children do.

Steyn writes:

Where the anti-Gitmo crowd went wrong was in expanding its objections from the legal status of the prisoners to the treatment they're receiving. By any comparison - ie, not just with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot - they're getting better than they deserve. It's the first gulag in history where the torture victims put on weight. Each prisoner released from Guantanamo receives a new copy of the Koran plus a free pair of blue jeans in his new size: the average detainee puts on 13 pounds during his stay, thanks to the "mustard-baked dill fish", "baked Tandoori chicken breast" and other delicacies.

Viewpoint has come to agree with those who think Gitmo should be shut down and the detainees either charged or released. We suggest that these 520 killers, each of whom would praise Allah for the opportunity to slay an American politician, all be shipped to the Capitol building in Washington D.C., marched out onto the floor of the House and the Senate while these bodies are in session, and set loose. Perhaps this will assist some of our esteemed leaders to perceive the shortcomings of their recommendations.