Saturday, September 10, 2005

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that it turns out that all those frantic reports of sexual assaults and dead children in the Convention Center were, ah, somewhat overblown:

Conditions at the Convention Center may not have been as bad as initially thought, said New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass. He said no bodies of children have been found and there has also been no evidence of sexual assaults.

The bad news is that our media is so desperate for stories that they'll apparently report anything that sounds shocking based on nothing more than rumor. Among those who have lessons to learn from this hurricane are the reporters who reported that these things occured without any confirmation that they had.

He's Down With Sounding Stupid

Are all rappers this dumb or is it just Kanye West? He's beginning to sound almost Michael Mooreish.

When are people going to start holding these nitwits accountable for their asinine and overtly incendiary remarks?

The Widow's Mite

This is a wonderful gesture on the part of the Iraqi military:

Iraqi soldiers serving at Taji military base collected 1,000,000 Iraqi dinars for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Iraqi Col. Abbas Fadhil, Iraqi base commander, presented the money to U.S. Col. Paul D. Linkenhoker, Taji Coalition base commander, at a Sept. 5 staff meeting.

"We are all brothers," said Abbas. "When one suffers tragedy, we all suffer their pain."

The amount of money is small in American dollars - roughly $680 - but it represents a huge act of compassion from Iraqi soldiers to their American counterparts, said U.S. Army Maj. Michael Goyne. "I was overwhelmed by the amount of their generosity," Goyne said. "I was proud and happy to know Col. Abbas, his officers, NCOs and fellow soldiers. That amount represents a month's salary for most of those soldiers."

Abbas read a letter he wrote after giving the envelope to Linkenhoker:

"I am Colonel Abbas Fadhil; Tadji Military Base Commander," Abbas wrote. "On behalf of myself and all the People of Tadji Military Base; I would like to console the American People and Government for getting this horrible disaster. So we would like to donate 1.000.000 Iraqi Dinars to help the government and the People also I would like to console all the ASTs who helped us rebuilding our country and our Army. We appreciate the Americans' help and support. Thank you."

It's a bit of a clichè to say that it's the thought that counts but gifts like this remind us of how true the clichè is.

Crackpots and Relativists

Rosa Brooks at the LA Times apparently thinks that the call for teaching both sides of a controversy over where a metaphysical truth lies is equivalent to denying that there is any truth in the first place. She draws the peculiar conclusion that advocates of Intelligent Design, because they wish to see ID taught alongside Darwinian explanations of complex structures and processes, are epistemological relativists who believe that truth is simply a cultural construct. Ms Brooks is seriously confused. Either that, or she's deliberately misrepresenting the ID side of this debate. Here are some excerpts from her column along with commentary:

Sometimes it seems like secular intellectuals just can't win. In the 1980s and '90s, they were attacked by the right for their "relativism" - an alleged refusal to accept the existence of absolute truth. Today, they're under attack once more, only this time the right is mad because secular intellectuals aren't relativist enough. At any rate, that appears to be the charge put forward by conservatives who advocate the teaching of so-called intelligent design.

This is a distortion of what ID theorists are advocating. They're not saying that there is no truth or that truth is relative. What they're saying is that the Darwinian materialist's account of biological complexity is insufficient and inadequate and that a more complete picture of the truth would include intelligent, purposive agency.

These are not your daddy's creationists. When scientists and other members of the reality-based community declare that evolution is the only valid and provable account of our planet's natural history, intelligent design boosters don't cite the Bible. Instead, they earnestly insist that no one ought to claim a monopoly on truth, and that in the interests of intellectual and moral pluralism, "alternatives" to evolution should get a fair hearing in schools.

"Reality-based community" is an odd moniker to affix to those who dogmatically insist that it is a fact beyond doubt that the astonishing fitness of the universe for sustaining life is just a coincidence. It's a strange name to assign to those who believe that the fact that matter has precisely the chemical and physical properties necessary to produce complex organisms is just a brute given, that the geo-physical properties of the earth are simply fortuitous, and that the amazing complexity of life from proteins to organisms to ecosystems is explicable merely in terms of blind forces and random chance.

These "reality-based" folk, among whom Ms Brooks numbers herself, can no doubt believe a dozen impossible things each day before breakfast. Indeed, belief that Darwinian processes alone produced life is statistically similar to believing that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might leave in its wake a fully functional 747 jet airplane, to borrow Fred Hoyle's memorable metaphor. That's an interesting reality Ms Brooks is so proud to be a part of.

Nor is she correct when she equates the demand for teaching alternatives to materialism with the claim that no one has a monopoly on truth. Perhaps someone somewhere among the burgeoning population of ID supporters has made such a statement, but I've never heard it. Even so, the claim that no one has a monopoly on truth is not, pace Ms Brooks, a relativistic claim. One can agree that truth is not the exclusive possession of a single group without affirming that truth is "all relative" or without denying that there is an objective truth.

This week, Arizona Sen. John McCain became the latest Republican politician to urge that "all points of view" be presented to students studying the origins of life. He joined President Bush and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who argued recently that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution because people in "a pluralistic society should have access to a broad range of fact, of science, including faith."

It's the new relativism: when scientific truth can't be squared with your religion or ideology, wax eloquent about the value of pluralism and intellectual diversity.

Perhaps Ms Brooks will answer a question: What is scientific or true about this proposition: No non-material, non-natural processes or forces were involved in the creation of the universe, of life, or the development of life. That statement is the crux of the controversy. Darwinians affirm it. ID'ers deny it. Neither the affirmation or the denial are scientific claims, although those who make them may be scientists and they may use the findings of science to buttress their positions. Moreover, if Ms Brooks wants to say that the statement expresses a truth I invite her to explain how she, or anyone, knows it to be true.

So it's a tad ironic that conservatives and the religious right are now arguing that intelligent design should be taught on the grounds of intellectual pluralism. Needless to say, from the perspective of virtually all reputable scientists, evolution isn't just one theory among many, it's the only scientifically proven account of the origin and development of life on Earth. Denying evolution isn't merely "another perspective." It's like insisting that the sun revolves around the Earth, or that the moon is inhabited by little green guys. Whatever happened to truth?

This assertion is a tad preposterous. Not only did evolution have nothing to do with the origin of life, scarcely anything about the origin of life has been proven. Scientists have no idea how life originated. For Ms Brooks to blithely inform her readers that it has been proven that life originated through an evolutionary process of some sort is very naughty on her part.

[I]f intelligent design must be taught just because a few crackpot scientists are on board with it, we'll also have to teach about the UFO landings at Roswell and the numerous Elvis sightings that occur each year.

This statement is so dumb as to make one want to throw up his hands in despair at the state of contemporary journalism. First, for the writer to call scientists who embrace intelligent design "crackpots" is a tendentious slander. Ms Brooks is hardly qualified to make assessments of the professional qualifications of the people who are at the front of the ID "movement."

Second, she claims that teaching students that the cosmos and life bear the impress of design and that some scientists and philosophers believe this design points to an underlying teleology necessitates teaching about UFOs and Elvis sightings. How she arrives at such a weird conclusion totally escapes me. What do UFOs and Elvis have to do with the question of whether design in the cosmos is real or just an illusion?

Ms Brooks doesn't seem to understand that there are only two alternatives in this controversy. Either the universe and life are ontologically contingent upon intelligence, or they are not. That's the issue upon which the whole dispute rests. It's really that simple. So simple, in fact, that even a "crackpot" journalist should be able to comprehend it.