Sunday, January 8, 2006

Hero of My Lai Dies

Hugh Thompson died yesterday at the age of 62 of cancer. Thompson was a hero at the site of one of the worst atrocities in the history of the United States military. To find out why read this AP account:

Hugh Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the My Lai massacre, died early Friday. He was 62. Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alexandria, hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth said. Trent Angers, Thompson's biographer and family friend, said Thompson died of cancer.

"These people were looking at me for help and there was no way I could turn my back on them," Thompson recalled in a 1998 Associated Press interview.

Early in the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai. They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their own guns at the U.S. soldiers to prevent more killings.

Colburn and Andreotta had provided cover for Thompson as he went forward to confront the leader of the U.S. forces. Thompson later coaxed civilians out of a bunker so they could be evacuated, and then landed his helicopter again to pick up a wounded child they transported to a hospital. Their efforts led to the cease-fire order at My Lai.

In 1998, the Army honored the three men with the prestigious Soldier's Medal, the highest award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy. It was a posthumous award for Andreotta, who had been killed in battle three weeks after My Lai.

"It was the ability to do the right thing even at the risk of their personal safety that guided these soldiers to do what they did," Army Maj. Gen. Michael Ackerman said at the 1998 ceremony. The three "set the standard for all soldiers to follow."

Lt. William L. Calley, a platoon leader, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the killings, but served just three years under house arrest when then-President Nixon reduced his sentence.

Author Seymour Hersh won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his expose of the massacre in 1969 while working as a freelance journalist. The massacre became one of the pivotal events as opposition to the war was growing in the United States. Hersh called Thompson "one of the good guys."

"You can't imagine what courage it took to do what he did," Hersh said.

Although Thompson's story was a significant part of Hersh's reports, and Thompson testified before Congress, his role in ending My Lai wasn't widely known until the late 1980s, when David Egan, a professor emeritus at Clemson University, saw an interview in a documentary and launched a letter-writing campaign that eventually led to the awarding of the medals in 1998. "He was the guy who by his heroic actions gave a morality and dignity to the American military effort," Tulane history professor Douglas Brinkley said.

For years Thompson suffered snubs and worse from those who considered him unpatriotic. He recalled a congressman angrily saying that Thompson himself was the only serviceman who should be punished because of My Lai.

As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy's behavioral sciences and leadership department. Thompson went to West Point once a year to give a lecture on his experience, Kolditz said. "There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved."

Americans should be as proud of men like Thompson and his crewmates as we are ashamed of Calley and his troops.

The Dover Decision IV: Misunderstanding the Issue

Our thoughts on Judge Jones' decision in the Dover ID trial continues. In this installment we continue our look at his reasoning on the question of whether or not ID is true science. In his opinion he makes this comment:

[W]hile ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1)ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

Each of the Judge's assertions is dubious.

1. Judge Jones suggests that modern science excludes non-natural causes. This is not quite accurate. It doesn't exclude them, or at least it has no business doing so, it simply seeks to explain as much as it possibly can by means of natural causes. The problem is that some scientists argue that because naturalism is methodologically useful that therefore it is metaphysically true. They glide from its usefulness as a heuristic platform to the conclusion that only naturalistic hypotheses can be admitted into science. They assume that because non-natural causes can only be inferred and not empirically discerned, that therefore they're irrelevant. When scientists draw such conclusions they have wandered beyond the bounds of science into the realm of metaphysics.

There's an irony here incidentally. The assumption that only natural causes should be considered by scientists is not itself a scientific proposition, it's a philosophical preference. Nevertheless, it's a philosophical preference to which the Judge is willing to give free reign in science class, to the exclusion of any other philosophical alternative.

2. His second assertion is strange. In a passage we'll cite below, Judge Jones separates Irreducible Complexity (IC) from ID. He asserts there that IC is testable, but that it is a distinct theory from ID and so its testability doesn't assist ID rise to the level of true science. Now here in this passage he asserts that IC is central to ID. Are we confused or is the Judge?

But that aside, what, exactly, is flawed and illogical about inferring design from irreducible complexity? The problem with IC, if it has one, is that it's difficult to demonstrate that a particular system actually is irreducibly complex. If, however, it could be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that a system is indeed irreducibly complex, should we nevertheless ignore the telic implications of that finding simply because it would suggest a non-natural provenience. Judge Jones demands that the answer be "yes." He says, in effect, that we should deny ourselves scientific knowledge because the process of acquiring that knowledge conflicts with the philosophical preference for naturalism. Only naturalistic explanations can be permitted into Judge Jones' science classroom even if they're known to be inadequate and no non-natural explanation may be admitted even if it's believed to be highly probable. In his attempt to banish philosophy from the classroom he actually allows one philosophical position to prevail over another.

3. Judge Jones is confusing a response to a challenge with a refutation of that challenge. Just because scientists suggest logically possible answers to some of the questions raised by IC doesn't mean their answers are correct, plausible, or even physically possible. Much less does it mean that they've refuted IC. Since Michael Behe wrote Darwin's Black Box and posed his challenges to the scientific community many people have tried to come up with answers to the questions he raised, but whether the answers are adequate is not a judgment Judge Jones is qualified to make. Nor can he simply rely on the testimony of those who have suggested those answers that they have sufficiently refuted Behe. The scientific community as a whole must make that determination and that takes time. As of now, the outcome is uncertain.

The Judge goes on to make several more questionable claims:

In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data - the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science."

If the judge thinks this is a refutation of ID, he's mistaken. No ID theorist would disagree with it. Design is itself an inference from confirmable data. It's an explanation based upon the empirical evidence of the natural world. It would be well, though, for physics teachers who explore with their advanced students cosmogeny, string theory, and the existence of other universes, to take note that they are running afoul of the Judge's guidelines for what they are permitted to teach.

We are in agreement with Plaintiffs' lead expert Dr. Miller, that from a practical perspective, attributing unsolved problems about nature to causes and forces that lie outside the natural world is a "science stopper." As Dr. Miller explained, once you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer.

Well, no, it's not a "science stopper." Would the Judge repeat this assertion to Newton, Boyle, Faraday, Galileo, or any of dozens of other scientific worthies who continued to seek the natural causes of phenomena even while convinced that their ultimate cause was God? Of course not. All these men believed that the causes they were seeking to discern were proximal causes. The ultimate cause may be intelligence, but that is no reason to stop searching for the means by which the designer accomplished what it did.

ID takes a natural phenomenon and, instead of accepting or seeking a natural explanation, argues that the explanation is supernatural.

This is incorrect. ID looks at natural phenomena such as genetic information, bio-machines, and complex biological processes and instead of accepting inadequate explanations, i.e. those which seek to explain these phenomena as just an incredible fluke of nature caused by blind, purposeless mechanisms, asks whether the ultimate explanation might not involve intention and purpose. Intelligence is not proffered as proximal causes for natural entities. Rather it's considered an ultimate explanation of phenomena for which there is no plausible naturalistic explanation.

Irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution, not proof of design, a point conceded by defense expert Professor Minnich.

This is philosophically naive and tendentious. Surely the Judge knows that neither science nor philosophy proves anything. To fault the concept of irreducible complexity because it falls short of being a proof is to hold it to a standard that nothing else in science must meet. Nor is the Judge's statement that "irreducible complexity is a negative argument against evolution" correct. Michael Behe, the chief advocate of IC, is himself an evolutionist. Irreducible complexity is an argument not against evolution but against naturalism. This point has been made so often by so many different people that it's astonishing that the Judge still hasn't grasped it. Nor are IC arguments merely negative arguments. Irreducible complexity, if it truly exists, is a powerful affirmative argument in support of the proposition that intelligence undergirds the fundamental architecture of life.

As irreducible complexity is only a negative argument against evolution, it is refutable and accordingly testable, unlike ID, by showing that there are intermediate structures with selectable functions that could have evolved into the allegedly irreducibly complex systems. Importantly, however, the fact that the negative argument of irreducible complexity is testable does not make testable the argument for ID. Professor Behe has applied the concept of irreducible complexity to only a few select systems: (1) the bacterial flagellum; (2) the blood-clotting cascade; and (3) the immune system. Contrary to Professor Behe's assertions with respect to these few biochemical systems among the myriad existing in nature, however, Dr. Miller presented evidence, based upon peer-reviewed studies, that they are not in fact irreducibly complex.

Not only does this paragraph contradict what the Judge said in the paragraph at the beginning of this post, it is simply ridiculous on its face. The argument appears to be that since IC only seeks to show that three systems are intelligently designed, and since ID argues that all of life is ultimately designed, therefore IC is not ID. If, however, only one of Behe's systems could be shown to be intelligently designed then that would confirm not only IC but also ID since it would entail that there is, in fact, an intelligent designer.

The Judge doesn't think that IC makes it's case, though, because Dr. Miller says that it doesn't:

First, with regard to the bacterial flagellum, Dr. Miller pointed to peer reviewed studies that identified a possible precursor to the bacterial flagellum, a subsystem that was fully functional, namely the Type-III Secretory System. Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich admitted that there is serious scientific research on the question of whether the bacterial flagellum evolved into the Type-III Secretary System, the Type-III Secretory System into the bacterial flagellum, or whether they both evolved from a common ancestor. None of this research or thinking involves ID. In fact, Professor Minnich testified about his research as follows: "we're looking at the function of these systems and how they could have been derived one from the other. And it's a legitimate scientific inquiry."

The conclusion the Judge should draw from this is that there is serious scientific debate as to whether Behe is right. The jury is still out. Just because some people say that the flagellum might have evolved solely through unguided mechanisms and blind chance doesn't mean that they are correct. Once again, Judge Jones is content to consider a conjecture to be a refutation.

[Q]uestioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough." We find that such evidence demonstrates that the ID argument is dependent upon setting a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution.

Behe said they're not good enough because he believed these articles and books failed to show that the immune system could have evolved through purely natural means. The quantity of speculation about something is not evidence of its facticity. There've been many books and articles written about the possibility of other universes. Does Judge Jones think that we should accept the existence of such universes based on the copious speculation about them? And why does he think that demanding plausible explanations is an "unreasonable burden of proof"?

As a further example, the test for ID proposed by both Professors Behe and Minnich is to grow the bacterial flagellum in the laboratory; however, no-one inside or outside of the IDM (Intelligent design Movement), including those who propose the test, has conducted it.

Wouldn't it be incumbent upon those who believe ID is false to conduct this test? If a flagellum were to appear in a laboratory environment that was only minimally affected by the intelligent input of the researcher, it would pretty much falsify ID, at least in the minds of most people. The reason no such test is conducted is because none of the opponents of ID really thinks that such a structure could ever be produced in the laboratory by chance and physical mechanisms alone in any reasonable amount of time.

In other words, not only do ID opponents believe they can't falsify ID, they tacitly acknowledge that their own theory is untestable. If a flagellum failed to arise in whatever amount of time was spent trying to have one appear the researcher could always plead that naturalistic evolution takes more time. But no matter how much time was granted, even billions of years, if the organelle still failed to materialize, the same plea for more time could be made. Put simply, naturalistic evolution is unfalsifiable and by Judge Jones' lights should be banned from science classes.

Accordingly, the one textbook to which the Dover ID Policy directs students contains outdated concepts and badly flawed science...

Judge Jones repeatedly trots out the Pandas textbook in order to discredit ID, but this is a straw man argument. It's easy to find bad science in books which endorse naturalistic evolution, too, but that's not a compelling reason to reject the theory. Any fair-minded person should base his judgment not upon the worst arguments that are offered on behalf of a proposition, but upon the best.

To conclude and reiterate, we express no opinion on the ultimate veracity of ID as a supernatural explanation. However, we commend to the attention of those who are inclined to superficially consider ID to be a true "scientific" alternative to evolution without a true understanding of the concept the foregoing detailed analysis. It is our view that a reasonable, objective observer would, after reviewing both the voluminous record in this case, and our narrative, reach the inescapable conclusion that ID is an interesting theological argument, but that it is not science.

Of course, as we've argued above, it is possible that it's neither science nor theology but rather that, just like its Darwinian alternative, it's philosophy of science. However, to make the claim that it's not science requires of the Judge that he separate IC from ID because, as he's noted, IC is testable. The attempt to affect this divorce is philosophically awkward, though, and at the very least calls for a more modest conclusion than the Judge's confident assertion that ID is not science. He may be right, but much of the reasoning that leads him to his conclusion is deeply flawed.

For previous posts in this series on the Dover trial see here, here, and here.