Weekend update

Allow me to recap. Jerry Coyne set a few people on fire with a post arguing that national science organizations have gone to far in blithely conceding the compatibility of science and religion. He strongly suggests that they stick to complete neutrality on the topic, something they all promise to do, but then ignore what they say to tout a philosophical accommodation that doesn’t really exist. He does not argue that they should go the other way and advance an atheistic position (even though we know that that is the only correct stance), but wants them to back off on the misleading happy religion stuff.

Richard Hoppe fired back with a claim that nuh-uh, they aren’t pushing a particular religious view, and besides, we need concessions to religion in order to get along politically…and then he threw in a lot of tactless and politically self-destructive accusations about how ivory tower atheists don’t know a thing about politics or tact.

Of course I responded to that, pointing out in the NCSE’s defense that they are an indispensable element in protecting our classrooms, but that the US is currently deadlocked in the evolution/creationism struggle, and has been for a long time…and that central to the stalemate is our constant abasement to religion. It’s time to stop, and the atheists are the ones who are working to break that logjam. At the same time, I agree that the NCSE, to be politically useful, needs to be neutral on the issue of religion. The problem is that they are not.

Then there was lots of piling on. Check out Russell Blackford’s take, or Wilkins’ mild disagreement. Taner Edis takes a strange position: the incompatiblists are completely right, but we can’t say so. You can guess that Larry Moran didn’t waffle. Unfortunately, Chris Mooney gets it all completely wrong, accusing Coyne of claiming that the national organizations are “too moderate on the extremely divisive subject of religion”, when what he and I are actually saying is the exact opposite — that they aren’t moderate enough, and have drifted too far towards appeasing religious views. I shall repeat myself: no one is demanding that the NCSE and NAS go all rabidly atheist, and we can even agree that a neutral position is more productive towards achieving their goals. The problems arise when they get so entangled with the people they should be arguing with that they start adopting some of their views, and suddenly the science is being compromised to achieve a political end.

Now to make it even more interesting, Richard Hoppe has put up a partial retraction. He concedes that in some cases the NCSE has drifted too far into promoting a particular religious view.

In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think — in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others — that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.

It’s good to see some progress in the argument (and Jerry Coyne sends his regards, too). The ultimate point, I think, is that we all think the NCSE is a marvelous organization — you should join if you haven’t already — but that does not mean it is above criticism, and some of us are seeing signs of the incipient Templetonization of the group, something we’d rather not see happen. If it is to be useful to both the religious and the infidels, it can’t wander too far to one side or the other.

The Discovery Institute should try to publish this in one of the ACM journals

I have to take back some of the mean things I’ve said about Intelligent Design creationism. They have finally made a significant contribution to a science…in this case, computer science. Behold the awesome power of the Intelligent Design Sort!

Intelligent Design Sort


Intelligent design sort is a sorting algorithm based on the theory of intelligent design.

Algorithm Description

The probability of the original input list being in the exact order it’s in is 1/(n!). There is such a small likelihood of this that it’s clearly absurd to say that this happened by chance, so it must have been consciously put in that order by an intelligent Sorter. Therefore it’s safe to assume that it’s already optimally Sorted in some way that transcends our naïve mortal understanding of “ascending order”. Any attempt to change that order to conform to our own preconceptions would actually make it less sorted.


This algorithm is constant in time, and sorts the list in-place, requiring no additional memory at all. In fact, it doesn’t even require any of that suspicious technological computer stuff. Praise the Sorter!


Gary Rogers writes:
Making the sort constant in time denies the power of The Sorter. The Sorter exists outside of time, thus the sort is timeless. To require time to validate the sort dimishes the role of the Sorter. Thus… this particular sort is flawed, and can not be attributed to ‘The Sorter’.


It’s a kind of universal argument, too — just replace the word “list” with “gene”, and it transforms into their usual assertion about biology.

I am so disappointed

The lawsuits between Carl Wieland and Ken Ham have been settled out of court. In case you hadn’t been following it, both were originally members of the same creationist organization in Australia; Ham emigrated and set up the American branch; they drifted apart and for years have been sniping acrimoniously at each other. It’s been quite fun to watch, and I would have loved to see it move into a courtroom where all of Ham’s sleazy tactics would have had wriggle in the light of day. What little we’ve seen has been very ugly.

Creation Ministries had for years criticized Answers in Genesis on Web sites and in e-mails for its financial dealings and its approach to creationist teaching. Wieland also accused Ham and others of trying to take control of his organization, stealing mailing lists and spreading false and vicious rumors about him and his ex-wife.

“It is astonishing that respected leaders of Christian organizations would stoop so low as to resort to gutter tactics of the kind mentioned here to besmirch the character of Wieland,” wrote Clarrie Briese, who in 2007 led a commission of Australian religious leaders that investigated the dispute.

I have to disagree on one point: it isn’t astonishing at all.

Where to go for swine flu information

There is some cause for worry in the current reports on the swine flu outbreak — while the possibility of a global pandemic is being raised, at this point it really is only a possibility. The accounts from Mexico are not reassuring, however.

Health officials reported that at least eight students at a private high school in New York City had “probable” swine flu. They also confirmed three new cases — two in Kansas and one in California — bringing the total number of confirmed U.S. cases to 11. The president of Mexico, where the outbreak has killed as many as 81 people, issued an order granting his government broad powers to isolate patients and question travelers. (…)

The virus, for which there is no vaccine for humans, has nearly brought Mexico City to a halt. Normally congested downtown streets in this city of 20 million were almost empty Saturday, and of the few people who ventured outside, many said they did so only out of necessity. Soldiers posted at subway stations handed out face masks to passersby from the back of armored vehicles. Some pedestrians covered their mouths and noses with scarves and rags.

Aetiology has an excellent summary that represents where we should be in our thinking right now — no need for panic, but it emphasizes the importance of research and monitoring.

In summary, this is a fast-developing story, and it will take much more investigation and field work to determine the true extent of the virus’s spread in the population; to figure out where it originated (one blog suggests a Mexican hog confinement according to some local Mexican papers, but that is conjecture at this point); how it jumped to humans; and how efficiently it’s transmitted. Whether this burns out or spreads worldwide, it certainly shows once again the importance of surveillance and monitoring of influenza strains, and demonstrates that improving our infrastructure due to concerns about H5N1 will benefit us whether that serotype, or another emergent strain, ends up being the next global influenza threat.

And if you want to keep track of the news yourself, the best place right now is Effect Measure, where Revere is giving regular updates from on informed perspective on the news and on emerging information from the CDC.

British Humanists schedule their meeting to avoid me, too

Ah, well. If only I could be in two places at once, and could also afford to fly to Europe on a whim. I’m going to be in Arizona in early June, and the British Humanists are meeting at the same time in London, with what looks like a very interesting schedule bracketed by talks by Dawkins and Grayling. It will be a fine event, and you should all go…if you can’t make the one in Arizona, anyway.

Sean Carroll at the Bell Museum

This should be good, but I may have to miss it: Sean Carroll will be speaking at the University of Minnesota on 15 May — he’ll also be speaking at the biology commencement the day after. He’ll be talking about his new book, Remarkable Creatures, which is very good.

I’ll be flying back from California the day before, and have my own university’s commencement ceremony to attend the day after, so he’s right there in a tantalizing hole in my own schedule…I could do it with a little bit of shuttling back and forth. I’ll have to think about how to manage it…

Obama’s speech to the National Academies of Science

The president spoke to the NAS today, and he made some great promises: increases in funding for science and science education, an investment in training new teachers in science and math, a political commitment to get better advising in science untainted by ideology. He specifically promised 3% of the GDP to go to research in science and technology.

Listen to it in an NAS podcast, or read the transcript. It’s a good speech, except for the very last line, which was incredibly stupid…but I’ll overlook it as a mindless platitude.

Republican party platforms are always amusingly insane

ERV has just posted the Oklahoma GOP platform, and she’s right — any random amble through any piece of it will have you laughing at the audacity of wingnuttia. ERV singled out a piece endorsing the teaching of creationism in the classroom, but this is my favorite, just because they are two goals sitting right next to each other, and the Rethuglicans didn’t even notice the contradiction.

4. While the objective study of
philosophy and religion can be
beneficial, public schools should not
be endorsing any specific religion or
philosophy. We believe that students
and teachers should enjoy the right of
free exercise of religion.

5. We support posting the Ten
Commandments and our Nation’s
motto, “In God We Trust,” in all
public schools in recognition of our
religious heritage. U.S. citizens. We support teaching the
intent of our founding fathers, the
original founding documents, and the
difference between a democracy and a

So the public schools shouldn’t endorse any specific religion or philosophy, but they should be be posting the ten commandments? What, do they imagine that everyone, even atheists, recognizes the authority of Moses’ wacky religious proscriptions?

Cafe Scientifique — tomorrow, in Morris


The Making of Hitler: A Tale of Social Darwinism or Christian Idealism?
Michael Lackey, UMM

Tuesday, 28 April – Common Cup Coffeehouse – 6:30pm

You’re all planning to come on out, right? It should be a good one: Michael Lackey will be directly addressing the fallacious claim that Hitler’s crimes were built on a foundation of godless Darwinism.