September 2004
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Month September 2004

Live debate thoughts…

An hour into the debate. Kerry is articulate, giving relatively short, crisp answers. Bush has appeared hesitant, befuddled, and hesitant throughout the debate. Bush also appears defensive in a lot of his answers. Little is being said that we haven’t heard before, but I think Kerry is doing a good job of being calm, strong, and decisive. Bush keeps hitting all the hot buttons about “changing positions” and is really slamming the “wrong war at the wrong time” meme as often as possible.

Oooh….Kerry just landed a punch on nuclear proliferation, noting that Bush has secured less nuclear material since 9/11 than before.

I’m really glad that Kerry brought up the 100K+ hours of untranslated tapes, and is stressing failures in homeland security and the “war on terror.” Kerry is appearing quite presidential tonight. It’ll be interesting to see how the polls respond to this debate. Novak’s live blogging on CNN is hilarious: exactly the opposite of how I’m seeing it.

It’s interesting. Kerry keeps talking about what the President has failed to do. Bush keeps responding about how much money he’s spent towards doing things. He doesn’t say much about whether much of it gets accomplished.

Oh god. Bush is touting missile defense. “We’ll be implementing missile defense system relatively quickly.”

Carl Woese, Common Descent, and “Intelligent Design”

Efforts by Stephen Meyer (and the Discovery Institute) to prop up “Intelligent Design” as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution continue apace. This isn’t exactly news, but their twisting of Carl Woese’ views on common descent is particularly indicative of the unscientific nature of Intelligent Design, and its status as a political rather than scientific effort. I hadn’t posted much on “ID” on the Extended Phenotype to date, mostly because its arguments seemed to be slightly updated versions of Paley’s watchmaker informed with better math but little else.

In many ways, Meyer’s use of Woese to debunk Darwinian evolution by questioning common descent is far more interesting than Dembski’s overly simplistic probabilistic information theoretic arguments against undirected natural selection. Why is this the case? Because while Dembski’s arguments (most particularly in Reflections on Human Origins) rely upon probabilistic arguments and even older forms of argument by design, Meyer’s attack on common descent appears to draw upon the arguments of someone very much “inside” the evolutionary establishment — Carl Woese.

Woese is something of an icon within modern evolutionary biology, having spent his career probing the mysteries of the earliest phylogeny of life. His statements questioning “common descent” are not, as Meyer claims, aimed at questioning the Darwinian canon (1). Instead, Woese is saying something much more subtle: horizontal gene transfer in the early history of acellular and cellular life may account equally well for the ubiquity of a common biochemical basis for life and strong homology among coding and transcription mechanisms. Woese is making an empirical point: currently, we have no way to distinguish between one single origin for life, and multiple independent origins which promiscuously shared information via HGT. This empirical dilemma does not invalidate Darwinian evolution, as proponents of ID claim. It merely adds an intriguing question to the list of issues scientific analysis of evolution has yet to solve.

Meyer’s misuse of Woese isn’t caused by misreading, or the subtle nature of the argument. Reading Woese’s work, one is struck by the intense commitment to elucidating the deepest structures of our evolutionary history, and overcoming tired arguments which have structured the field for far too long. No, Meyer and proponents of Intelligent Design understand Woese just fine. They simply choose to misuse, misinterpret, and misrepresent his work in service to their argument.

And this is the insidious nature of the Intelligent Design phenomenon. Working scientists see through Dembski, Meyer, and Behe with little trouble, given background in the field. The public, however, has more trouble doing so, given that Intelligent Design arguments are written in the style of scientific arguments, attempt to cite evidence, and are dressed in the trappings of modern scholarship. Unless you have the substantive background to examine their arguments, it can be difficult to recognize that their arguments are all style, no substance.

I don’t really know how to combat this phenomenon. It does seem bound up in better general education on the nature of scientific inquiry and how scientific arguments are constructed. But ultimately we cannot expect people untrained in biology or evolutionary theory to distinguish two arguments which are formally similiar but substantively different. Perhaps we can combat it most effectively by electing leaders who respect science, and are less prone to giving ideologically driven pseudo-science the legitimacy of a place at the table.


(1) Woese, C. 2004 A New Biology for a New Century, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews 68(2): 173-186.

Postscript: on a related but different note, I highly recommend the Woese article cited above. I can’t link to a freely available electronic version but a decent university library will have the journal. The article is a superb look at the state of molecular biology and its relation to phylogenetics and evolution as we leave the twentieth century, and how we might regenerate a deeper, more unified perspective on biology and evolution that isn’t so narrowly functional and reductionist.

Quiet lately, but a good book recommendation

Writing has taken a back seat lately to work, since we’re coming up on a deadline. I’ll be back to posting more regular in the coming week. I have been reading The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. The authors are responsible for the Economist’s coverage of the United States, and have an interesting viewpoint as (partial) outsiders to our political struggles. More on that as I finish the last few chapters, but thus far I recommend it highly.

Domaine Tempier Bandol 1986 Migoua

It was a long week, so I treated myself at dinner last night to the 1986 Tempier Bandol Migoua. 1986 wasn’t a concentrated year in Bandol as far as I can tell, but the wine has held up quite well. It’s definitely mature, with no hard edges left anywhere, and a color verging on light magenta with a slight orange rim. Immediately after opening, it was not giving up much on the palate, but after 20 minutes or so, the aroma was minerally dark fruit, a hint of old-wine spiciness, and a bit of tree bark in the background. The wine held up well for several hours, and in fact I’ve got a glass left in the bottle to try today. The 86’s need to be drunk relatively soon (I bought a number of them from K&L Wines about four years ago, and am steadily drinking them in preference to the much bigger 1985, 1989, 1990), but well-stored bottles are very pleasant, mature Tempier.

Restoring a true American vision of government (DCV, Part 4)

In my previous post in this series, I examined the premises that lay behind the conservative/libertarian “small government” vision. That vision has proved quite potent as a rallying point for conservative attacks against New Deal liberalism. Surrounding the core vision, iconic metaphors related to heroic self-reliance and personal responsibility help provide a consistent worldview (see George Lakoff’s Moral Politics) and thus the “values” so prized in conservative political discourse.

I finished the last post by claiming that the “small government” vision is a mirage — a philosophy which rests upon several fallacies. First among these fallacies is the apparent conflict between “negative” rights and “positive” entitlements. This dichotomy creates a cleavage point between an apparent “true” tradition of liberal natural rights, and a “false” and illiberal addition of entitlements, and allows modern conservatives to claim to be the heirs of the true Founding liberal tradition, and depict the New Deal as a regrettable (and unconstitutional) expansion of state power to create the modern regulatory welfare state. Not only is the dichotomy false (as amply documented by Holmes and Sunstein in The Cost of Rights), but it rests upon a second, more damaging fallacy.

Domaine Clape 1999 Cotes du Rhone

Wow. I hadn’t opened a bottle of the 1999 Clape Cotes du Rhone since release, but at 5 years it seemed like an opportune time. After all, conventional wisdom has Cotes du Rhone wines as “early drinking” quaffers. Well, not from producers like J.L. Chave and August Clape. Clape’s Cotes du Rhone mirrors his Cornas: dense and chewy. At five years, this CdR has a definite violet floral aroma amidst a huge leathery, almost rubber core. The overall impression is “wild” — wild floral and big, unconstrained flavors. The palate remains balanced, however, with a fair amount of tannin and good concentration. No new oak touched this wine, which is fine by me — Clape remains a traditionalist, even in his mass-market wines. As for aging, the wine is still primary, with only hints of secondary aromas, this wine will do fine in the cellar for awhile. And that’s a great thing, because it’s a good value and you can stock up compared to other northern Rhone wines, including Clape’s own far more expensive Cornas.