Monday, November 01, 2010

Menken vs Evolution

Israel's Education Ministry fired its chief scientist the other day, and quite predictably right wing bloggers, notably Yaakov Menken, are misstating the facts. A sampling:
Yediot Achronot declares, “The Education Ministry’s chief scientist, Dr. Gavriel Avital, was dismissed on Monday following a scandal-filled trial period of less than a year.” What was the great scandal? Did he embezzle money, or harass coworkers? No – he dared to express personal opinions that run contrary to the conventional wisdom of the “intelligentsia” in the areas of evolution and global warming. 
Well, no. Not exactly. Avital was not fired simply for expressing an opinion, though Menken and his dishonest coevals desperately wish for you to believe this. In fact, Avital was fired for actively undermining science, in one public statement after another. Avital's behavior is exactly as if a chief rabbi had gone around suggesting that Christianity should be taught in to Yeshiva students as an "alternative". Would Menken tolerate that? Of course not -- nor should he. So why should we expect the education ministry to tolerate a chief scientist who has revealed time and time again that he does not trust or respect, or, for that matter, understand, his own discipline?

The disinformation continues:
He was fired for suggesting that students should be taught to critically analyze commonly-accepted theories; this “sparked a public uproar” and had many “scholars calling for his dismissal.”
Also false. Good scientists challenge accepted ideas every day. Its how science moves forward. Ideas are challenged and tested then reaffirmed or discarded. Evolution is still with us after 200 years, not because it appeals to anti-God tendencies in the culture as the right suggests, but because it has survived two centuries of critical analysis.  The best argument in favor of evolution is that though it can be proven false in any number of ways, nothing has ever been discovered - an old fossil in a newer rock strata for example, or a new fossil on an old island - that achieves this, despite the ongoing effort of professional scientists to "make their names" by discovering such a thing.

Furthermore, the "scholars" who called for Avital to be dismissed, included two Nobel Prize Laureates, and 10 Israel prize winners, many of them experts in the very fields Avital chose to disrespect. For context, here is how one objection to Avital was reported:
Yehoshua Kolodny, a professor emeritus at Hebrew University who won the Israel Prize for his contributions to the study of earth science, responded furiously to these statements yesterday.
"Denying evolution is like denying science itself," Kolodny said.
"When a top scientist ignores these things, it's a cultural calamity," Kolodny said. "There are no disagreements among scientists regarding evolution. Catholics and Protestants long ago ended their war against evolution, and Avital is for all intents and purposes joining the radical fringe of evangelicals in the United States."
Menken continues:
He is far from alone in this view, of course, and it is worth wondering why [some] are so resistant to children learning that there is a dissenting opinion.
Science is not a majority vote. We don't determine reality via consensus. (If we did, Judaism would be among the first casualties. The earth's several billion Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and so on "are far from alone" in their view that Judaism is false.)  We're, generally, "resistant to children learning that there is a dissenting opinion" about evolution, or global warming for the same reason they are resistant to letting children learn that the earth is flat or that the moon is made from green cheese. Though such dissenting opinions do exist, they aren't science, and should not be advocated by an education ministry's chief scientist.

Skipping over some more of Menken's nonsense, we come to this classic example of distortion:
We know from experience that designs that aren’t entirely correct fail to function. Computer programs with millions of lines of code don’t work if just a few lines are wrong. Nobody has ever soldered transistors and resistors together randomly and produced a color TV set. Since biological systems are so much more complex than the systems we build, and since the DNA code is so much more complicated than the computer programs we write, we just can’t accept the idea that they happened by chance. We have never seen a complex system arise by accident, and don’t have any good, scientific reason to believe that it is possible. We don’t have the faith necessary to believe in something that is absolutely contrary to natural observations.
Reading this drivel, I'm reminded of the withering remark Richard Dawkins made about how anti-evolutionist really ought to put a little bit of energy into learning more about the theory they attack. Its obvious from this paragraph that Menken's understanding of evolution doesn't fill a tea cup. Where to start?
  1. Arguments from analogy are specious, and the analogy between life and computer code fails because computer code can't reproduce itself, or suffer mutations, or respond to its environment. 
  2. No one says evolution means life developed "by chance". In fact, Menken is, for a change, perfectly  correct: It didn't happen by chance  but by evolution, the non-random selection of mutations. Read this.
  3. Evolution IS observable. Changes in the gene pool over time, has been observed, and so has the origin of new species. [See this] In addition to this direct evidence, we also have indirect evidence. Evolution makes predictions about what we would expect to see in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, genetic sequences, geographical distribution of species, etc., and these predictions have been verified many times over. The number of observations supporting evolution is overwhelming. [Previous sentences from here]
Biologists universally believed that evolution explains perfectly how we got here, but among those in all the other hard sciences, you were much more likely to hear grave doubts — usually expressed quietly, because who is a professor of computer science to oppose the leading lights in evolutionary biology?

Though the math-heads Menken worships may be right to say that evolution is mathematically unlikely, two hundred years of direct and indirect evidence tell us that evolution is exactly what happened, numbers be damned.

My friend Mis-nagid, who knows more about math and science then most anyone, says "The numbers do work out, as shown in tens of thousands of papers over more than a hundred years; it's only ID lies that they don't." Perhaps, yes, perhaps not. My point is that even if the numbers suggest that evolution is implausible, the observable evidence says it happened anyway.

Search for more information about Menken's Misinformation at

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