US Judge Rules Against Intelligent Design in Schools

December 21, 2005

The revenge of the monkeys… 

Today a federal judge ruled that a Pennsylvania school district cannot teach “intelligent design” (ID); the idea behind ID is that life is so complex, that it must have been created or “designed” by some kind of intelligent being. That being is usually assumed to be God.

Here is some more information from Reuters,

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – A judge on Tuesday barred the teaching of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution at a Pennsylvania school, saying in a scathing rebuke to the school board that it violated a constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools. […]

“Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in a public school classroom,” Jones wrote in a 139-page opinion in the case, brought against the Dover School District.

Jones condemned the “breathtaking inanity” of the policy of the board, all but one of whom have now been ousted by local voters. “Any asserted secular purposes by the Board are a sham and are merely secondary to a religious objective,” he said.

Jones said the students and teachers of Dover High School “deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.”

The school district was sued by a group of 11 parents who claimed teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional and unscientific and had no place in high school biology class.

 

Most of the reactions to this ruling were not really unexpected. For example,

Christy Rehm, one of the plaintiffs, said she was “ecstatic” about the judge’s ruling. “This is a victory for education, a victory for science and a victory for science education,” she told Reuters.

One of the proponents of ID, Casy Lusin of the notorious Discovery Institute surely did not agree:

But Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank that champions intelligent design theory, criticized the ruling.

“The judge thinks intelligent design is a supernatural explanation, but it clearly is not. So the entire decision is predicated on a false perception of intelligent design,” Luskin said in a telephone interview.

What about president Bush who earlier actually promoted teaching Intelligent Design in schools? Well,

Asked about the ruling, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president has said he believed such decisions should be made by local school districts.

“The president has also said that he believes students ought to be exposed to different theories and ideas so that they can fully understand what the debate is about,” he said.

 

The White House still seems to think, that there really is something to debate about. Like if the next decision about the future of the US troops in Iraq should be determined by either political discussions or astrology?

More related articles can be found at google news.


More Dangerous Pseudo-Science?

December 19, 2005

Updated on 04/09/2008: link to video added.

Note: Updated on 02/22/2006. I just recently received an email from S. Ventegodt, claiming that some of my comments below are wrong. I have no intend of writing anything which is plain wrong or misleading and therefore I’m reviewing his complains. Things which at this point have been corrected/made more precise are typed in bold-face.

It seems that the Danish holistic physician Søren Ventegodt “finally” is getting some attention in Denmark these days. Some articles in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet (as well as other newspapers, such as Berlingske Tidende and Politiken) describe his rather “alternative” treatments of various disorders – such as psychological trauma, mostly in women.

It would not be fair for me to judge whether the stories described in the links above are actually true or not, so I’ll let you judge for yourself. Most likely, future will tell. Instead I’ll talk about his Quality of Life Research Center in Copenhagen – and of which Dr. Ventegodt is the director (he is also responsible for a Research Clinic for Holistic Medicine in Copenhagen).

Their main claim to fame is described as follows:

The Quality of Life Center at the State University Hospital generated grants, publicity with research and discussions among the professionals leading to the claim that quality of life was significant for health and disease.

and further,

However, if a substantial part of diseases is caused by a low quality of life, we can all prevent a lot of disease and operate as our own physicians, if we make a personal effort and work to improve our quality of life. A series of investigations showed that this was indeed possible. This view of the role of personal responsibility for illness and health would naturally lead to a radical re-consideration of the role of the physician and also influence our society.

Such statements are typical for people practicing “holistic” medicine in its most extreme form; quite generally they feel that “invasive” treatments, such as drugs or surgery should only be used as a last resort. The holistic view on diseases naturally leads to the emphasis on the role of personal responsibility for illness. Tell this again to somebody suffering from Alzheimer’s, melanoma, diabetes mellitus, polio, rabies or even AIDS.

More generally, “holistic medicine” is based on the observation that many factors affect a persons health, such as genetics, nutrition, stress, family relationships, living and working conditions. As it stands, this statement is of course rather trivial; I guess most traditionally trained doctors agree with this – the important point is to found out which factors are important, how important they eventually are, and which factors are – in the long run – basically of little relevance. Practitioners of holistic medicine have not been able in any way to quantify which of the above factors are relevant and which are not. Even though the idea of a holistic approach to health is as old as medicine itself, the same can be said to be true for the idea of an astrology-based explanation for your specific personality, your future possibilities and so on. Its marginally admirable that practitioners of holistic medicine attempt to obtain a more “complete” view of a patients health and general condition, but for somebody suffering from AIDS or cancer it might not help much asking them about their childhood, family relations and so on.

Another view articulated by The Quality of Life Center is:

There is a general consensus that many of the diseases that plague the Western world (which are not the result of external factors such as starvation, micro-organisms, infection or genetic defects) are lifestyle related and as such, preventable through lifestyle changes.

[I must admit, that there is something I really do not understand here; why do they classify genetic defects as an “external factor”? It is well-known, that one human cell contains around 30-40.000 genes and since genetic instructions are so complicated many mistakes can occur – and many of these errors can lead to diseases. Of course, some diseases can be caused by pathogens, which is what they must be talking about here. But it might also surprise them, that such diseases as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, which traditionally are viewed as simple emotional disorders caused by childhood conditions, low self-esteem and so on, actually could prove to be auto-immune diseases.]

More generally, I would like to know which diseases are really caused by the way we think about and perceive life? Only those as: depression? Psychosis? High blood pressure? Or even coronary hearth disease? How did the researchers at the Quality of Life Center show that a disease like cancer even in a single case was actually “caused” by the way people think? (Even though the progression of a specific disease can be much affected by external factors such as the loss or death of a spouse). Or were their results just a consequence of the trivial observation that the way people think is largely determined by certain distributions of a large number of chemicals of the brain, such as serotonin, which therefore in some cases is determined by genetic factors which again can appear together with certain diseases? Or did they actually observe something completely opposite of what they thought they observed – that the way people think is in many ways affected by which physical diseases they might suffer from? Did they follow like 1-10.000 patients for a period of years in something remotely close to a double-blind study with specific differences in their view of life – possibly both their own and in general – and later determined which “factors” caused which diseases?

It seems, this is what they claim to have been doing:

However there is more to Western culture and lifestyle than these factors [excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, a high-fat diet etc.] and if we only focus on them we can risk overlooking others. We refer to other large parts of our life, for instance the way we think about and perceive life (our life attitudes, our perception of reality and our quality of life) and the degree of happiness we experience through the different dimensions of our existence. These factors or dimensions can now, to some degree, be isolated and examined. The medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky (1923-1994) from the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, who developed the salutogenic model of health and illness, discussed the dimension, “sense of coherence”, that is closely related to the dimension of “life meaning”, as perhaps the deepest and most important dimension of quality of life. Typically, the clinician or researcher, when attempting to reveal a connection between health and a certain factor, sides with only one of the possible dimensions stated above. A simple, one-dimensional hypothesis is then postulated, like for instance that cholesterol is harmful to circulation. Cholesterol levels are then measured, manipulated and ensuing changes to circulatory function monitored. The subsequent result may show a significant, though small connection, which supports the initial hypothesis and in turn becomes the basis for implementing preventive measures, like a change of diet. The multi-factorial dimension is therefore often overlooked.

A simple questionnaire based survey performed by the Quality of Life Center in the early 1990’s concluded, that:

…preventable diseases could be more effectively handled through a concentrated effort to improve quality of life rather than through an approach that focus solely on the factors that are traditionally seen to reflect an unhealthy life style.

Virtually all of Dr.Ventegodt’s findings have been published in a journal called the Scientific World Journal (48 out of 53 original articles according to his own CV). This journal is in no way comparable to peer-reviewed journals like Nature or The New England Journal of Medicine (the five remaining original articles were published in: Danish Medical Journal, Eur J Surg, Arch Sex Behaviour, Child Care Health Dev and Int. J. Adolesc. Med. Health), just to mention a few. Papers are accepted upon payment of some unknown amount of money, which immediately makes you think that the scientific value of such articles is comparable to that of commercials during the Super Bowl. (If any well-known and respected journals accepted Dr. Ventegodt’s findings please inform me about this by sending an email to: kasperolsen [AT] yahoo [dOT] com).

About the stories reported in the newspapers as mentioned above it’s now even more interesting to read some of the last comments at the homepage of the Quality of Life Center:

We believe that the trained physician today has three medical toolboxes: the manual medicine (traditional), the bio-medicine (with drugs and pharmacology) and the consciousness-based medicine (scientific, holistic medicine). What is extremely interesting is that most diseases can be alleviated with all three sets of medical tools, but only the bio-medical toolset is highly expensive. The physician, using his hands and his consciousness to improve the health of the patient by mobilizing hidden resources in the patient can use his skills in any cultural setting, rich or poor.

Patients “treated” by the controversial methods described in the media should know if this is in any way true, or if it is just another example of dangerous pseudo-science?

(S. Ventegodt has asked me to tell my readers that he has been cleared for the accusations of being guilty of wrongdoing. However, concerning the case discussed in the media, 1) I’ve not said that Ventegodt is guilty of wrongdoing but rather this is for others to decide and 2) since I’ve not said this, it is not my job to clear him for suspicion and 3) I’ve not really discussed the case in question above, but rather made some critical remarks about the research performed at the Quality of Life Center and 4) finally – and most importantly – since Ventegodt still cannot practice as a physician, since his authorisation has been taken from him (the question about whether it should be returned, will be determined in court) it would be plain wrong of me to say that he has been completely cleared for suspicion.)

Added link to a “consultation” with Ventegodt, see here.


Invasion of the Giant Creationists

December 19, 2005

(This article was originally posted on blogger.com on Aug 4, 2005)

What has gone wrong? How has one of the great themes in the history of science – that of evolution – become so disreputable?

Here, I’m talking about the fact that many people (even scientists) suggest that the “theory” of so-called Intelligent Design (ID) and/or Creationism should be taught in american schools, alongside with neo-Darwinism evolution. This is, but not particularly, embarrassing (since a lot of scientists believe in crackpot ideas), however, that President Bush promotes teaching Intelligent Design in schools is really worrisome.

The story is the following. Last Monday President Bush talked about promoting ID in public schools. The article in Chicago Tribune tells it all:

President Bush said Monday that he thinks schools should discuss “intelligent design” alongside evolution when teaching students about creation.

During a round-table interview with reporters from five Texas newspapers, Bush declined to detail his views on the origin of the universe. But he said students should learn about both theories.

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” Bush said. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.”

The theory of intelligent design says life on Earth is too complex to have developed through evolution, implying that a higher power must have had a hand in creation.

Christian conservatives have pushed for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Scientists generally have rejected the theory as an attempt to force religion into education.

This is, in fact, the whole article. Just one whole sentence on the scientific opinion of this “scientific” topic. I would like to add some comments about this.

In principle, I agree with the President, that students should be exposed to different ideas about a specific subject.

However, that does not imply that one should include teaching them religious ideas under the guise of teaching them science. Creationism and ID is not a part of science, but rather a part of pseudo-science. ID and Creationism (which should be considered a subgroup of ID) are simply not scientific theories: ID does not make any new predictions, which cannot be explained by evolution, it is not falsifiable in any way and violates Occam’s Razor. Supporters of ID claim, that they have published quite a few papers about the subject in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I don’t think this is true, but even if it is, then the editors of these journals are obviously not experts on evolutionary biology, and have accepted papers for publication despite the absence of any material or logical support for the idea of ID.

Evolution have been established with thousands of cases of evidence, and the work of hundreds of thousands of researchers. This idea is based on material evidence and repeated experiments, extensively documented in the scientific literature. It flatly contradicts literal religious accounts. 

The idea of teaching student about different views on a specific subject is an admirable on, however, that does not include teaching science as if it was as much of a “he said this, and she said that”” enterprise, just like journalism or politics for that matter. In the end, this would imply that e.g. astrology should be taught together with psychology, homoeopathy (the idea to treat a disease by minute doses of natural substances that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease) together with pharmacology, phrenology together with neuro-biology (or psychology) and so on. This would be a horribly poor idea.

(The title of this post was inspired by an excellent paper on “giant gravitons” by McGreevy, Susskind and Toumbas. But that is a completely different story).