July 18, 2008

Luskin's Wrist Rant: Leave it to the Experts

I happened to be a little slow confronting the Bobby Jindal/War on Science news coming out of Louisiana, and as soon as I got my post up yesterday my email inbox was flooded with some strange news from the Discovery Institute (DI).

I highlighted in my previous post the new legislation supposing to bring "academic freedom" into Louisiana's high schools by way of allowing outside supplemental material to be brought into science classes. This new scheme though has no title, no name, and no identifying features other than to highlight the need for academic freedom, but only when the issue is evolution. The Bad Idea Blog sums it up pretty nicely:

The obvious trick in all of these bills is that they never specify a standard of accuracy that such criticisms have to meet, and they are often vague as to who is going to evaluate or enforce that standard in any case.

Scientists in general already do a pretty good job of including actual scientific controversy and ambiguity in textbooks and curricula, which makes these bills basically an invitation to introduce legally protected psuedoscience into local classrooms. If this sounds a little too much like the "teach the controversy" strategy of the original creationists, well, you and I are like the 800th and 801st people to notice that.
Whether it is publicly stated or not the DI is right now the leading public institution behind these bills and behind the majority of creationist/intelligent design/academic freedom/untitled "research" and promotion of evolution's faults. Casey Luskin, resident lawyer and cheerleader for the DI has posted an article that contains a major gaffe while trying to throw doubt on recent work by paleontologist Neil Shubin, discoverer of the transitional tetrapod Tiktaalik and the author of the excellent book "Your Inner Fish."

Here is Luskin's argument straight from his mouth.
1. Shubin et al.: "The intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik
have homologues to eponymous wrist bones of tetrapods with which they
share similar positions and articular relations." (Note: I have labeled
the intermedium and ulnare of Tiktaalik in the diagram below.)
Translation: OK, then exactly which "wrist bones of tetrapods" are Tiktaalik’s
bones homologous to? Shubin doesn’t say. This is a technical scientific
paper, so a few corresponding "wrist bone"-names from tetrapods would
seem appropriate. But Shubin never gives any.
Eponymous, adj: Of, relating to, or being the person after which something is named.

That quick wiktionary search just debunked Luskin's whole argument. Eponymous basically means similarly or derivitatively named, which means Shubin has given the names for the corresponding tetrapod bones (they have the same names in tetrapods as they do in Tiktaalik).

Understandably this was probably a mistake and had Luskin done the proper research (ie: get a fucking dictionary if you don't know what a word means) he would have realized his mistake, but this is one of the guy's that is going to be leading the push for so-called "academic freedom" concerning evolution. He works for an institute who's purpose is to try and punch holes in evolution and bring those holes into the public discussion.

If this is the type of "critical thinking" that the DI is trying to push into school's I think it worth people's time to see just how insufficient the DI's work is. Unfortunately this is where being a lay person and being an expert butt heads, experts are far more qualified to establish what is good and what is crap research. Lay people have trouble understanding the intricacies involved with technical jargon and statistical modeling, which is why we have experts in the first place.

I guess what I'm really trying to get at here is that the guy claiming a grand conspiracy of evolution and promoting the right to question and rethink the dogma himself cannot complete a rational analysis of the data. There is already an institution set up to monitor and judge the worthiness of a paper/journal/theory and that is the scientific community themselves. Scientists, are generally skeptical of claims made in papers. I know when I read a paper, even if I like what it says the first thing I do is scrutinize the figures and tables looking for a weakness or misrepresentation. I like to scour references to further examine the strength of the paper until I am satisfied that the author has interpreted the data correctly. And then here's the kicker; I get on the internet and search through the blogs of those guys who are experts in the field, because my opinion means very little compared to these guys.

In fact, Carl Zimmer and PZ Myers both share their thoughts on Luskin's flub in a far more meaningful way than I can.  Hopefully I will one day join them among the ranks of the experts, confident that I can tease meaning away from the primary literature.  Until then I must defer to the experts and simply add in my little thoughts.  I would hope that the google scholars and high school teachers/administrators could understand this point.  Leave the job of science to the scientists.

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