Monday, January 12, 2009

A Martin Cothran trilogy

Martin Cothran, spokesman for the Discovery Institute and Focus on the Family (at least, so I have heard), presented a trio of posts that I felt a need to correct over the past couple of weeks.

The first contains a very curious understanding of the Constitution.

Now whatever your view of Blagojevich or Burris, there is one thing that we know without a doubt: the Constitution leaves it up to the states. Reid has no business telling Illinois what to do. Blagojevich is still governor (even though most of the rest of us wish he weren't), and has perfect right to make the appointment.

Whether Burris serves as Senator from Illinois is a matter for the people of Illinois to decide, not the U. S. Senate.


However, the people who actually wrote the Constitution seem to have a different opinion on the matter. Quoting from Article 1, Section 5:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.


So, there is certainly an argument that the Senate does indeed reserve the right to decide if a particular appointee has been too tainted by virtue of the person doing the appointing, and is therefore unqualified. The Senate is not able to decide who gets nominated for membership, but it does seem to have the right to turn people away. Strike one for Cothran.

In the second post, we have a vague attempt to define a word that means nothing to people who accept the Theory of Evolution, and something different to each different type of creationist, "Darwinism" (typically, it means whatever parts of the Theory of Evolution the creationist in question does not accept). Cothran's take on the word:

As a prelude to some more posts on the issue of Intelligent Design, I thought I might address a question that has come up on this blog several times, which I have answered in bits and pieces, but never, I think, directly. It is the question of why I use the term 'Darwinism' rather than using the term many Darwinists prefer that I use: 'evolution.'

I use the term 'Darwinism' simply because it is more accurate. By Darwinism I mean the belief, not simply that the complex organic world as we know it evolved from simpler life forms (the definition of 'evolution'), but that that process can sufficiently be explained by completely natural processes--the two reigning explanations, as I understand it, being natural selection and modern genetic theory.

Darwinists themselves seem to use this term when they think the rest of us aren't looking, but they don't seem to want the term to be used publicly because it has acquired a somewhat pejorative sense. To that, all I can say is that that's not my problem.

The distinction is important because there are some of us who don't have any particular problem with evolution, but have their doubts about Darwinism.


Cothran manages to make several mischaracterizations in a very short post. The first is that there is no such thing as a Darwinist, because no one (that I have read, at least) treats the writings of Darwin as being the the final or ultimate authority on biological development and history. Darwin was the not the first to note the history of biological development, and certainly not the first to note that selection can cause morphological change even within a person's lifetime. He took these ideas and put them together, but his works, like many works at the beginning of a scientific revolution, contain their fair share of errors, incorrect hypotheses, and discarded notions. Scientists don't believe anything because Darwin wrote it, they believe what the evidence of the 120+ years since Darwin has confirmed.

Second, knowledge that the natural process involved in evolution are sufficient to have fueled the world's biodiversity is not a belief, it is a fact. We know from decades of experience that the mechanisms of evolution are capable of doing astounding things. Of course, a careless person might confuse being sufficient with being actual, a problem that Cothran seems to have (as will be shown below). If I see a pile of rocks at the face of a cliff, it is a sufficient explanation that they fell of the cliff face due to erosion. This does not rule out the possibility of a person rearranging the rocks after they fell, causing them to fall, etc. It is sufficient, not conclusive.

Third is the common Creationist tactic of taking the 17+ mechanisms of evolution and ignoring at least 11 of them, referring only to natural selection and modern genetic theory

Fourth, the term Darwinism only comes up when discussing ID/Creationism. The reason it has any pejorative sense at all is because it was created to be a pejorative term.

It was nice of Cothran to confirm for us, in the last paragraph, that "Darwinism" is defined by what is rejected. Strike two for Cothran.

Finally, I will quote from the third piece of dreck put out in a four-day span.

This has been said before in different ways, but, put very simply, if you say that the assertion that the universe as a whole or any particular part of it are intelligently designed is by necessity a non-scientific assertion, then have you not also committed yourself to saying that the opposite assertion--that the world or the things in it are not intelligently designed--is equally non-scientific?

If so, then what are the ramifications for Darwinism, since Darwinism necessarily involves the denial of the assertion of Intelligent Design?


Cothran's rhetorical question in the first paragraph is absolutely correct: it is as equally non-scientific to make a positive denial of design (as opposed to an affirmation of the lack of evidence for design) as it is to make an affirmation of design. Going back to my pile of rocks under the cliff: to claim it is a design, all a person has to do is move one rock by any measurable amount, he has then a proper claim to design in the final result. If I come by six hours later, how am I supposed to make a positive claim that no one has designed the rock positions? They could have been designed on one side of the road,not designed on the other side, and there is no way for me to distinguish the two.

Cothran's second paragraph reveals the confusion to which I referred earlier. His very own definition of "Darwinism"refers to the notion that natural mechanisms are are sufficient, but again there is a difference between sufficiency and conclusiveness. The denial of ID has absolutely no ramifications at all for Darwinism under the very definition he provides!

And if so, then what does that say, not only about the anti-Intelligent Design proclamations of some in the scientific community, but about the scientific status of Darwinism insofar as it is a denial of the Intelligent Design assertion?


In his haste, Cothran seems to have forgotten to mention which of the many ID assertions that he's referring to. However, there is a blanket answer: any particular ID assertion that says merely that the mechanisms of the Theory of Evolution are insufficient to explain a particular biological phenomenon has made a scientific statement. It just happens to be a false one. Strike three for Cothran, he is again out of touch with reality.

17 comments:

Thursday said...

One comment: the term "Darwinist" was used very early on in the theory's history. Thomas Huxley happily applied it to himself, for instance. It fell out of use when the term "evolution" became more widespread (and understood), and as more scientists applied themselves to just what the heck this Darwin guy was talking about...

Its recent usage has, however, all been from the Creationist side of the table, and is undoubtedly a pejorative term nowadays.

The Natural Science Museum in London has a nice little show going on about Darwin's trip, though I'm a touch annoyed they ignored his other work. He did some great stuff with mollusks and earthworms!

_Arthur said...

When I see the term "Darwinism" or "Darwinists" used, I always oppose Biology and Biologists. The ToE is an integral part of modern Biology science.

The creationists pretend they only oppose the "Darwinist" part of Biology. It doesn't work that way. They are more honest when they say they only oppose the "materialism" in Science ...

Anonymous said...

"However, there is a blanket answer: any particular ID assertion that says merely that the mechanisms of the Theory of Evolution are insufficient to explain a particular biological phenomenon has made a scientific statement. It just happens to be a false one."

It may depend on what you mean by "explain," eh? Are natural forces such as lightning, erosion, plate tectonics, etc., "sufficient" to form the four faces on Mount Rushmore? Yeah, in theory, I spoze. Would bein "sufficient" therefore "explain" how those four faces on a mountainside (Washington, Lincon, et al) just happened to closely resemble 4 American Presidents?

I don't think so! Homey don't play dat. One shouldn't autta confuse "sufficiency" with "explanation," either, eh, Eric?

Which part are ya claimin is "false," the "sufficiency" part, or the "explanation" part?

Anonymous said...

"Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two-thirds, expel a Member.


So, there is certainly an argument that the Senate does indeed reserve the right to decide if a particular appointee has been too tainted by virtue of the person doing the appointing, and is therefore unqualified. The Senate is not able to decide who gets nominated for membership, but it does seem to have the right to turn people away. Strike one for Cothran."
===

Hmmm, Eric...so you're sayin that because you think a certain argument can be made for a particular interpretation of the language, that, in itself, constitutes "strike one" against anyone who does not share your interpretation (about what "arguments could be made")? I don't git it.

To begin with, the section you quote authorizes expulsion for "disorderly behavior." You somehow believe these words authorize the senate to expel a member on the basis of the "taint" of the person appointing him? How would that demonstrate any "disorderly behavior" on the part of the member?

For what it's worth: "In Powell v. McCormack, 365 a suit challenging the exclusionof a Member-elect from the House of Representatives...The Court... [noted] that the House precedents were to the effect that it had no power to expel for misconduct occurring prior to the Congress in which the expulsion is proposed, as was the case of Mr. Powell's alleged misconduct..."

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/article01/20.html#3

Anonymous said...

To follow up a bit on the last comment...the "qualification" language of section 5 does NOT extend to judgments on the character of the member. To quote from the Powell case:

"it is argued that the House, and the House alone, has power to determine who is qualified to be a member..... Respondents insist...that a legislature's power to judge the qualifications of its members was generally understood to encompass exclusion or expulsion on the ground that an individual's character or past conduct rendered him unfit to serve...

{However],our examination of the relevant historical materials leads us to the conclusion that petitioners are correct and that the Constitution leaves the House 44 without authority to exclude any person, duly elected by his constituents, who meets all the requirements for membership expressly prescribed in the Constitution."

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=us&vol=395&invol=486

Note also, that any superficial arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, it is the court, not congress, which has the ultimate decision-making authority on such matters, if questioned.

Mebbe the guy who you assessed "strike one" to was a little more familiar with the meaning and implications of section 5 than you are, eh, Eric?

Anonymous said...

Ya see, here's the thing...I often wonder if people think they are duty-bound to oppose the claims of any person they see as their "adversary" in some respect. I noticed that another blogger linked some comments to the Cothran blog. He too, felt it necessary to make reference to Cothran's putative association with another outfit (which association bears no apparent connection to the poltical topic he was addressing). He too felt compelled to make a judgement in a realm beyond his field of expertise by declaring: "Cothran has managed to find one sense at least in which the situation is working exactly as it's supposed to."

To be clear, the "situation" he refers to was that (per Cothran) "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to refuse to seat Burris."

It just so happens that this particular blogger "spends his days defending the teaching of evolution at the National Center for Science Education" according to his own report. Is that just coincidence, I wonder?

You characterize Cothran's intepretation of the constitution as "curious," but it is clear that your curiosity was not aroused. Had it been, you might have looked into the matter a little further before you told Cothran that what he said was "just not true." Obviously, you used "curious" as a coy euphemism for "just plain fuckin wrong."

Zup wit dat?

One Brow said...

It may depend on what you mean by "explain," eh? Are natural forces such as lightning, erosion, plate tectonics, etc., "sufficient" to form the four faces on Mount Rushmore? Yeah, in theory, I spoze.

I wonder if you repetition of the error of Cothran and his ilk was parroting or parody? Either way, selectively choosing a subset of the available natural mechanisms shows very little. Humans are a natural force, so are the tools they create, the dynamite, etc. So, Mt. Rushmore was created by natural forces, we know that from history.

Until you look at every possible interaction of evolutionary mechanisms and their effect on a biological structure, you are in no position to claim such a structure is unlikely to form.

One Brow said...

With regard to you two responses on the Senate's decision to seat Burris, the first seems to have been based on the supplementary passage in the Constitution (for the purposes of this discussion), the second seems to indicate that the primary concern for the Senate was Burris' integrity (as opposed Blagojevich's role in the matter). Neither was the case.

Anonymous said...

One Brow said: "With regard to you two responses on the Senate's decision to seat Burris, the first seems to have been based on the supplementary passage in the Constitution (for the purposes of this discussion), the second seems to indicate that the primary concern for the Senate was Burris' integrity (as opposed Blagojevich's role in the matter). Neither was the case."


I have no idea what you're talkin about here. As far as I know, I made no comments whatsoever to the Senates decision to seat Burris.

I merely responded to your criticism of the original blogger's claim about the proposed refusal to seat Burris, which criticism made claims about the meaning of the constitution.

Are ya somehow tryin to say that your interpretation of the meaning of the constitutional provisions in question is right, and those of the original blogger (and myself) are wrong, Eric, that it?

One Brow said...

Yes, I am saying that the clause "Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members," means that if the Senate had thought the process by which Blagojevich had appointed Burris was too tainted, they in fact had the right to refuse to seat Burris. This has nothing to do with whether Burris is tainted.

Anonymous said...

"they in fact had the right to refuse to seat Burris. This has nothing to do with whether Burris is tainted."

Hmmm, Eric, "in fact," eh? And you know this "fact" on what basis, exactly?

As previously noted, in the Powell case the court said: “The House is without power to exclude any member-elect who meets the Constitution’s requirements for membership.”

In this context, the "requirements" are those which apply to (1) age (2)citizenship, and (3) residence. Burris meets those requirements. Is there some other Supreme Court case which you found and from which obtained "the true facts?"

Anonymous said...

Your original statement was that Burris could be excluded because the "Senate does indeed reserve the right to decide if a particular appointee has been too tainted by virtue of the person doing the appointing, and is therefore unqualified."

Perhaps you did not really mean "unqualified." Either way you seem to rely on the concept of "taint." You talk as though the right to be admitted is subject to the unbridled discretion of the senate and that some perceived "taint" (as opposed to proof of wrong-doing) is sufficient.

Once again, from Powell: "both the intention of the Framers, to the extent it can be determined, and an examination of the basic principles of our democratic system persuade us that the Constitution does not vest in the Congress a discretionary power to deny membership by a majority vote."

One Brow said...

The Powell case seems to read that if the respective House finds an election is not fraudulaent, it can't overturn the results of that election. The Powell decision keeps referencing "majority vote". Burris was not elected in majority vote. Do you have a similar case for an appointed Senator/Representative? Do you think the Powell decision would prevent trhe Senate from seating a membber who had been elected by selective ballot counting or destruction, or that refusing to seat this member would actually be enforcingthe "majority vote"?

Anonymous said...

"Do you think the Powell decision would prevent trhe Senate from seating a membber who had been elected by selective ballot counting or destruction, or that refusing to seat this member would actually be enforcingthe "majority vote"?"

I don't quite understand your question, Eric. As I read the Powell case, it says the Senate cannot refuse to seat anyone based on mere "discretionary power."

If it could be shown that Burris was appointed as a result of a bribe, I think the senate could reject his membership on constitutional grounds. Proving bribery however, is a whole different thing that relying on some vague notion of "taint."

One Brow said...

I don't quite understand your question, Eric. As I read the Powell case, it says the Senate cannot refuse to seat anyone based on mere "discretionary power."

It reads to me that as long as the election is itself is proper/legal, the Senate can't veto the outcome. If in a recount between Candidate A and Candidate B, Candidate A has thousands of ballots for Candidate B destroyed before they can be recounted, do you read the Powell decision as saying the Senate must accept the results of the recount?

If it could be shown that Burris was appointed as a result of a bribe, I think the senate could reject his membership on constitutional grounds. Proving bribery however, is a whole different thing that relying on some vague notion of "taint."

Again, since Burris is not being elected by majority vote, I'm not sure Powell even applies.

Anonymous said...

"It reads to me that as long as the election is itself is proper/legal, the Senate can't veto the outcome. If in a recount between Candidate A and Candidate B, Candidate A has thousands of ballots for Candidate B destroyed before they can be recounted, do you read the Powell decision as saying the Senate must accept the results of the recount?"

No, I don't read Powell that way. The senate has the right to "judge" elections, I spoze. As in "ajudicate" as opposed to "opine." You state as a given fact that thousands of ballots were destroyed. That would have to be proven based on competent evidence if the senate wanted to reject anything. The senate would have the power to investigate, hold hearings, subpoena witnesses, etc., if they cared to. But they couldn't just "announce" that they would bar a member based on speculation or some kind of perceived "taint."

Such a case has nuthin to do with your initial comment(and claim of truth) in response to Cothran, though, best I can tell.

One Brow said...

Since we agree it seems likely the Senate has invesigate, hold hearing, etc. into the corruption of the process of majority vote, and to not sit the presumed Senator while this continues, even with the Powell decision, I don't know why you feel that the Senate would not have the right to conduct a similar investigation about the corruption of an appointment process (which was not referenced in the quotes from Powell you presented). Again, it not the taint of Burris, the person, but of the process as conducted by Blagojevich.