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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Weekend reading on the intelligent design controversy: Columns and articles of note

First, check out Why Intelligent design is going to win by Douglas Kern, in Tech Central Station, who says,

"Ewww…intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science. They are poopy-heads."

There. I just saved you the trouble of reading 90% of the responses to the ID position. Vitriol, condescension, and endless accusations of bad faith all characterize far too much of the standard pro-Darwinian response to criticism. A reasonable observer might note that many ID advocates appear exceptionally well-educated, reasonable, and articulate; they might also note that ID advocates have pointed out many problems with the Darwinist catechism that even pro-Darwin scientists have been known to concede, when they think the Jesus-kissing crowd isn't listening. And yet, even in the face of a sober, thoughtful ID position, the pro-Darwin crowd insists on the same phooey-to-the-boobgeois shtick that was tiresome in Mencken's day. This is how losers act just before they lose: arrogant, self-satisfied, too important to be bothered with substantive refutation, and disdainful of their own faults. Pride goeth before a fall.

This guy is fun.

Meet some of your favourite action figures in this
high level science row about God, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation:

Take the exchange between biologists Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge and Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford. Morris contended that intelligence is not a freak occurrence but a recurring theme in evolution, appearing in dolphins, parrots and crows as well as in primates. He speculated that any of these species might be capable of discovering God, but we had help--from Christ, whom God sent to Earth for our benefit. Dawkins, by far the most antireligious lecturer, praised Morris's evolutionary views but called his Christianity "gratuitous." Morris retorted that he found Dawkins's atheism "archaic" and asserted that the resurrection and other miracles attributed to Christ were "historically verifiable." After more give-and-take, Morris, crossing his arms tightly across his chest, grumbled, "I'm not sure this conversation can go any further."

Dawkins also challenged the faith of physicist John Barrow, an Anglican. Like several other speakers, Barrow emphasized how extraordinarily "fine-tuned" the universe is for our existence. Why not just accept that fine-tuning as a fact of nature? Dawkins asked. Why do you want to explain it with God? "For the same reason you don't want to," Barrow responded drily. Everyone laughed except Dawkins, who protested, "That's not an answer!"

Here’s Albert Mohler, the no-nonsense Southern Baptist seminary chief’s take on arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins, one of the action figures in the story above:

At the New York Symposium, Dawkins went on the attack, criticizing Brown University professor Ken Miller for claiming to believe in evolutionary theory and in God. The exchange was so heated that the gathered scientists--more accustomed to low-key debate, found themselves aghast. As Hall observed, "The other thing that struck me was the tone of the debate--Dawkins, and his undeniably civil manner, was so aggressive, so relentless, and so pitiless towards his intellectual adversaries that it almost detracted from the quality of his argument."

Hall's concern is not that Dawkins might be wrong--he seems to agree that Dawkins is fundamentally correct. Instead, Hall reflects a growing discomfort among scientists that Dawkins and his aggressive approach are making the case for evolution harder to defend in the marketplace of ideas. "You can be the world's greatest apostle of scientific rationalism," Hall warns, "but if you come across as a Rottweiler, Darwin's or anybody else's, when you enter that marketplace, it's very hard to make the sale."
(Note: Dawkins also suggested that if Bush got reelected in 2004, Americans travelling abroad should fake a Canadian accent. That means sounding like me when they talk - an uncertain Ontario quack, which sounds like a voice muffled by a huge fall of snow. Or at best it is a honk, like geese passing far overhead, as the dead leaves fall into the icy water ... Bush did get reelected, so I guess I don’t need to give lessons after all ... )

In American Enterprise, Joe Manzari tries to explain why there IS an intelligent design controversy (the same thing I try to explain in By Design or by Chance?):

In the 1925 Scopes Trial, a young science teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a public school—an act prohibited by a Tennessee statute. Although the trial court ruled against Scopes, the judgment was less important than its wider impact on culture. The historian George Marsden points out that “it was clear that the twentieth century, the cities, and universities had won a resounding victory, and the country, the South, and the fundamentalists were guilty as charged.”

Eighty years later, the tables have turned.

The thing is, eighty years later, the Darwinists have had to resort to undermining academic freedom to protect their theory.

Strange that John Scopes himself commented on this (and Manzari quotes him),

John Scopes once said, "If you limit a teacher to only one side of anything, the whole country will eventually have only one thought.... I believe in teaching every aspect of every problem or theory."

The guy who says he coined the phrase “Teach the controversy” weighs in, expressing his disdain for ID. This is really fascinating, because he unthinkingly assumes that the Darwinists have all the answers, and all that is needed is to teach the controversy so that everyone will realize that. Obviously, Darwinists don’t agree. About that, he notes,

Behind such fear — and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate — one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating "values" with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.

Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists — maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.

Well, it strikes me that if Graff really believes that conservative money and Fox News control the agenda (Hurricane Katrina? Hurricane Harriet? Hurricane Deficit?), he and his friends need to open a window. The reason people doubt the Darwinist spin is that they got off the carrousel, m’kay? It’s still legal to do that.

An oldie but goodie: Three proponents of ID and three opponents present their views in Natural History Magazine (2002).

Hey, over-designed couch potato, if you have really read all those articles, how about you get out there and get some exercise!

Historian of science challenges treatment of astronomer Gonzalez: Message to Darwinist list

Ted Davis, a historian of science at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, who is not an ID advocate and has a background in astronomy, writes to the Darwinists at the Panda’s Thumb,

There do appear to be some cases in which ID advocates who otherwise would be accepted as good scientists, have been singled out by their institutions for their views on this issue. Guillermo Gonzalez at Iowa State is a clear example; the petition against him was organized (was it not?) by a faculty member who serves as faculty advisor to the campus atheist organization—an affiliation he has every right to have, but which also speaks loudly in my view of his attempt to discredit Dr Gonzalez. Just in the past few days, a biologist at the Univ of Idaho had his academic freedom denied by the president, who forbids his *science* faculty from discussing ID in classes, although faculty in other depts may do so if they wish. I regard that as a clear infringement of this scientist's academic freedom.

I am no advocate of ID, as anyone can easily determine. I am however an advocate of academic freedom. If I were given a similar directive, I’d sue the university—and it would be interesting to see whether the ACLU would then do the right thing and take the case.

Hmmm, well, the Thumbsmen's response will be interesting.

(Note: I added the links to the graff quoted above myself, if you are not sure what news stories Davis refers to. The U of Idaho scientist is Scott Minnich.

Incidentally, Minnich flew past my radar recently because he provided help to Nate Wilson, who is trying to discredit the Shroud of Turin . So obviously, everyone who thinks that Darwinism is a crock does not think alike on religious issues.)

Update!:ID folk comment on science writer’s “teach the controversy” recommendation

Recently, a US science writer, stationed (I hear) in Europe, ventured that Darwinism can be saved if only Darwinists did not attempt to suppress all other views. Here are the relevant portions of the basic story, with links (I hope) intact:

Human evolution writer for Science, Michael Balter, thinks that acceptance of Darwinism in the United States has been weakened by the Darwinists' attempts to suppress any questioning:

In large part, Americans' skepticism toward evolutionary theory reflects the continuing influence of religion. Yet it also implies that scientists have not been persuasive enough, even when buttressed by strong scientific evidence that natural selection alone can account for life's complexity.

Could it be that the theory of evolution's judicially sanctioned monopoly in the classroom has backfired?

For one thing, the monopoly strengthens claims by intelligent-design proponents that scientists don't want to be challenged. More important, it shields Darwinian theory from challenges that, when properly refuted, might win over adherents to evolutionary views.
But will they? Widely denounced ID proponent Jonathan Wells writes me to say,

To the best of my knowledge as a molecular biologist, no one has ever shown that BIOLOGICALLY-derived molecules (much less nonbiologically-derived ones) combined with any process, natural or artificial, can produce a living cell.

If you put one living cell into test tube containing a sterile buffer solution with just the right salts and at just the right temperature and pH, then poke a hole in the cell and let its contents leak out into the buffer, you will have ALL the biological molecules necessary to make a living cell. But given our present rudimentary knowledge of living cells, nothing can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

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Are you looking for the following story? "Academic Freedom Watch : Here's the real, ugly story behind the claim that 'intelligent design isn't science'?".

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Similarly, bioengineer Robert Latour of Clemson U asks,
Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I do not believe that anyone has ever proven the hypothesis that random events involving nonbiologically-derived molecules combined with natural selection can produce a living cell.

Well, no, but as mathematician David Berlinski likes to say, "See no evil, see no evil." If you want to be a good believer in promissory materialism (the belief that non-intelligent causes will always be found to be at work in these situations), maybe you had better just not think hard about these things.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
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