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Brag time: My “Slam Dunk to Creationists” attacked by Discovery Institute

The Discovery Institute, self appointed spokesman for Intelligent Design theory (i.e. cryptocreationist obscurantism) has singled out my piece in The Conversation, How to slam dunk creationists when it comes to the theory of evolution.

Slam Dunk image plagiarised from Discovery Institute. Provenance unknown

My piece argues that we should be talking about the evidence, not about the meaning of words. In particular, I take exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is. The Discovery Institute uses fancy layout to quotemine what I said, so that my criticism of the National Academy is made to look like approval, before taking exception to the National Academy of Sciences definition of a theory as “supported by a vast body of evidence”, on the grounds that calling something a theory tells us nothing about how well supported it is.

In passing, the DI also tells us that “Sahelanthropus … is thought by some to just be a female gorilla.” Eat your heart out, Smithsonian.

I’m honoured by such well-informed and well thought out attention. And while the DI’s article is unsigned, connoisseurs of Creationism will understand my additional delight at having Casey Luskin and Douglas Axe listed among my accusers. With enemies like this, who needs friends?

At the time of writing, my piece has attracted 78,000 hits [update: 95,000 hits] and been featured by Newsweek, Business Insider, The Raw Story, RealClearScience, and others. My thanks to Jane Wright, at The Conversation, whose skilful editing helped make all this possible.

Casey Luskin leaves Discovery Institute; I will miss him

Center_for_Science_and_Culture_(logo)Casey Luskin has just announced his departure from the Discovery Institute, in order to further his studies. We will miss the enlightenment that he brings. For example, in his farewell piece, he tells us that

Evolutionary biologists are now admitting we need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion.

Casey is right; we really do need “post-Darwinian” models to explain the Cambrian explosion. Things like Mendelian inheritance, mutation, population genetics, and, in this context, palaeogeochemistry, which is why evolutionary biologists have been decidedly post-Darwinian since around 1905.

Casey does not tell us what he is going to study, but I rather hope that it will be chemistry. Then, in due course, he will be fully equipped to explain to us that Dalton couldn’t even get the structure of water right, that Faraday’s electrical theory of bonding needs to be revised in the light of quantum mechanics, that many of the postulated intermediates in chemical reactions have never even been observed, that (as predicted by Intelligent Alchemy) many of Lavoisier’s elements turn out not to be elements at all, and that our schools should allow students to evaluate for themselves the unwarranted metaphysical assumptions of chemical materialism, and the merits of the phlogiston theory.

Disclosure: unlike many far better people, I have been insulted by Casey only once, when he accused me and the British Centre for Science Education of concealing our atheism for tactical reasons. Guilty as charged; we conceal it so well that one of BCSE’s most prominent members at the time, now its official spokesman, is an Anglican priest. Devious, these evolutionists. You need to watch them.

Casey, you will be sadly missed.

Update; more here: http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2016/01/luskin-i-am-lea.html The word is that he will be replaced by Ann Gauger, who knows more biochemistry and therefore has, and uses, a  much greater capacity for misunderstanding.

What’s up at the Centre for Unintelligent Design?

This picture shows a German postage stamp featuring the Tyrannosaurus rex. Tyrannosaurus rex was a large Theropod dinosaur that lived during the late Cretaceous Period (around 66 million years ago).

T. rex had arms too short to carry food to its mouth. Intelligent design?

Is the AIDS virus intelligently designed? Casey Luskin, Program Officer of the DiscoveryInstitute’s Center for Science and Culture, certainly seems to think so. Indeed, he could hardly think otherwise, since the virus is full of what he calls Complex Specified Information. But let him speak for himself:

It seems to me to be a virus which is finely-tuned for killing humans. You might not like its function, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t designed. Same goes for guns, nuclear bombs, and genetically engineered viruses. All kill because they were intelligently designed to efficiently carry out that mission.

File:HIV-budding-Color.jpg

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 (in green) budding from cultured lymphocyte. Multiple round bumps on cell surface represent sites of assembly and budding of virions.

This is part of his more general argument, reiterated in the UK by the Discovery Institute’s local franchise, Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design. Casey’s formulation runs as follows:

 We detect design by finding features in nature which contain the type of information which in our experience comes from intelligence. This is generally called complex and specified information (CSI). In our experience, CSI only comes from a goal-directed process like intelligent design. Thus, when we detect high levels of complex and specified information in nature, we can infer that intelligent design.

A powerful syllogism, which can be summarised as follows:

All complex things are either (a) biological or (b) intelligently designed. Therefore all biological things are intelligently designed.

Notice that this is a purely scientific argument, free from religious or other metaphysical overtones. Casey’s Center, like the Discovery Institute that hosts it, is concerned only with science and not at all with religion, which is why it seeks “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” I came across these masterpieces of reasoning when revisiting the Centre for Unintelligent Design, curated by my good friend Keith Gilmour, Religious and Moral Education teacher here in Glasgow, and which houses, among other examples of lack of intelligence, correspondence with Keith from several Intelligent Design advocates.

The star-nosed mole, unintelligently and thus self-referentially selected as the mascot of the Centre for Unintelligent Design. The description of this creature’s foraging reads like an April Fool’s joke, but isn’t.

 The Centre itself is, self-referentially, unintelligently designed. In fact, the examples displayed there have little in common, except that they describe things that one could have imagined better otherwise. Some entries reflect completely unreasonable demands on Nature. Knees that wear out, for example. One could hardly expect them to last forever. Or teeth that rot; but they probably wouldn’t if we would only stick to a palaeolithic diet. Others reflect conflicts of interest between us and other organisms, such as those that cause potato blight (yes, Casey, the blight

File:TrematodesFig9 EncBrit1911.png

Assorted trematode parasites, from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

 

virus is chock-a-block with CSI), herpes, legionnaire’s disease, malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera, tapeworm, athlete’s foot, bubonic plague and countless other highly successful infections. Here, as with the AIDS virus, I have to agree with Casey rather than Keith. The designer, if such there be, has shown no lack of creative intelligence. To take another item from Keith’s list, the intelligence required to design the liver fluke, which goes through seven separate phases and three different hosts, must be very creative indeed.

Most interesting in the present context are those that make sense in terms of evolutionary history, but not otherwise. Of these the most comical (except, perhaps, to a giraffe) is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which happened to go behind the sixth gill arch in our fishy ancestors. No great harm in that. Unfortunately, in mammals the sixth gill arch gives rise to the aorta, so that the combined vagus – laryngeal nerve branch has to loop down to the level of the heart in its path from cranium back up to voice box. A distance, in the case of the giraffe, of some 20 feet, corresponding to a transmission time for a motor nerve of up to a quarter of a second. Fortunate, perhaps, that giraffes are rarely called on to sing Mozart arias. The most ambiguous is the human vermiform appendix, whose main function was at one time thought to be the provision of gainful employment for surgeons. Related to the caecum of our more herbivorous ancestors, it has shrunk to the point where it could not narrow any further without becoming prone to dangerous blockages. However, it is now known to have a function, as a refuge in case of infection for the bowel bacteria on which we depend for digestion. Typical of how a so-called vestigial organ can acquire a secondary role. No plan, just messing around, and what works, works.

Another organ that may have been on the way to becoming vestigial is T. rex’s forearms, too short even to lift food into its mouth. A very recent paper suggests why. Matching up the attachment points on T. rex’s skull to the corresponding muscles in a modern bird (you do admit, don’t you Casey, that birds are descended from dinosaurs?) gives a neck so flexible that the mouth could be used for grasping, making the hands unnecessary for this purpose. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this would have had the further advantage of protecting the tyrannosaur’s moral purity, by preventing it from masturbating.

There are more poignant examples on Keith’s list. I have a son and granddaughter strongly affected by the coeliac condition, in which malabsorption caused by sensitivity to wheat gluten can, unless the diet is modified as necessary, lead to seriously arrested physical and mental development. Such an outcome must have been commonplace during the 10,000 years or so between when wheat became a major part of our diets, and when in the 1940s the cause for the condition was understood.

Even more poignant, how animals, including us, give birth. Through the pelvic girdle, no problem, until brains evolve to the point that heads can only squeeze through with difficulty. An evolutionary process that, of course, happened to coincide with the development of bipedalism, making it impossible to expand the pelvic girdle indefinitely to cope with an enlarging skull. And so we end up with a typical evolutionary compromise; giving birth is an ordeal, but usually takes place without permanent damage. Some difficult births, however, lead to perinatal anoxia, or other forms of brain damage during delivery. To say nothing of death in childbirth, a major hazard to both mother and child until relatively recently. All of which could have been avoided by an intelligent designer simply placing the birth canal above, rather than below, the pubic bone. And anyone who quotes Genesis 3:16 as justification is a moral monster.

HIV image Photo Credit: C. Goldsmith, from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library. T. rex stamp through Sciencekids

Darwin’s Doubt in review; Meyer, Matzke, and some of their critics

paul_book_-1Yesterday I wrote about Casey Luskin’s critique of Nick Matzke’s review of Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt, but not everyone knows (why should they?) who Luskin is, or who said what in which way about whom. So I’ve written this brief survey of the dramatis personae, and review of reviews of reviews.

Luskin is Program Officer of the DI’s Center for Science and Culture, of which Meyer is director, Berlinksi a Senior Fellow, and Kenyon a Fellow. According to his bio on the CSC website, he ‘is co-founder of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, a non-profit helping students to investigate evolution by starting “IDEA Clubs” on college and high school campuses across the country.’ His 5 year stint with Scripps Institute of Oceanography produced one publication; he was one of several junior authors on a study of paleaomagnetic dating of sediments, which has attracted 17 citations. So, moderately useful routine work. No life science qualifications or experience.

David Berlinski is a Senior Fellow of the CSC, mathematician and philosopher, and has written serious works in his own area, including a 1972 article on the philosophy of molecular biology. As the review I cited shows, he writes powerfully and amusingly, even when (as here) he is attacking a fictional straw man.

Dean Kenyon is a CSC Fellow. He was at one time a respected biologist, but in the 1970s was converted by Morris’s Genesis Flood to Young Earth Creationism. He was co-author of Of Pandas and People.

Nick Matzke is just finishing the formalities of his PhD at Berkeley,and will be moving to a postdoc at NIMBioS at U. Tennessee Knoxville in September. Web of Knowledge lists him as author of 19 publications, with a total of 330 literature citations to date.

[Added (h/t Christine Janis): an even more thourough and, therefore, destructive review, by Aaron P. Baldwin, is here]

Stephen Meyer, Director of the CSC and Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, holds a joint degree in physics and earth science from Whitworth, a private Christian liberal arts university, and a PhD in the philosophy of science from Cambridge, and has taught at  Palm Beach Atlantic, a faith-based liberal arts college. He is now director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and author or co-author of a number of works of fiction, including Explore Evolution, a pseudotextbook that shows that the creationists have discovered Batesian mimicry, other works of fiction including Signature in the Cell, and, of course, Darwin’s Doubt. Which is where we came in.

Unintelligent Design updated

My friend Keith Gilmour has just updated his delightful Centre For Unintelligent Design website. All the old favourites are there, together with numerous new examples, and revealing correspondence with those strange people who insist on believing that our ramshackle bodies, and indeed our ramshackle Universe, are the products of intelligent design. I should mention that the equally praiseworthy Oolon Colluphid,  here and here, has played Wallace to Keith’s Darwin (or do I mean Darwin to Keith’s Wallace?) but Keith’s self-referential design principles, and wonderful correspondence with creationists, are irreducibly complex and original.

The examples are arranged higgledy-piggledy, but fall readily into a few distinct categories. There are cosmological examples; why all that wasted space and time? Then there are examples such as disease caused by pathogens. These merely show that if the Universe is intelligently designed, it is not so designed for our benefit; if I wanted to make a plausible case for intelligent design, I would point to the complex life cycle of the malaria parasite, or the liver fluke, but for some strange reason Intelligent Design advocates never seem to do this. Finally, and most importantly, there are examples of design defects that can only be explained by reference to our or some other species’ evolutionary history. And that, of course, is the whole point. Intelligent Design advocates, almost without exception, seek to deny that we have any evolutionary history at all, preferring to imagine that we were supernaturally handcrafted. If so, the site leads us to ask, why are our eyes back to front, why do our sinuses fail to drain, and while there are no doubt good reasons why there are two sets of nerves to the larynx, why does one of them have to loop round the aorta and back up again, a distance (if you happen to be a giraffe) of around 20 feet? And 142 other examples of this kind, ranging in severity from the end-Permian extinctions to acne and halitosis? And, all joking apart, why do we give birth through the pelvic girdle, with all that implies in the way of maternal pain, death, and brain damage to the innocent newborn? (One contributor asserts that there are people who justify this by quoting Genesis 3:16, but do such moral monsters as this really exist?)

Last but not least, there are updates on correspondence with those who persist in believing in Intelligent Design. One highlight here is where the social constructivist Steve Fuller, while describing himself as an atheist, refers us to the literature on theodicy in order to repudiate the claims of unintelligent design. (If you don’t know – and why should you? – theodicy is a branch of theological apologetics, devoted to proving that nothing is ever really God’s fault so He has nothing to apologise for). Another is the head-on attack by Alastair Noble, of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (yes, there is such a thing), on Keith’s analogy between Holocaust denial and creationism. Since Dr. Noble frequently and forcefully insists that Intelligent Design has nothing to do with creationism, we must wonder why these comments attracted his attention. We have Glasgow’s own Jonathan McLatchie telling us that “that ID is not committed to interventionalism”. Clearly we have underestimated the preternatural capabilities of the intelligent design process, which can make things happen without a natural cause and now, we learn, without even intervening. And of course, anybody who is anybody has been attacked by Casey Luskin, and Keith is no exception.

I do have some criticisms. A few contributions (not, I suspect, Keith’s own) show evidence of trying too hard to show off, or of very specialized preoccupations. Who, I wonder, came up with “Dialect differences between the genetic codes of mitochondria, chloroplasts, and the eukaryote cell nucleus hindering optimum migration to the nucleus of mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA”? And how many people in the world really need to bother about the problems facing a coeliac Pastafarian?

I also think Keith cheats a little. Many of the diseases listed are the result of dietary deficiencies. Do these really qualify? After all, we can’t survive without food, so is it really a defect that we can’t survive without the vitamins and minerals normally present in food? And many are the result of foreign invaders; bacteria, viruses, worms, and so on. From their point of view, we are very well designed indeed. Our brains provide wonderful niches for toxoplasma, our livers for liver flukes, and our intestines for tapeworms. Along with the exquisite external environments we provide for lice, mites, and fleas, and other visitors. If we would only give up our narrow anthropocentrism, and learn to see things from the point of view of these our guests, we might find such design features completely admirable. After all, if our immune systems were not so easily fooled or subverted, myriad creatures as diverse as the AIDS virus and the guinea worm would find life very hard indeed.

So maybe, despite Keith’s examples, our own corner of the Universe actually is intelligently designed. Not for us, perhaps, but for parasites and pathogens, bacteria and bedbugs.

This post has now also appeared on the 21st floor website 

 

Casey’s Creationist Christmas

The British Centre for Science Education (BCSE)  has long maintained that the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (DI), of which Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) seems to be a satellite, is a religiously motivated Creationist organisation. Casey Luskin has now demonstrated this with great clarity in his response, in the misleadingly titled Evolution News and Views (“Serving the Intelligent Design Community”), to the recent opinion piece “Anti-Creationists need to think about tactics“, which we recently posted on this and on the BCSE website. Thanks Casey.

As our title and opening words make clear, our piece is addressed by us, as individual nonbelievers, to other nonbelievers, giving our reasons for cooperating with believers in defending science against Creationism. It does not even mention DI, or C4ID, or Intelligent Design. Nonetheless, Casey seems to find our piece relevant to his mission. Perhaps his concern with religion is not surprising, since the foundation document of DI’s Centre for Science and Culture gives the restoration of a “theistic understanding” as a core objective. As for Intelligent Design, few people can still believe the pretence that it is anything more than a cover for Creationism (in the strict sense of the term as applied to biological diversity), but it is good to see our thoughts on these matters so authoritatively confirmed.

There are many more reasons why being attacked by Casey has been compared to being savaged by a dead sheep. Here are a few of them (remember here that Casey is a trained lawyer, and has published on law in an internationally recognised journal, so presumably he has read what he refers to and means what he says about it):

  • He describes the two of us as spokesmen for BCSE, although the very first words of our article are “We write here as individual non-believers” [ emphasis added]. We are not spokesmen for BCSE, although we serve on its committee.
  • The spokesman for BCSE is a distinguished historian of geology and theology, the Rev Michael Roberts, Vicar of Cockerham, Glasson and Winmarleigh.
  • Casey selects BCSE as an example (his only example) of British secular and Humanist groups. Yet BCSE takes no position on matters of religion, a fact that he himself acknowledges later, nor on matters of Church and State relationships in general [1].
  • This is clear from the BCSE website, and indeed from the very piece he criticises.
  • He describes BCSE as a participant in “the ‘fight’ to teach evolution”, although such teaching has been, as it must be, part of the standard curriculum for decades.

(Incidentally, he didn’t link to our piece properly – he just linked to the blog front page. The kindest interpretation is oversight.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the background, here are a few pointers.  The Discovery Institute is a religiously driven Crypto-Creationist group pushing a stripped down and camouflaged version of Creationism called Intelligent Design. This approach was hastily adopted for legal reasons in the US, where schools in the public sector are not allowed to promote religion, when Creationism and later Creation Science were ruled in the courts to be religious, not scientific, doctrines.

Creationist tactics rest upon three pillars. The first of these is that Evolution is in fact Atheism and that this whole political fight is one of Christians versus Atheists. No wonder Casey refers to BCSE as secular and humanist.

We talk about this fact in the very piece that Casey is attacking.  We mention that there are two reasons Creationists adopt this tactic.  First of all the conflict narrative is effective for the recruitment and retention of Creationists to their cause, as to any cause that involves a conspiracy theory (see earlier post here).  Secondly the conflict narrative is used to move the public debate away from “Creationism is daft” to genuine Atheist versus Christian issues.  Creationists know that by framing the debate in such terms, they have a far greater chance of obtaining mainstream support.

So you can see why the BCSE really do get up Casey’s nose.  We are helping to stem his flow of recruits and we are making sure he fights on weak territory where he is very much outgunned.

The second pillar of Creationism is to argue that Evolution (and by implication most modern science) is bad science.  One basic technique here is quote-mining, taking words out of context, so that debate among scientists is misrepresented as rejection of the agreed foundations of the science. Casey’s commentary on our piece is a fine example of such quote-mining. As you can see, he uses it to pretend that our discussion of why we [2] support BCSE is an admission by BCSE of what would, if true, be gross hypocrisy.  This technique works well when leavened with lies, since the only rebuttal is a potentially tedious analysis of the actual texts.  Creationists regularly do this with scientific papers, and their fake textbook, the misleadingly named Explore Evolution, is based on this strategy.

The third pillar of Creationism is an appeal to fairness.  Usually Creationists need to stack the deck a little by lying about their opponents to make this approach seem reasonable.  Just as Casey did in this case where he lies about our roles in the BCSE, the nature of the BCSE, the very existence of a respected Christian as our spokesman, our stated goal and the fact that we have already put this into practice.  We ran a successful lobbying campaign that united notable scientists, atheists, Christians, secular and religious groups and contributed to a change in the way UK Free Schools are set up.  Again this is actually described in the piece he is attacking.

The main thrust of our article is actually advice from two atheists aimed at anti-theists and points to evidence that working with the religious through the BCSE is a very effective tactic for fighting Creationists.  Casey has chosen to misrepresent this as a plot by BCSE to lure the religious into supporting an atheist agenda, and this forces him to lump his fellow Christians, when they defend evolution science, together with atheists.

Perhaps now you can see why Casey is frightened of the BCSE approach. He needs to create a whole world of straw-men, if he is to avoid the truth.  The truth is that his Creationist position is based on theology, and minority theology at that, and has no basis in science.

PS Dear Casey,

We would really like to know, from your point of view; our article didn’t mention Intelligent Design at all, so, if the Discovery institute is not a Creationist organisation, why did you even bother with it?

Merry Christmas

This piece was written by Mark Edon and Paul Braterman and is also available through the BCSE website here

1 Church and State issues are very different in the UK from what they are in the US. See e.g. http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2011/03/why-it-needed-s.html

2 Throughout this piece, as in our original piece, “we” and “our” refers to Mark Edon and Paul Braterman as individuals.

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