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Creationism in Scottish schools; final submission to Scottish Parliament

Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee

This petition has already achieved more than we could have imagined. It has attracted major press coverage and comment in Scotland and beyond (details here and here), and a wide range of formal submissions, nearly all supportive (text of petition, official briefing, and submissions here). It has brought out into the open the entrenched position of creationists within the Scottish educational system, and further exposed the intellectual pretensions of the creationist Centre for Intelligent Design. I am sure that all MSPs were aware that there could be a political cost for attacking creationism. We have now shown that there is also a political cost for defending it.

Spencer and I testified before the Petitions Committee on November 11, 2014 (links to video and transcript here). The previous Committee had seriously considered killing the petition at that stage, but after a division that ran across party lines, decided to seek further input before reconsidering. Since then, there have been major personnel changes on the Committee; hence the need for us to go over in this Submission what will for some be familiar ground.

The next meeting is on Tuesday 27th January, when the Committee can either close (i.e. kill) the petition, or, as we hope, forward it to the Education Culture Committee. More news here as it becomes available.

Sincere thanks to all our friends and supporters, who have made this possible.

The version you see here is the one that is being presented to the Committee. The published version will as a matter of Parliamentary protocol omit certain details about individuals mentioned, but all these details have already been published, elsewhere, by the individuals or organisations concerned.

Scottish Secular Society, Petition PE01530, Final Submission

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

We are calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.  NB: “presentation” rather than “teaching”, since the problems generally arise from non-teacher visitors.

As the SPICe  briefing makes clear, this is a very modest request. A simple policy statement would suffice. We are NOT calling for legislation, the walling off of science (or RE) from other subjects, or the restriction of discussion. We are not attacking religion, and one of our strongest and most informed support messages comes from the Reverend Michael Roberts who writes for the British Centre for Science Education. We merely call for the issuing of guidance against presenting to schoolchildren as true what we all know to be false.

The petition, whose 651 signatories included three Nobel Prize winners and numerous parents, teachers, educators, and scientists, has aroused widespread interest across Scotland and beyond. It has generated widespread media interest with over 25 reports, features and articles (including one in Forbes), and concern about the damage creationism can do to science education. Individual responses have been overwhelmingly supportive, as have institutional submissions from scientific and science education bodies including the Society of Biology, the UK’s leading professional association for the life sciences.

The Scottish Government’s initial response, like that of EIS, assumes that adequate safeguards are already in place. We demonstrated to the PPC, and show here again, that they are not, and that creationist influence in schools is institutionalised. The remaining opposition, including the pseudoscience of “Intelligent Design” against which the Society of Biology warns explicitly, is from a small, well organised group of committed creationists who we believe enjoy disproportionate influence within our education system.

Inaction will be seen (as it has already been seen) by creationists worldwide as a licence to continue their activities, causing damage to Scottish education, and to Scotland’s proud reputation for the advancement of knowledge, on which so much of our economic future depends.  Our petition has attracted intense media attention, reflecting and amplifying deep public interest.  Many now await the PPC’s next steps, either with anticipative glee or with deep concern.

 CONSIDERATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

We respectfully suggest that the Committee forward our petition to the Education and Culture Committee, drawing attention to the following points emerging from the petition itself and the debate and submissions that it has stimulated:

  • The problem of creationist infiltration into schools and the need for guidance need to be recognised.
  • “Intelligent Design”, as currently presented, should be recognised as creationism in a pseudo-scientific disguise.
  • Good teaching and honest thinking both require that there be no artificial division between what is acceptable in science classes, and what is acceptable elsewhere. (Here we agree strongly with EIS.)
  • As recommended by the Society of Biology, teachers should be professionally encouraged to learn how to answer questions about creationism appropriately and sensitively. For example, RE teachers should be aware that creationism and ID are scientifically indefensible, while science teachers should be aware of the bogus nature of creationist pretensions to speak for religion as a whole.

 INTRODUCTION

Over the past few decades, some theologically conservative Protestants and Muslims have succumbed to the blandishments of “creation science” as such, or in the guise of “Intelligent Design”. As a result, there are numerous groups and individuals who under the labels of RE and RO gain access to schoolchildren, despite being committed to doctrines of separate creation and a young Earth that we all know to be false. This is a direct threat to the children’s understanding of biology and Earth sciences: their understanding of who they are and what kind of planet they live on. That this is done in the name of religion makes it no less harmful: on the contrary, it brings religion itself into disrepute. It is shameful that this is allowed to continue.

This is why we are compelled to act, and are, in the words of the abstract to our petition,

“Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to issue official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.”

We are not requesting much, and certainly not asking for legislation. We merely seek a simple statement, similar to those in force in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We warned that refusal to make such a statement would be regarded by creationists[i] as a licence to continue their activities. This has already happened; Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, now the world’s most prominent Young Earth Creationist organisation, has welcomed the Scottish Government’s initial refusal in three separate web postings,[ii] while Scottish creationists will regard it as a green light.

At the time when EIS and the Scottish government made its initial response to our petition, they did not have access to the most authoritative of responses, that from the Society of Biology, and we urge them to use this opportunity to rethink their position. Most organisations responding, and all but one[iii] of many individuals, have supported the petition. Such opposition as there is from organisations, including the Scottish Government, assumes that present arrangements are adequate; this is demonstrably not the case. (See Appendix).

The petition has attracted widespread interest in Scotland and beyond. We have logged over 25 press mentions,[iv] including one from Forbes magazine[v] warning of Intelligent Design as a vehicle for creationism that may well succeed in Scotland.

OVERVIEW OF RESPONSES

The most authoritative of responses (DD) is from the Society of Biology, the UK’s largest Life Sciences professional body, which strongly supports us. This should be read both for its clear statement of the scientific issues, and for its sympathetic understanding of the problems facing teachers.

Out of 41 individual comments, 39 support the petition, one is opposed, and one too generalised to classify. Out of 43 written submissions, all but five support the petition; 34 of these are from individuals, all but one of whom write in support. These individual supporters include contributors with a range of experience and technical knowledge, and some of these speak from direct experience of the impact of creationist teaching in Scotland and elsewhere, while a former Edinburgh Head Teacher (Submission AA) speaks eloquently of creationist pressures and the need for the requested guidance.  Of the contrary submissions, one (individual) is curiously off-topic, while two (A, Dr Noble, writing for the creationist[vi] Centre for Intelligent Design whose activities are among those that give us concern, and X, Ken Cunningham, writing for School Leaders Scotland) originate from the same small biblical literalist Fellowship Church, Cartsbridge, where Cunningham is Secretary and Elder, while Noble is Elder and both are frequent sermon-givers. We do not understand why Cunningham failed to disclose this conflict of interest, nor how he managed to ascertain SLS members’ opinions in the very short time frame before his submission.

Regarding the pretensions of Intelligent Design (Submission A), note that the Society of Biology, like the guidance language at force in England, explicitly mentions Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism, an assessment confirmed by the content of Dr Noble’s own submission, despite his denials (see endnote vi). You can believe the Society of Biology, the Association for Science Education, the Royal Society, and the combined statements(L) of the world’s Learned and Scientific Societies or you can believe Dr Noble, but you cannot believe both, and if you believe the Society of Biology and other supportive bodies you must conclude that what Dr Noble and his colleagues wish to impart is contradictory to the basic concepts of present-day life science, concepts whose fundamental importance is recognised in the Curriculum for Excellence.

The only two contrary submissions of substance (Scottish Government and EIS; BB and CC) assert without evidence (as does Cunningham) that the guidance we speak of is not necessary because adequate safeguards are in place, through professional and Local Authority supervision. In reality, the safeguards referred to do not exist, information on the problem is fragmentary, young Earth creationists have privileged access to schools as visitors, volunteers, and chaplains, unelected young Earth creationists are embedded in the supervising Local Authority Education Committees, and some of the bodies responsible for local education have told us that they do not possess the relevant information. More details in Endnote vii, and Appendix.

Out of the five organisational comments in support, three are particularly noteworthy. The (US) National Centre for Science Education (Submission L) have extensive experience of the damaging effect of creationism on education. The submission (B) from the British Centre for Science Education comes from a respected historian of geology who is also a school Governor and an Anglican priest and retired vicar. Above all, the submission (DD) from the Society of Biology, the organisation best qualified to speak on the issue, gives the strongest possible support. This was submitted on 10th November, no doubt in the hope that it would be available to the Committee when it heard evidence on this Petition, but through a failure in the Clerks’ Office was not published until 17th December, meaning that it was not available to the Scottish Government, nor to EIS, when they prepared for their submissions. This in itself is sufficient reason for the Government and the EIS to reconsider. We urge the PPC to give particular attention to these three submissions above all others.

We believe the Committee wrote in November to the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association and the Association of Heads & Deputes in Scotland, but they have elected not to comment.

EIS AND SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT RESPONSES

We agree with the EIS that there should be no banning of discussion of particular beliefs, and that there must not be separate rules for different parts of the syllabus. However, the safeguards they refer to are illusory. They refer to the General Teaching Council for Scotland as enforcer of standards, but our major concern is that the relevant standards do not exist. They also invoke the Local Authority as employer, but at least five authorities[vii] (Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, N. Ayrshire, S. Lanarkshire, Western Isles) have unelected appointees of extremist young Earth creationist churches sitting on their education committees. Several authorities have told us that information about creationist visitors is not collected or not stored, and almost all have refused Freedom of Information requests for lists of chaplains’ church affiliations, on the grounds that these are personal data.

We also note, concerning EIS’s mandate to speak for the teaching profession, that six individual supporters of the petition identify themselves as teachers and educators, while the only individual writing in opposition makes no such claim.

Finally the Scottish Government response, prepared through an administrative failure without the benefit of the Society of Biology’s opinion, asserts that monitoring and safeguards are adequate. How can this be true when a fundamentalist Alabama-based sect was allowed to operate within a school (Kirktonholme) for eight years, with input into RE and RO, as well as individual tutoring and out-of-hours activities on school premises, only coming to light when children brought home materials stating that the Bible is literal historical truth, that scientists who deny this do so out of wickedness, and that dinosaur graveyards are evidence of Noah’s Flood?

The Scottish Government claims that this is not really a matter for the Government, but for teachers. This is unconvincing when its own submission is signed by “Head of Curriculum Unit, Learning Directorate”. It assures us that “Education Scotland will continue to monitor, through the school inspection process and by other means, any instances where schools are not ensuring the teaching of science is based on well-established science and scientific principles.” We hope that this does not imply an artificial distinction, against which EIS explicitly warns, between “science” and “non-science” activities. The Government claims, as does EIS (and SLS!) with no evidence or descriptive detail, that present safeguards and reporting procedures are adequate. How can they be when a handful of amateurs, with help from concerned parents, have unearthed problems of which officialdom seems blissfully ignorant? And in conclusion, we note that Education Scotland promises to continue to monitor the situation. We hope that they will regard our own evidence here as input to that monitoring, and take appropriate action, as we ask.

THE BROADER CONTEXT

Finally we note that the fact this is an issue at all is part of a larger problem, which has already come to the attention of the PPC at least twice, namely the embedded privilege of religion, including in the present context biblical literalist versions of religion, in the Scottish educational system. Thus we have three unelected representatives of religion on every Council Education Committee, including at least six Young Earth creationists; pupils are expected by default to attend Religious Observance which, despite protestations, is almost invariably confessional; and chaplains and chaplaincy teams play a role in developing the Religious Education programme, although this is supposed to be neutral between different worldviews. In a society as diverse as 21st century Scotland, this is surely unsustainable.

APPENDIX: SOME EXAMPLES OF CREATIONIST INFLUENCE OR ACTIVITY IN SCOTTISH SCHOOLS

Although EIS refers to council authority Education Committees as a safeguard, these committees include, in Scotland, three appointees representing religion. One or more such appointees are from explicitly Creationist churches in at least 5 Councils (Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, N. Ayrshire, S. Lanarkshire, Western Isles), see Endnote vii.

There have been addresses by supporters of creationism (including ID) in Kelso High (source: Borders Council 2013), although in 2014 Borders reported that no such events had occurred in the previous 3 years), Bellahouston Academy (source: Glasgow City Council), and Williamwood (source: FaceBook posting), although East Renfrewshire Council denied knowledge of any such event.

Kirktonholme Primary pupils were handed textbooks that claimed that old Earth geology is a trick to discredit religion, that humans may have used dinosaurs as farm animals, and that there are human footprints in coal, among other gems. A chaplain linked to an Alabama creationist sect had been in place and advising on RE for 8 years.

Skerries School (a very small school since closed for unconnected reasons) showed US-supplied “creation science” material, despite being in a region (Shetland) that is among the least church-relating in Scotland. We do not regard this as major in itself, but as an indicator of the fragility of systems.

Five councils, when asked whether their schools had been visited by Centre for Intelligent Design or by Creation Ministries International, or “any other speakers who claim that macro-evolution is still speculative, or that the evidence supports separate creation over evolution, or a young Earth over an ancient Earth” said they did not hold the relevant information or did not fully answer as asked. (Source: FoI request responses). These were Fife, W Dunbartonshire, N. Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Inverclyde. East Renfrewshire said they had had no such visits, evidently unaware of Rev Gordon Murray’s talk at Williamwood.

Western Isles reports with commendable frankness: “Ministers of religion will regularly visit schools as part of the churches’ contribution to religious observance or the Religious and Moral Education curriculum. Such visits occur weekly in many of our primary schools.  Although the topic for study or reflection may not always be ‘The Creation’, it is possible that discussions may arise from time to time. It is not possible for us to provide a confirmation of each local minister’s views on the topics you have referred to in this request. The Education & Children’s Services department would not hold this information.”

Highland reports: “Schools do not always keep records of these visits … Schools may also have associated chaplains who speak at assemblies or lead religious observance.  It is possible that chaplains might make reference to creationism, but this is not recorded by schools or the Council. The Council, therefore, unable to answer your question with any certainty.”

Glasgow City Council refused to reply to an enquiry about all schools (describing it as “too onerous”), but reported specifically on Secondary Schools (see note on Bellahouston Academy, above).

We hear a steady stream of reports of creationist activity and individual schools, although parents are understandably reluctant to complain about or publicise such matters. A school in Kirkcaldy had children paint a “Six Days of Creation” mural, and then denied having done so until challenged with photographic evidence (which we presented when submitting oral testimony and added to the records). We have also heard of the school in the Highlands with a “Creation Corner”, where children displayed such artwork. A parent asking “Where is Evolution Corner?” attracted hostile silence. Schools in Peterhead, according to a former teacher, have links to a wide range of ultra-creationist churches, including the US-based Living Waters.

Information on creationist chaplains is fragmentary, but we have some information from the churches themselves, or from what a few councils have seen fit to supply.  In North Lanarkshire, John Dick, who told a parent that evolution is ridiculous because 6,000 years wasn’t long enough for it, is a full time employee of Craighalbert Church, a fundamentalist fringe group with US Evangelical connections. His listed qualification is that he was saved as a child, and his Church says that he serves on the Chaplaincy teams of Cumbernauld Primary, Woodlands Primary, Glencryan High, and Cumbernauld High. Freedom City Church also supplies at least one school in North Lanarkshire, and the creationist freelance MAD (Making A Difference) Ministries has visited. South Lanarkshire when asked in 2013 had 19 separate representatives of creationist churches in its chaplaincy teams, not counting Scripture Union which is frequently although not necessarily creationist.

Challenger buses, of which there are now three, visit schools ostensibly to provide RE, but this RE includes hymn singing, which raises questions about how they see their role. It is run by People With A Mission Ministries, whose website portrays, with approval, young Earth creationist material supplied by Answers in Genesis.

None of this seems have come to the attention of the regulatory authorities, on whom EIS, SLS, and the Scottish Government are asking us to rely. This to us indicates deep structural inadequacies, which our petition seeks, in part, to address.

[i] By “creationism” we mean, throughout, the separate creation of different living kinds, in contrast with the established science of common descent. This should be clear from our Abstract.

[ii] Answers in Genesis, https://answersingenesis.org/theory-of-evolution/in-schools/academic-freedom-under-fire-scotland/http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/09/07/nobel-winning-scientists-push-for-ban-of-creation-in-scottish-schools/http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2014/12/23/scottish-government-rejects-creation-ban/

[iii] The only hostile individual submission, R, is an off-topic ad hominem attack and garbles the science.

[iv] http://wp.me/p21T1L-rt

[v] http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnfarrell/2014/12/30/creationism-in-europe-you-bet/

[vi] As Prof Braterman testified in person and in Submission C, the C4ID submission, A, is clearly creationist in that it denies that common ancestry (“macro evolution”) is established science and that the natural processes of evolution can give rise to new information. For a more detailed critique of C4ID’s “introductory pamphlet”, see http://robertsaunders.org.uk/wordpress/c4ids-introduction-to-intelligent-design-a-critique/ by Dr Robert Saunders, reader in Molecular Biology in the Open University (who also, in Submission J, endorses the points raised by Prof Braterman in Submission C), and http://wp.me/p21T1L-nY by Prof Braterman. Intelligent Design is also explicitly mentioned as a form of creationism in the authoritative Submission DD, from the Society of Biology.

[vii] http://wp.me/p21T1L-8W and links therein to the Churches’ own statements

Introduction to Intelligent Design, Alastair Noble (review)

Summary: a doctrine that doesn’t deliver, the usual rhetorical tricks, begging the question, ignoring the evidence, distorting the science, and leaving all the work still to do.

I promised friends I would review this, so here it is.  Fortunately, a paragraph by paragraph review has already been carried out by my BCSE colleague, Dr Robert Saunders, Reader in Molecular Genetics at the Open University, so I can be brief.

A doctrine that doesn’t deliver

NoblePamphletThis pamphlet is indeed a worthy introduction to what now goes by the name of Intelligent Design. Quote mining, baseless claims, ignoring of established facts, repetition of long exploded arguments, and, at the heart of it all, a purported explanation of phenomena that proves on examination to explain nothing. All as a thinly disguised excuse to discard what we actually know about deep evolution and, in the ID movement on this side of the Atlantic at least, about deep time.

Now to detail. First, the virtues of this pamphlet. It is short; the text runs to less than 16 pages. It clearly and undeniably exemplifies the logic, and rhetorical devices, of the contemporary Intelligent Design movement. despite a £2 pricetag, it cost me nothing, having been given away at Dr Noble’s recent talk at Al’ Furqan Masjid Community Hall in Glasgow, organised through Scotland’s Interfaith Council (a charity that receives public funds). And it contains three arguments with which, as Dr Noble might be surprised to learn, I agree. I agree with his claim that we do not know the origin of life. I also agree that that science should not restrict itself a priori to natural causes. In my only professional level publication on the philosophy of science, I argue that, on the contrary, our preference for natural causes is based on experience. And I also agree with Dr Noble that the multiverse hypothesis is highly speculative, that we lack the means to test it, and that fine tuning continues to present an interesting challenge.

Next, everything else. Note that what follows applies to the 2013 print edition. Online and earlier versions may differ; I have not checked.

The usual rhetorical tricks

Problems start in the first paragraph. About the Author describes Dr Noble as “a professional adviser to secondary school teachers.” This is disingenuous. He is the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, not a disinterested author. But that’s a small matter.

We rapidly move on to the now traditional list of Great Scientists who believed in an Almighty Creator. And so they did. So, as I have explained here and here respectively, did James Hutton, originator of our modern concept of deep time, and, at the time when he wrote On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (Autobiography p. 93). So do many distinguished contemporary evolutionary biologists, ranging from the Evangelical Francis Collins to the Catholic Ken Miller, whom I will be mentioning again in this review. I wonder why the ID crowd never talk about any of these.

Then the next traditional feature, the Mined Quote. So we have Einstein, although Noble is surely aware that Einstein regarded belief in Noble’s kind of God as infantile. We even have what Michael Denton wrote in 1985, ignoring the fact that his views had changed dramatically by 1998. And of course the claim, which has been around since the 1920s, that more and more scientists are abandoning naturalistic evolution in favour of supernatural processes.

Next, the key assertions, on which the entire theory (if that is not too kind a term) depends. The first assertion is that complexity is evidence of design; the second and third, discussed below, are that information can only arise through the operation of an intelligence, and that some biological functions are “irreducibly complex” and thus could not have arisen through evolution. The first assertion runs something like this: we accept that complex artefacts are designed, and hence can infer that biological complexity likewise involves design. Expressed as a syllogism

Safety razors (Noble’s example) are complex, well adapted to function, and designed.

Living things are complex and well adapted to function.

Therefore living things are designed.

This is essentially Paley’s argument, which Darwin himself found impressive as an undergraduate (Autobiography, pp. 59, 87). However, the entire point of natural selection is that it explains how living things can become well adapted to function, without the intervention of a designer, and the entire history of life is a story of how this has happened. ID’s immediate appeal to a principle of design rules out at a stroke everything that has been gained by two centuries of investigation.

Begging the question

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” (Descent of Man, 1871)

To bolster his claim, Noble repeatedly asserts that random change cannot generate what William Dembski has called “complex specified information”, and even goes so far as to say (p. 9) that “We know that information can only arise from prior intelligence”. He admits that evolution can function up to a point, which he calls “microevolution”, but (p. 28) makes a bizarre assertion that “Microevolution necessarily involves an overall reduction in the amount of genetic information.” This is false. Some information may be lost when less fit variants within a population tend to die out, but we know that information content is being continuously replenished by mutation, at the same time that it is being winnowed by selection. All this was worked out almost a century ago, with the development of population genetics, while Dembski’s specific probability arguments crumble in the face of a recent theoretical analysis  of the time required for complex information to evolve under natural selection.

Ignoring the evidence

Fig. 6.

Cryoelectron tomography reveals the sequential assembly of bacterial flagella in Borrelia burgdorferi,Xiaowei Zhao et al., PNAS 110, 14390–14395, 2013

Next, the appeal to specified, or even irreducible, complexity, and Noble asks us to consider the eye, the ear, and that old standby the bacterial flagellum. Here, Noble actually states that ID would fail if “there is a clear step-by-step evolutionary pathway with all the intermediary stages to a bacterial flagellum or similar irreducibly complex structure which can be generated by mutations alone.” If by “mutations alone” he means mutations without selection, he is asking for something that reality does not offer. If he means an account of how the bacterial flagellum could have emerged from earlier structures, this was famously presented at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board trial, where Ken Miller testified on this very point (here, pp. 12 on; for more on Miller on the flagellum see here). If Noble then complains that that account does not include a historically reliable account of all the intermediate stages, he has missed the entire point of his own argument. Irreducible complexity, if it means anything, means that the structure could not possibly have emerged through naturalistic evolution, and Miller’s testimony readily explains how it could.

Distorting the science

There are other minor absurdities. Noble suggests that the fact that water is a liquid depends on tiny variations over and above the general rules of chemical bonding. As a chemist, he should know better, since the “hydrogen bonding” that holds H2O in the liquid state is a consequence of the same set of rules that makes the closely related substance H2S a gas. He also claims that complex life requires the moon to be exactly the right size and right distance, otherwise Earth’s axis would become unstable. I am mystified, unless he is running together two separate claims, one (plausible) regarding the stabilising effect of a satellite, and the other (ridiculous, but taken seriously within the ID community) that regards us as privileged because we are on a planet where we can observe both total and annular eclipses. And like the rest of the ID community, he misinterprets the ENCODE project, which showed that 80% of the human genome is biochemically active. We are invited to infer that DNA is perfectly designed and free of junk. But consider the “onion test“; in brief, an onion contains five times as much DNA in each cell as a human; does anyone imagine that it contains five times as much complexity?

And leaving all the work still to do

Finally, my most severe criticism of ID, which I have already stated here very briefly. It doesn’t answer the question. For a safety razor to come into existence, we need, not only design, but fabrication. And when we come across any natural feature that requires explanation, invoking ID merely leaves us two (or, if the use of ID involves rejecting naturalistic evolution, three) problems for the price of one. We have the problem of accounting for all the evidence for evolution by trial and error tinkering, combined with natural selection and genetic drift, ranging from biogeography to developmental embryology to anatomical (and now molecular) phylogeny, and much much more. We have the problem (although I suspect that for Dr Noble this is not a problem at all) of specifying the nature, provenance, and motivation of the designer (or Designer). And finally, worst of all, we still don’t know how it happened. Paley’s watch implied, not just a watch designer, but a watch assembler, a parts manufacturer, a toolmaker, a metallurgist… Unless the Designer just wills complete structures into being, in which case there’s no point even trying to do the science.

In short, this pamphlet delivers what it promises to, but the doctrine that it is promoting does not. Dr Noble repeatedly and sincerely asks us to open our minds; he is unaware that ID is an invitation to close them.

Glasgow’s Intelligent Design Director has ”open mind” on age of Earth

Al Furqan Mosque, Glasgow, in whose Community Hall Dr Noble spoke last Friday (November 28) on ‘Intelligent Design: Myth or Reality?’

See how many errors of fact and logic you can find in what Dr Noble, Director of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, said when my friend and Scottish Secular Society colleague, Garry Otton, asked him about the age of the Earth. This was on the occasion of his visiting a mosque as part of the activities of Scotland’s Interfaith Council, which receives £9,000,000 a year of taxpayer money. I offering him  space to reply, but he tells me that “I really don’t think this kind of speculative trivia deserves a considered response.”

Dr Noble said that the scientific consensus is about 3 billion years old, but there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things and some think the Earth’s only thousands of years old. He thinks the Earth might be old, but human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. A geologist has shown him a piece of rock, dated as 300 million years old, but containing a seam of coal carbon-14 dated at 40,000 years. And carbon dating only goes back to around 50,000 years, so [he said with heavy emphasis] “the error is not in the date of the coal.” All methods depend on judgements about initial conditions that we have no way of knowing. The scientific consensus can be very arrogant, so he doesn’t have a serious problem with an old Earth, but is not completely convinced.

Here is my list of errors; let me know if you spot others:

First, and least important, that number, 3 billion years. It should of course be around 4. 5 billion years.

From the fact that carbon-14 is useless beyond 50,000 years, Dr Noble infers that the error is “not in the date of the coal.” The exact opposite is true. The 50,000 limit is the limit of the method, showing that it cannot be used for more ancient deposits.

Actually, it has long been known that ancient coal cannot be dated by carbon-14, because it gives spurious and erratic young(ish) ages, between 20,000 and 50,000 years. This has thwarted attempts to use it as a standard background (see e.g. this 1939 paper). One percent contamination by contemporary material of the area sampled will reduce the apparent age to less than the 40,000 years that Dr Noble quotes, and other potential problems include the presence of modern bacteria (well established by 1931) and carbon-14 generation in the coal from the nitrogen-14 present, as an indirect effect of the radioactive decay of heavy elements in the coal.

I don’t know where Dr Noble got his numbers from, but they are identical with those quoted in a 2002 Talkorigins article, which discusses and dismisses the alleged anomaly. A fuller and more recent critical analysis of claims of detecting carbon-14 in ancient materials  can be found at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/education/origins/carbon-kb.htm#22 (ASA in this address stands for American Scientific Affiliation, an organisation of Christians who reject attempts such as Dr Noble’s to discard the plain science of evolution and an ancient Earth; the author, Kirk Bertsche, holds a Ph.D. for his work on radiocarbon methods, and an MA in Exegetical Theology from Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon).

As for our judgments about initial conditions, we can check these in at least four separate ways. Firstly, careful mineralogy, picking out well isolated samples or even well-defined individual crystallites. Secondly, available since the 1940s, what are known as isochron methods, which use non-radiogenic isotopes as internal markers. Thirdly, SHRIMP (sensitive high resolution ion microprobe) methods, available since 1980, which allow assessment even of selected regions within crystallites, giving valuable information about thermal history and element mobility; I have a friend who does this for a living. Finally, the good agreement of disparate methods (this was mentioned to Dr Noble) provides cross-validation, and the rare occasions when this does not occur (for example in rocks with anomalously young potassium-argon ages) are themselves highly informative (in this example, regarding subsequent heating episodes). Radiometric Dating, A Christian Perspective, by Roger Wiens,  principal investigator of the Mars Curiosity Rover’s chemical laser analysis team, gives an excellent perspective on this and other alleged problems.

It is just not true that there is a lot of uncertainty about all scientific things. There is no real uncertainty about the age of the Earth, any more than there is real uncertainty about the existence of the atoms of which it is composed. Dr Noble himself would be very upset if I were to allege that there is a lot of uncertainty about the abstruse area of inorganic chemistry in which he obtained his own Ph.D. over 40 years ago.[1] And yes, we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.[2]

So how did Dr Noble, who evidently still thinks of himself as a scientist, come to make such a concatenation of elementary errors? I would suggest confirmation bias, selecting evidence that supports a view already adopted for very different reasons. And in this case, that view is identified by his wish to take seriously the possibility that human beings might be “much younger than most scientists would accept”. Dr Noble belongs to a church that believes in the “entire trustworthiness” of Scripture, and perhaps he looks kindly on the idea that human beings were specially created in the past few thousand years. But if this is the case, the biological science that shows we are sister species to chimpanzees, and the Earth science that dates undeniably human skulls back to more than 100,000 years ago, must be denounced as unreliable. The rest follows.

Added note: Some commentators have inferred that Dr Noble is a six-day creationist. I, however, interpret his careful distinction between the age of the Earth and the age of humanity a showing a more broad-minded perspective than that, one which also grants credibility to day-age and gap versions of creationism.  Here day-age accepts the order of events in Genesis, but allows that each “day” may refer to an era. “Gap” allows geological tme in between Genesis 1:1 and Genesi 1:2. Both were originally attempts by conservative theologians to accommodate biblical literalism to early 19th century geology, and both, crucially, accept a historical Eden a few thousand years ago, and separate creation of kinds. I deliberately chose impeccably Christian sources for the geological background, to highlight the possibility that Dr Noble’s hermeneutics may be as selective as his geology.

1] The Preparation and Properties of Tungsten Hexafluoride Derivatives, Glasgow, 1970.

2] For the history of this phrase see here.

Centre for Intelligent Design Launches Naked Creationist Attack on SecScot Petition

Dr Alastair Noble, educational consultant and director of the Glasgow ...

Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design

Until yesterday, it may just have been possible to accept the claim by Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID) that the view it promotes differs from old-fashioned creationism. Not any more. Dr Noble, the Director, writing for C4ID, has used a whole range of traditional creationist arguments in a full-blooded attack on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition, currently before the Scottish Parliament, in which the Society requests

official guidance to bar the presentation in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

Answers in Genesis has also attacked us, here and here [1], using cruder versions of the same arguments. We feel honoured.

Predictably, the C4ID submission [2] attempts to disguise the fact that “Intelligent Design” is nothing more than a blend of creationism and obfuscation. This has famously been established in court (Kitzmiller vs Dover School Board), and elsewhere. Most relevant to the present petition is the statement to this effect from the Association for Science Education, the UK-wide association of science teachers at all levels, and the UK’s largest teaching subject organisation.

“Macro-evolution … unobserved and speculative”

More interestingly, the C4ID submission illustrates precisely the disinformation that we seek to guard our children against, by itself embracing creationism. It does this by driving a wedge between “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution,” and admitting that the former of these occurs, while describing the latter. Such dismissal of macro-evolution can have only one implication, the separate creationism to which we are objecting, and the denial of the results of almost two centuries of careful scientific observation. As the submission puts it:

Few people, including the most ardent religious believers, deny that evolution in the form of adaptation is an empirically observed phenomenon. This can be described as ‘micro-evolution’ and it is the sort of variation, in, for example, the beak sizes of finches that Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands. However, those findings say nothing about how finches arose in the first place. The speculation that evolutionary processes can explain the origin as opposed to the distribution of finches can be referred to as ‘macro-evolution’. This is an unobserved and speculative feature of the theory of evolution. It is therefore inaccurate and confusing to refer simply to ‘evolution’ without clarifying which aspect of the theory is being dealt with.

Some minor points: C4ID mention religion; we did not. C4ID, like all creationists, cannot resist referring back to Darwin, much as some demented opponent of atomic theory might keep on referring back to Dalton. But the main point regard evolution: if macro-evolution didn’t happen, the only alternative is separate creation.

As a commentator (David Bell at FB Secular Scotland) points out, Macro and Micro evolution are the ID version of Ken Ham’s “historical science” and “observable science”.

Moraine in Rocky Mountain National Park. Ansel Adams (1941) via Wikipedia. Public domain

In a sense, of course, macro-evolution is unobserved, but only in much the sense that the Ice Ages are unobserved. Macro-evolution has not been directly observed over the 3000 or so years of recorded scientific observation because it takes more time than that, and the Ice Ages have not been directly observed by scientists because they happened too early, but in both these examples the evidence is incontrovertible.

From Gatesy et al,. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution Volume 66, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 479–506

Regarding the Ice Ages, we have evidence such as erratic boulders transported by glaciers, scratches on rocks, and massive moraines left behind, as far south as Lueneberg Heath in Germany and Minnesota in America. Regarding macro-evolution, we have, to choose just one well-explored example out of the enormous range available, the evolution of whales from terrestrial hoofed mammals. Here we have two completely independent lines of evidence ; a fossil record showing at least 10 well-defined intermediate forms, either on or close to the ancestral line leading to modern whales and porpoises, and molecular phylogenies (no different in principle from the DNA evidence used every day in our courts to establish family relationships) that show whales as first cousins to a hippopotamus and second cousins to a cow (for a general reader level open-access review, see here).

If the evolution of the blue whale, purely aquatic and the largest animal ever known on this planet, from a small terrestrial wader, does not count as macro-evolution, what does? If this kind of evidence does not remove macro-evolution from the domain of the “unobserved and speculative”, what would?

Australopithecus afarensis skull, through http://www.sculpturegallery.com

Or I could have chosen human evolution, where some 20 distinct hominin species have been identified, with steady progression in bipedality, cranial capacity, dentition, and all the other features that distinguish us from apes [3].

Or birds from non-avian dinosaurs, with the step-by-step evolution of feathers and then of flight. Or amphibia from lobefish. Or sheep and goats. Or dogs, bears, walrus and weasels from a common ancestral carnivore. All beautifully documented in the fossil record, and now supported by molecular phylogenies, along with numerous other examples. There is no lack of well written books explaining these things in highly accessible language [4], a major website has an entire section devoted to such transitions, and if C4ID are really ignorant of these evolutionary facts, the ignorance is self-imposed.

Having once placed C4ID in its rightful place in the evolution of delusion, their other arguments fall readily into place. We have the usual complaint that we want to put all talk of creationism off-limits, when we explicitly state that we intend no limitation on the discussion of ideas; merely on the misrepresentation of facts. We have the usual claim that an intelligence (or Intelligence) is required to generate new information, as if otherwise information were some kind of conserved entity like energy. We have the claim that all DNA has been shown to be functional – a travesty of even the most extravagant claims made in the current “junk DNA” controversy. We have the vulgar error that the forces driving evolution are random, whereas in fact organisms are sculpted by natural selection. We have the usual inversion of burden of proof, where the unexplained is deemed unexplainable, while those who seek natural explanations for what we do not yet understand are called closed minded. We have the argument that since natural selection sometimes works by elimination (and indeed it does), it can never really work by addition. We even have (was nothing learnt from the debacle at Dover?) irreducible complexity.

Since this is the high-class version of creationism, we also have the lofty argument that, in C4ID’s words,

The neo-Darwinian position that life and the universe, including conscious thought, are the result of blind and purposeless processes gives no reason to believe that our investigations and conclusions have any validity or truth. Students should be aware of this.

This is absurd, as I like many others have said before. If our investigations and conclusions had lacked validity or truth, we would simply not have survived. Indeed, there is now a flourishing if controversial subdiscipline that considers our minds, with both their strengths and weaknesses, as the products of natural selection.[5] Given this, C4ID’s claim that “Students should be aware of this,” when “this” is a doctrine residing only on the philosophical fringe, is breathtaking in its arrogance. (There are of course environments, such as creationist universities and seminaries, where survival is more likely if one’s conclusions lack validity and truth, but the cradle of mankind was not one of them.)

Finally, the C4ID submission accuses the petition, which I helped draft, of making an unwarranted prior assumption of philosophical naturalism; here the author, Doctor Noble, is echoing the ideas of his mentor, Phillip Johnson. As it happens, my one and only contribution to professional-level discussions on the philosophy of science  is to prove that in reality we neither need nor use any such assumption. Naturalistic explanations stand or fall in science, as in all human endeavours, on their merits; we use them because they work. Our reason for rejecting non-natural (supernatural? praeternatural? unnatural?) explanations is that they cut no ice. In every case studied, their predictions have turned out to be wrong, or unnecessary, or ambiguous to the point of utter uselessness, and the sorry history of Intelligent design research merely bears this out.

KenHam.JPG

Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis

After C4ID, Answers in Genesis comes as comic relief, even if the gag lines are rather predictable. Evolution is a religion and an attack on Christianity (never mind that the spokesperson for BCSE, which supports the petition, is an Anglican priest; as far as AiG is concerned, he’s the wrong kind of Christian). Historical science is in a separate category because it deals with the past and is therefore not testable (what does AiG think geologists and palaeontologists do all day?) Evolutionary naturalism is atheism. Secularists (meaning, I imagine, everyone who does not use Genesis as a geology textbook) are in rebellion against God. Reaching these profound new conclusions the work of any one individual, butrequired the help of AiG‘s research team. And only one thing spoils the joke for me – the knowledge that People with a Mission Ministries, who promote AiG‘s materials, are made welcome in schools throughout Scotland.

Which is why the petition is needed in the first place.

I thank Maarten Boudry, Catherine Matthews, the Rev. Michael Roberts, Clare Marsh, and  Mark Edon, Mark Gordon, and my other colleagues in BCSE and SSS, for stimulating discussions on these issues .

[1] I have made these links “no-follow”, to avoid boosting the site’s ratings.

[2] Full text at  http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1530_A_Centre_for_Intelligent_Design_UK_10.10.14.pdf (warning: extreme boredom alert).

[3] Some would say “other apes”, since if apes are a clade – a complete set of descendants from some common ancestor – then we are part of it.

[4] For the fossil record and its tie-in with phylogeny, my personal favourite here is Don Prothero’s Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

[5] I refer of course to evolutionary psychology. Here my own position is that all psychology is evolutionary, since I have no other way of explaining the existence of our atavistic shortcomings.

Science and the Supernatural (II); Why We Get It Wrong and Why It Matters

Paul1

“I have no need of that hypothesis.” So, according to legend, said the great astronomer and mathematician Piere-Simon, marquis de Laplace, when asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned God in his book. If so, Laplace was not referring to the hypothesis that God exists, but to the much more interesting hypothesis that He intervenes in the material world. And Laplace’s point was not, fundamentally, philosophical or theological, but scientific.

The planets do not move round the Sun in circular orbits, but in elliptical pathways, moving fastest when closest. All this and more Newton had explained using his laws of motion, combined with his inverse square law for gravitational attraction. There is one small problem, however. The planets are attracted, not only to the Sun, but to each other, perturbing each other’s pathways away from a perfect ellipse. These perturbations are not trivial, and in fact it was the perturbation of the orbit of Uranus that would lead to the discovery of Neptune. Newton himself surmised that they could, eventually, render the entire system unstable so that God would need, from time to time, to intervene and correct it. Laplace devoted much of his career to developing the mathematical tools for estimating the size of the perturbations, and concluded that the Solar System was in fact stable. So Newton’s hypothesis of divine intervention was redundant, and it was this hypothesis that Laplace was supposedly referring to.

There is an irony here. Laplace’s calculation that the solar system is stable is true only in the short term, (say a few tens or hundreds of millions of years). In the long enough term, the situation is much more uncertain. As Henri Poincaré was to show a century later, a system of three or more gravitationally interacting bodies is potentially chaotic. Under certain circumstances, an initially minute difference in starting conditions can lead to an ever increasing divergence of outcomes, so that eventually planets can adopt highly elongated orbits, or even be thrown out of their solar systems altogether. Modern computer simulations show (see here and here) that the solar system is indeed chaotic, that Mercury is vulnerable to extreme change or even ejection from the Solar System, and that it is possible that in some 3.5 billion years Mercury’s instability could be transferred to the other inner planets, including Earth, leading to the possibility of collision.

Science, some say, rejects supernatural explanations on principle; this is called intrinsic methodological naturalism (IMN). In Part I I argued, following the work of Boudry et al. (herehere , and here), that this strategy is misguided. Here I go into more detail, using this example, and other past and present controversies, to illustrate the point.

Stephen Hawking has commented on Laplace’s remark, in much the same spirit as I am suggesting regarding the God question, but assumes for him a much more absolute position:

I don’t think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just that He doesn’t intervene, to break the laws of Science. That must be the position of every scientist. A scientific law is not a scientific law if it only holds when some supernatural being decides to let things run, and not intervene.

Paul2A similar point of view had been put forward by Richard Lewontin, in his uncomfortably perceptive review, available here, of Sagan’s Demon Haunted World); I consider this review required reading for those defending science because of its all too rare recognition of creationism as a complex social problem:

Perhaps we ought to add to the menu of Saganic demonology, just after spoon-bending, ten-second seat-of-the-pants explanations of social realities.

I cannot do justice to Lewontin’s reasoning by brief truncated quotations from his complex argument. It is clear, however, that he uses two very different arguments in rapid succession:

Nearly every present-day scientist would agree with Carl Sagan that our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind, including any of the various gods from Adonai to Zeus…. We also exclude from our explanations little green men from Mars riding in spaceships, although they are supposed to be quite as corporeal as you and I, because the evidence is overwhelming that Mars hasn’t got any…

We take the side of science … because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. … To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

The first paragraph is one that I can accept and advocate in its entirety. We reject supernatural causes in the same way that we reject implausible material explanations, because the evidence tells us that they don’t exist. The second, intertwined with observations that I have had to omit for brevity regarding the tenuousness of the pretensions of science and what he calls the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, is of a very different kind. Science, he says, is committed in principle to material causes, and the reason for doing so is, again, to exclude divine intervention.

Leave aside for now the problem of defining “materialism”; at a time when our concept of the material includes dark energy, particle entanglement, and quantum fluctuations in nothingness of which our entire Universe may be but one example, this is much the same as the problem of defining “naturalism” that I mentioned in Part I. Leave aside also the deliberately provocative antireligious language, inconvenient though that be for coalition builders. After all, Lewontin has, and is entitled to, his own agenda here. Leave aside even the possibility that miracles need not disrupt the normal business of science, as long as they are sufficiently rare. Hawking has followed Lewontin into the trap that awaits all those who would legislate the metaphysical out of existence. They lay themselves open to the charge that they are, themselves, arbitrarily introducing yet another metaphysical rule.

Paul3So, alas, does the National Science Teachers Association, whose commitment to IMN is quoted with approval by the National Academy of Sciences (Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, 1998 but still current, and freely available here, p. 124):

 Science is a method of explaining the natural world. It assumes the universe operates according to regularities and that through systematic investigation we can understand these regularities. The methodology of science emphasizes the logical testing of alternate explanations of natural phenomena against empirical data. Because science is limited to explaining the natural world by means of natural processes, it cannot use supernatural causation in its explanations. Similarly, science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces because these are outside its provenance. Science has increased our knowledge because of this insistence on the search for natural causes. [Emphasis added]

This is very bad. We slide from an innocent-seeming description of the domain of science as the “natural” world, through the uncontroversial idea of testing explanations against each other, to the non sequitur of the sentence I have highlighted. There is an illusion of logic, based on an assumed dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, but this is mere wordplay. We are given no other reason for this leap, even though it could have been justified, as Hawking and Lewontin justify their own exclusion of the supernatural, by reference to the assumption of regularity. As we saw in Part I, the claim that “science is precluded from making statements about supernatural forces” is simply untrue. Time and again, science has refuted the appeal to the supernatural by providing alternatives – if this is not “making statements about supernatural forces”, what is?

Present-day science does indeed make statements highly relevant to the existence or otherwise of supernatural forces. To raise the stakes to their utmost, some consider the Universe to be fine tuned for life, and regard this as scientific evidence for a purposeful Creator.[1] Others regard this as yet another argument from ignorance, since it may well be that the Universe is not really all that special, or that there are as yet unknown constraints of some kind on the relevant physical constants, or that quantum fluctuations will generate such a superabundance of Universes that some, statistically, are bound to have the required properties. While it may be premature to test these suggestions, they are part of a clearly scientific agenda. The suggested causes would be “natural.” by any standards, but if established would have the effect of making the appeal to a supernatural Creator unnecessary. Science would then have made a clear statement about the purported supernatural force responsible for fine tuning, exactly as it did about the purported supernatural force responsible for the stability of the Solar System, namely that there was, in Lavoisier’s words, no need for that hypothesis.

Two other examples spring to mind. First, the argument from Intelligent Design as applied to the mammalian eye. This fails, because the mammalian eye is in one crucial detail very poorly designed. The nerve endings, and the blood supply, run in front of, rather than behind, the photosensors, partly occluding them and giving rise to each eye’s blind spot. It does not have to be that way, since the octopus eye is built the right way round. At this point, the defender of design has two options. He can admit defeat, or at least accept that the Designer’s options are restricted by our evolutionary history. So in this case the argument from design is refuted or, at any rate, enfeebled. Or he can argue, as Behe does in Darwin’s Black Box, that the refutation fails because we do not know the Designer’s full intent. At this point, we lose interest because the argument from design has become so well immunized against observation, to borrow a term from Maarten Boudry’s PhD thesis Here be Dragons, that it has ceased to be science. In neither case have we referred to the supernatural nature of the argument as the reason for dismissing it.

Secondly, there is a version of theistic evolution in which the Creator intervenes at the level of quantum mechanical indeterminacy to set in course one mutation rather than another, and used this to ensure the evolution of intelligent humans. I first heard this suggestion from Alvin Plantinga,[2] and if I understand Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God correctly I think that on this topic, for once, he and Plantinga would agree. Certainly there is nothing here that violates the laws of physics and chemistry, since the chance breakdown of one single radioactive atom at one moment rather than the next may well disrupt a growing chain of DNA, and a single mutation may well have far-reaching consequences.[3] Were such a mutation to have happened under the Creator’s guidance, that would be supernatural causation par excellence.

I would argue against this on the grounds that there is little or no evidence of a bias towards beneficial mutations, and that since intelligence has emerged independently in cephalopods, cetaceans, parrots, velociraptors (if cerebral capacity is anything to go by), and simians, the emergence of such little intelligence as we have requires no special explanation. Now you may regard my argument as mistaken, banal, or ill-informed, but I do not see how you can describe it as outside the domain of science.

Thus we do, as I just did, use scientific reasoning to discuss the claims of supernaturalists, so IMN is untrue. It was untrue in the 18th century when science explored solar system stability; it was untrue in the 19th when natural selection rendered Paley’s watchmaker redundant; it was untrue in the 20th when claims of extrasensory perception were scientifically examined and found wanting; and it is untrue in the present century as we prepare to grapple with such problems as the origin of our Universe and its appearance of being fine-tuned for the emergence of life. To propagating IMN is to propagate a falsehood.

Paul4Does this matter? Yes, very much indeed. There is a war on, between the supporters of science as we know it, and the creationists and endarkeners who wish to replace it with what the Discovery Institute’s Institute for Science and Culture calls in its notorious “wedge” document “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

The unwarranted and inaccurate grafting onto the methods of science the arbitrary rule that it must not traffic in the supernatural exposes a flank to its enemies, which they have been quick to exploit. The central argument of Phillip Johnson’s Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, which predates the Wedge Document, is that mainstream science (including, crucially, the study of human origins) is illegitimate because it arbitrarily excludes explanations that lie outside the limits of naturalism. His disciple Alastair Noble, director of the Glasgow-based, Centre for Intelligent Design, says in the Centre’s introductory video

One of the key questions posed by the world around us is whether we are here by chance or by design.  There is a strident strain of science which insists that all the design in the world is apparent, not real, and that natural selection acting on random mutations is sufficient to explain it all.  That kind of science is derived from a view that the only explanations which are acceptable are those which depend purely on physical or materialist processes.  That is not a scientific finding that is derived from the evidence.  It is, in fact a philosophical position, and a biased one at that, which is brought to the actual evidence.  It excludes other types of explanation which the evidence may merit.

Here the claim that mainstream science excludes design-based explanations a priori is used to bolster the common creationist tactic of misrepresenting the outcomes of its investigations, including evolution, as inputs. Going further downmarket, we come to the creationist claims that evolution science is a religion like any other, or that evolution and creationism differ only in their starting assumptions, and as long as the scientific community itself presents the rejection of the supernatural as an input rather than an output, we have scant grounds for complaint against such vulgarizations.

Why do we persist in exposing ourselves in this way? Boudry and colleagues (2010) suggest several reasons. One of these we have already demolished; the claim that IMN is built in to the definition of science. There is a large literature (see e.g. here) on how and indeed if science should be defined, and I have nothing to add to this, beyond reminding readers that “supernatural” is itself difficult to define, and repeating my earlier point that insisting on IMN would exclude much activity that we generally consider scientific. A second, mentioned by both Hawking and Lewontin in the essays I quoted, is that it would undermine the assumption of regularity that underpins science. Miracles such as those claimed for Jesus would indeed undermine that assumption, but only in rare and very special cases; so rare and special that they can hardly constitute a serious threat to our business.[4]

Our faith in the regularity of nature derives from our having lived and evolved in a world where it holds good, not from some special rule about the nature of science. It is confirmed, over huge reaches of space and time, by observation. We can interpret the spectra of galaxies whose light has taken 12 billion years to reach us, and the suggestion (since subjected to highly critical scrutiny) that the constants of physics might have changed even in the fourth decimal place was enough to arouse the interest of The Economist.

From constancy to change. On current thinking, the early Universe underwent a period of rapid inflation, in which space expanded at such a rate that the distance between points initially close together grew at a rate faster than the speed of light. Thus during this expansionary stage the laws of nature were very different from what they are today. And the state of the Universe before this stage may be to us in principle unknowable.

All the conclusions of the last two paragraphs may be subject to revision. But this very fact reinforces my claim, that our faith in the constancy of nature is testable by science, and that science can (and currently does) tell us that the domain of this faith is wide, but not unlimited. Thus it is as much an outcome of our experience as a methodological input.

A third argument for IMN is that in its absence the possibility of invoking supernatural explanations may discourage the search for natural ones. This is a purely pragmatic argument, and I cannot imagine it having any real effect. Those who prefer supernatural explanations invoke them anyway. Millions of Americans believe humans to have arisen through a special supernatural act, but this is not for lack of a naturalistic explanation. Intelligent Design creationists argue that undirected evolution cannot possibly generate new information, or that protein sequences are too improbable to have arisen naturally. Young Earth creationists, a separate group (although in the UK the two groups strongly overlap) point to anomalies in radiometric dating, or to polonium halos in rocks that did not contain polonium’s ultimate parent, uranium, and claim that these somehow cause the naturalistic account of earth’s geological history to unravel. This they do because of their prior commitment to mystification. Debunking their nonsense is a proper matter for science, and the talkorigins website has a very useful page listing numerous such claims and their rebuttals[5] although experience shows that mere refutation will not stop their proponents from repeating them. And there are important unsolved problems, such as the origin of life, which some claim as evidence for supernatural intervention, but I do not think that any scientist interested in the topic would be so easily fobbed off. In any case, defining their activities as unscientific would not make the supernaturalists disappear. On the contrary; they would (and do; see above) triumphantly hail such definitions as proof that we impose arbitrary limitations on our science.

There are more technical arguments, which boil down to the untestability of supernatural explanations. But we already have the rule that science deals with the (in principle) testable, so that there is no need to invoke IMN. And finally there is the argument from legal expediency, which I maintain is both unnecessary and two-edged.

Unnecessary. Judge Jones famously ruled in Kitzmiller vs Dover School District that Intelligent Design (ID) is not science, but a form of religiously motivated creationism, thus barring it from publicly funded schools in the US. What is primary here is the ruling that is religion; the finding that it is not science is secondary. The ID argument from the design of the eye is not science, because it is immunized against scientific examination. But the ID argument from the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum is science. Just hopelessly wrong science,[6] as shown by the piles of scientific documents produced in court, and the persistence in this wrongheadedness was also accepted as evidence that ID’s agenda is religious. The distinction, if there is one, between bad science and not science was immaterial.

Double edged. There is a real cost to the ruling that ID is religion, and schools in the UK are paying that cost right now. While ID is officially shut out of the science lab, at least in state funded schools in England (the situation in Scotland is less clear), it is in the process of infiltrating itself into the Religious Education classroom, by way of such materials as The God Question, and RE teachers will be less able (and in some cases less willing) than their Science colleagues to dispose of its pretensions.

In short, IMN is untrue and carries a heavy rhetorical cost to science. But everything that can be accomplished by including IMN in our definition of science and then appealing to that definition as criterion, can be accomplished on its own merits by less circuitous means. So let’s cut out the middleman.

Instead, I would appeal once more to Laplace, who took as examples such purported phenomena as animal magnetism, dowsing, and solar and lunar influences on mood, and concluded:

Paul5

We are so far from knowing all the agents of nature and their diverse modes of action that it would not be philosophical to deny phenomena solely because they are inexplicable in the actual state of our knowledge. But we ought to examine them with an attention all the more scrupulous as it appears more difficult to admit them, and it is here that the calculation of probabilities becomes indispensable, to decide to what point one must multiply observations or experiments, in order to obtain for the agents that they indicate a probability that outweighs the reasons we would otherwise have against admitting them.


Or, in the abbreviated form that has come down to us to us through Carl Sagan,

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

That’s all we need.

I thank Maarten Boudry and Stephen Law for helpful discussions. Posthumous portrait of Laplace by Guérin through here. An earlier version of this piece originally appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

1] Capital letters for Creator and Designer because I do not wish to collude in the polite fiction that the Intelligent Design programme is anything other than an argument for the existence of God. Separate technical questions have been raised about the validity of the statistical argument from fine-tuning, but these do not affect my argument.

2] Personal communication, ca. 2006

3] Consider the mutation that made Queen Victoria, grandmother of the last Tsarevich, a carrier of haemophilia, and what difference this might have made to Russian history.

4] For some believers, the Mass might be a counter-example. But since the claimed miraculous trans-substantiation changes no accidental (i.e. observable) properties, it is irrelevant to science.

5] Alternating mutation and selection can and demonstrably does generate new information, protein sequences have considerable flexibility and do not arise in a single step, polonium halos in uranium-free rocks can be traced to the diffusion of radon, dating anomalies are exceptional and indeed informative, since they can be traced to heating episodes and other post-depositional events, and so on.

6] Since there is an excellent scientific, indeed Darwinian, explanation in terms of exaptation. Although if this is excluded by moving the goalposts, a typical ID ploy, perhaps we have again moved into the domain of non-science.

Discovery Institute defends Young Earth creationists

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I’ve been attacked by the Discovery Institute’s Uncommon Descent. That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is the reason; they caught me making fun of Young Earth creationism.

In my last post, I described Evolve or Die, a children’s book published in 2008 that I recently came across, as an “antidote to creationism”, and poked fun at Young Earth creationists for believing that carnivores were vegetarians, and dinosaurs coexisted with humans, in a perfect world before the Fall. This, at any rate, is what they say they believe, as perusal of the UK Creationist Christian Schools Trust policy on teaching evolution, or of the contents of Ken Ham’s  Creation Museum, will quickly verify. (For documentation of all this in earlier blog posts, see here and here and here.)

Creation_Museum_10For saying this, I would expect criticism from openly creationist sources such as Answers in Genesis or Creation Ministries International. But Uncommon Descent isn’t supposed to be like that. It claims, as you can see, to serve the Intelligent Design community. This is not supposed to be creationist, and I have seen the Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, the Discovery Institute’s UK franchise, go red in the face denying that creationism and Intelligent Design have anything to do with each other.

Others have drawn attention to the Discovery Institute’s cries of “gagging order” when Ball State University stopped the teaching of theocentric Intelligent Design as science, and their support for the Bryan University administration as merely asserting its rights when it suddenly demanded that their faculty members profess belief in a literal Adam and Eve. A double standard; demanding unconstitutional privilege for creationism in the name of academic freedom, while turning a blind eye when such freedom is trampled on by the creationists themselves.

It is worth quoting the words with which the DI’s mendaciously mistitled Evolution News and Views  defends the Bryan administration against its own faculty:

[A] private institution like Bryan with a religious or philosophical mission inevitably draws lines for its teachers. If you want to retain the mission, you can’t at the same time tell faculty that “Anything goes.” 

Remember that when next you hear the Discovery Institute argue for the “academic freedom” to teach creationism in publicly funded schools.

But their explicit defence of Young Earth creationists against their critics is something new. For the record, here’s the actual article. No author name given. Yes, that’s all of it, including what I accept as a full and fair embedded quote from what I wrote.  A pity the surrounding text is so incoherent[1], but my assertion that the DI is defending creationism is an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary (if tedious) evidence:

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And just to spell it out, they describe my review of a 5 year old book as part of the latest attack on the poor beleaguered creationists, because I scurrilously refer to what creationists believe, thereby unfairly accusing them of being “liberals who believe in the Hippie’s [sic] Guide to nature”. And the interesting bit is, not the boring banality and involuted illogic of Uncommon Descent, which is standard, but the fact that they think their job includes defending Young Earth creationists.

One final detail. I am not a defender of Darwin, just as when I talk about the chemical elements I am not a defender of Lavoisier, or when I invoke classical mechanics I am not a defender of Newton. Physics, chemistry, and biology are very different from what they were in the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries respectively, even if the creationists Intelligent Designers refuse to notice.

Illustration: Creation Museum tableau showing humans living peacefully before the Fall with vegetarian tyrannosaurs. Public domain photo, taken with permission to share by Anthony5429, obtained through http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_Museum_10.png

Technical note: I use HTML nofollow for links to DI and other creationist sites, so as not to boost their click counts and advertising revenues.

[1] They even muddle up the title of my review with that of the book I was reviewing.

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

Intelligently designed; the creationist assault on science; Conway Hall talk draft flier

I will be giving the Sunday Lecture to the Conway Hall Ethical Society at 11:00 on 16th March 2014. Attached is my draft publicity material. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Creation science” is a 20th century heresy, albeit with far older roots. Its central claim is that beliefs compatible with biblically inspired creationism are in fact scientifically superior to mainstream views on evolution and an old earth. Its arguments for supernatural intervention range from the ludicrous to the highly sophisticated; from “Flood geology” to the origin of biological information; from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to seemingly scholarly works invoking cellular complexity or the so-called Cambrian Explosion. The creationists themselves are not necessarily stupid, nor ill-informed, nor (in other matters) deluded. In all cases, their deep motivation is the wish to preserve the supernatural role of God the Creator, and a particular view of the man-God relationship.

There are several interlocking organisations active in the UK to promote creationism. These include Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (closely linked to the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and its notorious Wedge Strategy), Truth in Science, and The World Around Us/The Genesis Agendum, who between them have links to Brethren churches, the Christian Schools Trust, Answers in Genesis, and Creation Ministries International.

I will be discussing the attempts by such organizations to infiltrate the educational system, the inadequacies of official attempts to prevent this, and possible countermeasures. I will also be giving my own views on why creationist arguments are appealing to those without detailed background knowledge, and how we should respond.

Paul Braterman is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at GlasgowUniversity, and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, where his research related to the origins of life was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Astrobiology program. He is a committee member of the British Centre for Science Education, and of the Scottish Secular Society, and has been following creationist infiltration into education in the UK for some years. He is a regular contributor to 3 Quarks Daily, and his most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, discusses aspects of chemistry in their historical and everyday contexts.

psbraterman@yahoo.com  https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com  @paulbraterman

The Creationist Obsession with Darwin; from Louisiana to Discovery Institute to Glasgow

From Louisiana through the Discovery Institute to Glasgow, examples of the creationist obsession with Darwin (and inability to quote him correctly) continue to accumulate.

You may have heard of the Louisiana Science Education Act (how’s that for protective colouring?), which allows creationism to be taught in the State’s publicly funded schools in the name of “academic freedom.” The law was apparently suggested to State Senator Ben Nevers by the Lousiana Family Forum, whose upcoming Leadership Academy, to be addressed by Governor Bobby Jindal, promises to “teach you how to defend Conservative principles within policy!” (Exclamation mark in original. I set the last two links at “No-Follow”)

And now here’s the bit that’s relevant to my theme, courtesy Zack Kopplin. To quote Sen. Nevers, the Louisiana Family Forum “believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.” So there are scientific data relevant to creationism (what, I wonder?), but a century and a half of evolutionary science are merely “Darwin’s theory”. As in, the Earth goes round the Sun in an elliptical orbit is “Kepler’s theory”, and stuff is made out of atoms is “Dalton’s theory”.

Stephen Meyers’ Darwin’s Doubt uses similar tactics, from the title on in. The contents give us three references to Darwin in its 23 chapter and section headings; “Darwin’s Nemesis”, “After Darwin, What?”, and “The Post-Darwinian World and Self-Organisation”. Darwin’s name also occurs seven times on the book’s front flap. This (free view on Amazon) presents one short argument, to introduce one very long book, based on compressing the Ediacaran and Cambrian radiations, ignoring everything we know about the events leading up to them (see Robert Hazen’s Story of Earth for a good brief overview), and comparing the resulting mystification with the problem of the origin of life. The index gives ten subheadings and 21 page references for Darwin, and sixteen subheadings and 43 page references to “Darwinian evolutionary theory”. These include six to “Agassiz’ challenge”; that’s Louis Agassiz, who was generously acknowledged by Darwin for his discovery of the Ice Ages, and died 1873. And I nearly forgot: twentysix subheadings and 38 page references for “neo-Darwinism”.  For comparison, Carl Zimmer and Douglas J. Emlen’s Evolution; Making Sense of Life (one of the few textbooks I have come across that is actually a pleasure to read) has 16 subheadings and 33 page references to Darwin. And for “Darwin’s theory”, “Darwinian theory”, or “neo-Darwinism”? None at all. Indeed, I cannot recall when I last came across those expressions, other than from a historian or a creationist.

And of course Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design, a Discovery Institute echo chamber, has done its poor best to support Stephen Meyer. How? By mangling Darwin to totally shift his emphasis, and refocus it on Meyer’s chosen pseudoproblem. You will find the full gory details here on my friend Robert Saunders’ blog, Wonderful Life. There is also more about Meyer’s book on the BCSE website; I discussed it here, but think Nick Matzke’s dismemberment may be impossible to improve on. Disclosure: I lectured about “Dalton’s theory”, though I didn’t call it that, to Alastair Noble, now the Centre’s Director, many years ago. I like to think my teaching has improved since then. But at least I wasn’t responsible for teaching him about biology, or geology, or complex systems theory, or elementary logic, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame myself too much for what he’s been up to since.

Six Day Creationist publicly endorses Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt

The reasoning behind Stephen Meyer’s latest offering will not stand up to examination. However, the Discovery Institute have proudly announced that it has been endorsed by one of Britain’s leading scientists. It turns out, however, that the leading scientist is actually a doctor, not an evolutionary biologist, that he has been deeply involved with the Discovery Institute for many years, and that he required no convincing of the book’s central claim that biological information is the work of a designer. Nor, perhaps, is he the right person to evaluate Meyer’s critique of evolutionary science, because he never accepted evolutionary science in the first place. He believes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that Genesis I through XI is a historically accurate account, and that biological information actually originated on Days Three through Six of Creation, some 6000 years ago, at God’s say-so.

Darwin’s Doubt has been billed by the Discovery Institute as a game changer, but it is not clear what game is supposed to have been changed. Certainly not the game as played by the Discovery Institute, which continues to rely on various publicity stunts, and on its readers’ (and perhaps its writers’) ignorance of the underlying science.

Meyer’s argument rests on two pillars; that there was a sudden unexplained explosion of multiplicity of body plans around 500 million years ago (the “Cambrian explosion”), and that this is just a special case of a more general phenomenon, namely that evolution cannot generate information as complex as that found within living things.

It would be chutzpah on my part to claim any originality in my refutation of these claims, when the job has been done so expertly in a pandasthumb posting by Nick Matzke, written as he finishes graduate school. To summarise Matzke’s argument, the “explosion” was not a sudden event at all, but part of a complex sequence, and so far from the simultaneous de novo appearance of numerous unrelated body types, we have detailed knowledge of the family connections between them. As for the argument that evolution cannot generate new complexities, it is simply wrong. We see it happening all the time. Matzke actually knows something about this sort of thing, having written important papers on the origins of the bacterial flagellum and, more recently, the timing of the endosymbiotic events that gave rise to mitochondria.

What I want to talk about here is the latest publicity stunt. I have already written about the earlier pre-launch stunt of passing the hat round the Discovery Institute’s supporters in order to buy media coverage. What the DI have now done is to trumpet the endorsement of the book by Prof Norman Nevin, a leading biological scientist, as an example of a leading scientist who has been swayed by the book’s arguments.

There are just a few things wrong with this claim. Prof Nevin is not an evolutionary scientist at all. He is a medical geneticist, and if I wanted advice on whether it would be wise for me to marry my cousin, he would certainly be the right person to go to. However, that does not magically give him any deeper insight than anyone else into the origins of the deleterious genes that might manifest themselves in our offspring. (As we shall see later, he does claim such an insight, but not one that many readers here would accept.) He is not an independent judge of the Discovery Institute’s activities, since he is Chairman of Glasgow’s own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), which derives materials, arguments, and prominent speakers from the Discovery Institute, and whose very foundation was inspired by a visit to the UK of Phillip Johnson, the DI’s original creator. Finally, we can be completely confident that Prof Nevin’s acceptance of Intelligent Design is not the result of what Stephen Meyer has just written. His chairmanship of the Centre, which exists precisely to promote it, goes back to its foundation in 2010, and his acceptance of Intelligent Design derives, not from scientific argument, but from parochial religious obscurantism.

I am now going to resort to an ad hominem argument. Some people will say this is very wrong of me, and indeed I have been barred from posting comments on the C4ID FaceBook page for doing it. However, I will use the playground excuse of “they started it”. It is the Discovery Institute that invoked Prof Nevin’s authority in the first place, and so it is fair play to subject that authority to scrutiny.

Prof Nevin has told us what he thinks, at considerable length, in a series of sermons given at Bethany Church, Belfast. You will find his views on Adam and Eve here and here, and on the historical reality of Noah’s flood here. Or, if you’re not willing to sit and suffer for two hours, you can find a few representative quotations on the British Centre for Science Education website:

I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis as the word of god and as historical fact.

Genesis is the foundation of God’s word and I believe that it is crucial to our understanding of the rest of scripture.

Indeed the eleven chapters, the first eleven chapter of the Book of Genesis, are referred to in the New Testament. So the Book of Genesis is foundational to the word of God.

So the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon Adam and Eve, he looked upon Abel and Cain as historical figures… and when he discusses the Flood and Noah… the Lord Jesus Christ looked upon these early chapters as historical fact.

And what’s good enough for the Lord Jesus Christ is good enough for Norman Nevin. So there!

I must admit that here Prof Nevin has the advantage of me. I do not claim to know exactly what was said in Judaea almost 2000 years ago. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know whether references to older texts implied that they were to be understood literally or allegorically, a distinction already well-developed in the rabbinical tradition of the time.

And what about those genetic defects, on which Prof Nevin really is an expert, which irrevocably condemn a child to the slow choking death of cystic fibrosis, or an adult to the mental degeneration of Huntingdon’s? How could it possibly be their fault? Again, Prof Levin has the answer. The world, as created, was “very good”, as Genesis 1:31 assures us. So all these nasty things were not in the world as created, and must be the result of something that happened later. Of course, the Fall! The choking child, the confused and twitching adult, deserve everything that is happening to them because of something their remote ancestors did 6000 years ago. So that dreadful Something really must have happened, as a matter of historical fact, and everything those nasty evolutionists and Darwinians are telling you is wrong.

If you can believe that, no wonder you can believe that Stephen Meyer’s ramblings are superb science.

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