So I attended the Castle Rock Intelligent Design conference over the past couple days — it was, in a word, fascinating. The summary of the conference by John West (of the Discovery Institute) is here and here, and Doug Groothuis’s summary is here. I’ll just add a few further thoughts.

In the days leading up to the conference, people had trouble getting access to the web site for the conference — apparently someone was executing a Denial of Service attack on the site. This is a bad strategy for intelligent design opponents to follow because (A) it’s petty, (B) it looks like a suppression of free speech, and (C) to put it bluntly, it furthers the Christians’ persecution complex. There were rumors that some atheists were going to show up to protest, but fortunately that didn’t materialize, as far as I saw. I was surprised though that there weren’t many critical questions from the audience — the two questions that West identified as critical didn’t strike me as especially so. Here’s West:

During the question period that followed, two people offered long-winded “questions” to Behe that seemed to come straight from the talking points of the National Center for Science Education.

The first person offered a laundry list of the ways Judge Jones and the Darwinist witnesses in the Kitzmiller case supposedly refuted intelligent design (including the shibboleth about the Type-Three Secretory System). The second person read off a list of scientific organizations such as the AAAS that have denounced ID and then demanded to know how ID claims could be scientifically tested.

Perhaps the people were trying to be critical, but they weren’t especially eloquent at doing so. Pretty much every question was long-winded, so that didn’t distinguish these two. I wouldn’t have described the questions in quite the way that West did; I got the sense, for the second question, at least, that the questioner could well have been an intelligent design sympathizer who had heard some anti-ID talking points and were looking to Behe for advice on how to respond. Anyways, those were the only two semi-critical things that happened during the whole conference, and they weren’t especially critical.

The conference started Friday night with Steve Meyer’s talk. I think that was my favorite part of the conference — there was a lot of good biology in the talk, before Meyer got to anything about intelligent design. The audience seemed to be full of non-academics, families, etc, and I could picture a conference like this 20 years ago where unwary Christians showed up to hear people lecture about young-earth creationism. We’ve come a long way from there, and it’s to the credit of intelligent design proponents like Meyer that they’re helping to move the biology-based design arguments in a more science-friendly direction. Indeed, at the end of the conference I was chatting with Meyer at the book-signing table, and a teenage boy came up to get Meyer to sign his book; the boy talked about how interested he was in science, and Meyer encouraged him to study further. I contrast that with some students I had when I was a professor at University of Kentucky, who told me that their families encouraged them not to study science in college, because they would learn non-Christian beliefs.

Behe’s talk the next morning was fine — it was an overview of material from his two books. Berlinski’s conversation with Meyer came next — that was entertaining, though it jumped from topic to topic rather quickly. I must admit that I’m one of the many people who gets a bit mesmerized listening to Berlinski speak, so I didn’t mind. (It’s easier to be critical of Berlinski when he writes, which I’m certainly willing to do.) I hadn’t thought of this before, but Berlinski reminds me of William F. Buckley — slouching in his chair, not enunciating as well as one could, but being amazingly eloquent regardless.

I was less happy with John West’s talk — he basically argued that Darwinism leads to social evils like eugenics. Throughout the talk I think he was making a huge error, ignoring the is/ought gap. It may be evolutionarily advantageous for creatures like us to behave a certain way, but it doesn’t follow that that’s how we ought to behave. Standard evolutionary theory doesn’t have anything to say about how one ought to behave, and those people who claim that it does are just mistaken. West talked about those people, but instead of pointing out the mistake, he tried to take it as evidence against standard evolutionary theory. West said that “Eugenics was the consensus view of science”, and used that to criticize science, where what he should have said is that eugenics is a moral theory, not a scientific theory, and the people who try to read moral theories off of scientific theories are mistaken.

The original version of the program that I saw listed prayer sessions between the talks. That seemed rather unfortunate, given that they were encouraging non-Christians to attend. I started to plan strategies for how I could come and leave in such a way that I could avoid the prayer sessions, but fortunately, the final version of the program didn’t include that. Instead we had Christian music from Danny Oertli, which was fine. At the beginning of the program, Craig Smith, the executive director of Shepherd Project Ministries, the group that put on the conference, wrote:

While the Shepherd Project is a Christian initiative — and the conference will naturally reflect this commitment — we also recognize that there are a variety of faith positions present at the conference this weekend and we will be sensitive to this fact. We ask everyone in attendance to be similarly respectful.

At the end of the conference, there was one prayer, but Craig didn’t start it by saying “let us pray”; he said “would you let me pray for you?” A fine line was clearly being toed at this conference, but I think they did a good job finding the right balance.

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