Intelligent Design


Rod Dreher, at The American Conservative, has a nice discussion of me here, focusing on some of my blog posts, and the First Things discussion. Dreher shows a good understanding of where I’m coming from.

Here’s one interesting part of his post. He points out that theists sometimes suffer from confirmation bias when it comes to endorsing intelligent design. He then writes:

I find myself more willing to pay attention to the arguments of someone like Monton, who is committed to atheism, because at least that filters out a lot of the confirmation bias. That is, if someone like Monton sees reason to take design seriously, then attention must be paid. (Similarly, when theistic scientists, like Simon Conway-Morris, endorse natural selection, I’m more inclined to take them seriously). The astonishing thing about the discussion of intelligent design is how unrestrained the personal attacks on serious people who take ID the least bit seriously can be.

… this is not disinterested scientific critique. This is personal invective. One sees this all the time. When preachers and religion apologists do it, you roll your eyes and move on. But when scientists do it, it’s far more disturbing, because they are, or ought to be, committed to dispassionate analysis.

I completely agree.

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.

I’ll be the moderator at the Is Intelligent Design Viable? debate that will take place at Indiana University on November 5. The debate will be between philosopher William Lane Craig and biologist Francisco J. Ayala. You can get more information about it here.

The third and final part of my latest podcast interview with Casey Luskin is now available here.

I’m planning on being an audience member at The Legacy of Darwin Intelligent Design Conference in Castle Rock, Colorado on October 30-31 (just an hour from Boulder, where I live). It should be interesting.

From the press release for secular media:

This conference is designed to help everyone understand the relevant evidence and the issues involved in this debate.

From the press release for religious organizations:

This conference is designed to equip ordinary Christians to have an extraordinary impact on our culture.

The second part of the recent podcast interview I did with Casey Luskin is now available here.

The first part of a three-part podcast interview I did with Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute is now available here.

{I’ve added an update below.}

As a follow up to my previous post on this topic, I want to point out that the bloggingheads.tv discussion between Michael Behe and John McWhorter is now back up at bloggingheads’ web site. But as a result of disagreements over what sorts of interviews bloggingheads should air, cosmologist Sean Carroll and science journalist Carl Zimmer have decided not to participate in bloggingheads any more. This despite the fact that the editor in chief of bloggingheads, Robert Wright, said:

1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

What was Carl Zimmer’s reason for not continuing to take part in bloggingheads? It seems to boil down this this:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.
This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I take it Zimmer is implying that Behe’s arguments are specious, and sound fancy, but are actually scientifically empty. I guess I disagree — while I’m no expert on biology, I find Behe’s arguments interesting and worth discussing, even though I ultimately think he’s wrong. There’s are some wrong ideas that aren’t worth discussing (like the claim that the moon is made of green cheese), but I think Behe’s arguments are on the other side of the line. (And even with the moon claim, it is interesting to think about what evidence we have for the claim that the moon isn’t made of green cheese, and what the moon would look like if it were.)

I’m obviously not the only educated person who thinks that Behe’s arguments are worth discussing (even though I think they’re wrong). So the question becomes: how should those who think that they aren’t worth discussing behave? Should they intellectually distance themseves from those who think that they are worth discussing? Or should they adopt more of a live-and-let-live attitude, and recognize that it’s worthwhile for those smart people who think that the ideas are worth discussing to be able to discuss them?

The latter strikes me as the right answer. Given that some smart educated people think that they are worth discussing, those who disagree should nevertheless be happy that the ideas are being discussed. Science is full of episodes where a certain idea looked silly to most all the scientists, but that idea ended up being right (or at least, widely accepted). We have to be careful about restricting discussion to what’s based on peer-reviewed science. The revolutionary ideas come first, and peer-review comes later. In my opinion, a forum like bloggingheads should be a place where the revolutionary ideas can be discussed. This means that wrong ideas will end up being discussed too, but that’s a necessary consequence of open-minded intellectual inquiry. And isn’t that the best kind of inquiry?

UPDATE: For a thought-out, but wrong, reply to this post of mine, see what Joshua Rosenau has to say.

An interesting interview with Michael Behe was recently posted on bloggingheads.tv, by atheist John McWhorter, who expressed some sympathies with Behe’s positions. A summary of the interview is available in comment 9 here, and the interview can be watched here. If bloggingheads.tv had their way though, we wouldn’t be able to watch the interview, because it was pulled a few hours after it was posted. One obviously wonders what sort of pressure was put on bloggingheads.tv and/or McWhorter. Here is the bloggingheads.tv explanation of why the video was pulled:

John McWhorter feels, with regret, that this interview represents neither himself, Professor Behe, nor Bloggingheads usefully, takes full responsibility for same, and has asked that it be taken down from the site. He apologizes to all who found its airing objectionable.

Behe’s take on all this is here.

Sadly, this seems to be another example of open intellectual debate and discussion being suppressed because of the worry that such open debate and discussion could end up supporting intelligent design. As I argue in my book, it’s a mistake for intelligent design opponents to behave this way. What they should do instead is engage in the debate openly and honestly. Engaging in suppression tactics is just going to make it look like they have something to hide, and that they’re trying to win the battle for public opinion in ways that don’t depend on the merits of their arguments.

Robert Park’s new book Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science (Princeton University Press, 2008) is unfortunately disappointing. I read Park’s book Voodoo Science years ago, and I remember liking it, but this new one does way too much jumping from topic to topic, which makes the whole discussion rather superficial. Some of the topics are admittedly interesting. But when it comes to important controversial issues, Park just asserts his views; there’s almost nothing by way of argument.

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