Calling Wells’s Bluff

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Robert Camp over at nighlight exposes Johnathan Wells’s deception of television viewers: “Do Biology Textbooks Pit Evolution Against Theism? - A response to Jonathan Wells”.

The Lou Dobbs Tonight program is broadcast nationally by CNN. Dr. Ruse was representing the mainstream biology point of view, Jonathan Wells the “intelligent design” position, and John Morris that of “scientific creationism.” Additional context to consider is that Dr. Wells is well educated (he possesses two PhDs, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University [2]) and has written and spoken extensively on these issues. As such he is clearly an intelligent individual, aware of the nuances of personal responsibility and contextual suitability regarding public discussion of complex issues. Dr. Wells was perfectly aware that he was speaking to a national, not limited, demographic and representing “intelligent design” in its broadly understood context, not relying upon personal definitions of terms such as evolution and theism that might be unrecognizable to most listeners.

In other words, the claim made by Wells, that he has textbooks which “…explicitly use evolution, misuse evolution, as an argument against theism, belief in god, Christianity…” is clear and requires that the books in question commit the proposed misdeeds unambiguously and with obvious intent. Although the exculpation of any of the books on Dr. Wells’ list would be enough to invalidate his claim, I believe that it is in the interest of the integrity of biological pedagogy to allow that if just one is guilty of the charges this will suffice to support his claim.

23 Comments

Damn you, Reed, I was about to post this :) In any case, I already mentioned this at stranger fruit. Robert’s closing statement is well worth repeating, so here it is:

Dr. Wells makes several mistakes with respect to his interpretation of these texts. He appears to have, in some cases, misread a methodological perspective to be philosophical intent. When a scientist, or a science text, suggests that there are certain inferences that are inadmissible as scientific explanation, it is merely an acknowledgment that science has a limited, well-defined utility within a strict context, that of natural processes. It is not a denial of the utility of a particular idea outside the purview of science.

As to his claim regarding using evolution against theism etc. For this to be true the textbook authors would have to be presenting scientific methodology as epistemologically equivalent to theology, and further, argue that evolution invalidates theism in part or whole. However, we have seen that nearly all of the books take pains to separate scientific methodology from theological and spiritual inquiry. Additionally, where they deal with the relationship of evolution to a particular belief system that may be related to theology (such as creationism) they strictly limit the discussion to any purportedly scientific claims attributed to the belief system. If Wells is equating “…theism, belief in God, and Christianity,…” with the limited and flawed perspective of “scientific creationism” then he is flatly wrong (and would seem oddly suited to be representing the “intelligent design” community). If he is not doing so, then he has grossly, and apparently willfully, mischaracterized the content of not only these textbooks but, by extension, other biology textbooks.

A similar argument can be made regarding his charge that some of these books tell students they were not created by design. Several of the texts simply discuss objective mechanisms and evidences of human evolution. For an anatomical comparison of human and horse forelimbs to be guilty of this charge, Wells would have to be using “design” in such a way as to functionally separate humans from the rest of the biological world. How does this square with “design” as employed by most “intelligent design” advocates? More importantly, how does this square with the very real and voluminous biological facts in evidence? It does not. As with the first charge, Wells is guilty either of perverse redefinition and use of terms (e.g. theism, design) or gross misinterpretation of plain text.

I checked into close to fifteen biology textbooks, including the ones from the list sent to me by Dr. Wells. Not one of these texts uses evolution to argue against theism in any fashion. Not one of these texts tells students they were not created by design. All of them discuss the historical and cultural aspects of evolutionary thought in a manner that is measured and respectful.

This careless castigation of legitimate science texts by Jonathan Wells was an abuse of a national forum and will almost certainly have the effect of demagoguing the issue of origins. It seems likely that there were many theists in the national audience who heard Wells’ false charges who have accordingly adjusted their opinions on this issue - opinions that are, by most measures, already significantly misinformed about fundamental biological concepts (i.e. “it’s just a theory”).

Jonathan Wells was wrong to make the claim that he did, and owes a retraction to biology textbook publishers and authors, to the CNN viewing audience, to the “intelligent design” community, and to the people on both sides of this debate who are trying to deal with the issues in a fashion that does not increase the amount of spurious “information” already in circulation.

I saw that you’d put it on your blog, which reminded me that someone needed to put it here. Let this be a lesson to you; post here first, then on your personal blog.

*shakes fist in impotent fury*

Jonathan Wells was wrong to make the claim that he did, and owes a retraction to biology textbook publishers and authors, to the CNN viewing audience, to the “intelligent design” community, and to the people on both sides of this debate who are trying to deal with the issues in a fashion that does not increase the amount of spurious “information” already in circulation.

Don’t let’s hold our breath waiting for the retraction. He got the point across to a national audience that current textbooks use evolution to attack Christianity and hence are biased about religion and are promoting a particular worldview, and no doubt he made that point quite deliberately. The fact that the textbooks don’t back up his statement is something that almost all the listeners to the programme will never know. So yet again, doubt about evolution and its presentation to children has been sown in the public mind. As the blog entry shows, it takes a lot of work and a lot of words to properly refute those couple of sentences. Certainly it can’t be done effectively at the time of the broadcast; afterward, it’s too late to be effective.

When the DI comes out with its own textbook, complete with criticisms of all the “icons of evolution” and full of material emphasising complexity of various sorts and ways to detect it, the ground will have been carefully prepared for it, the mainstream textbooks will have been attacked again and again in public, school districts will have a choice of just one textbook that covers the “evidence against evolution” to the satisfaction of anti-evolution school boards, and we’ll be wondering how they could possibly have been so thoroughly taken in. We’re seeing a step down that road now.

My zoology book definitely pit evolution against theism – specifically, Christianity.

Damn, that was an awful lot of work Robert put in just to refute an off-the-cuff remark made during a TV debate few people will even remember.

I understand the seriousness of the charge Wells made, and it’s Robert’s right to do as he sees fit, but I’m loath to see well-meaning defenders of evolution spending so much of his precious time countering every dumb sound bite an IDist makes.

The sad thing is that these sound bites, when repeated often enough, will gain traction out in the general public. What’s worse is that the longer and more detailed the rebuttal, the *less* likely it is to be seen by anyone who really needs to see it (i.e. not the Panda’s Thumb readership).

So while I appreciate Robert’s efforts in writing his article, I do have to question if it was really worth his time in this case.

Unfortunately there will be no retraction. He’s put his out for nothing more than sheer media spin and nothing more.

I’ve been seeing a pattern lately: religious conservatives and ID/creationists have been becoming more shrill in their denouncement of people who don’t follow “the party line”.

This American Life recently did a segment called “Godless America” (see the 6/3 entry, which is available via Real Audio http://www.thislife.org/pages/archi[…]chive05.html, http://www.thislife.org/ra/290.ram ). In one segment, federal money was being used to build a homeless shelter under the control of the Salvation Army. A city council member (Paul Williams) said the building should not be used for proselytizing because it would violate the separation of church and state since tax dollars were being used to fund the building. Even though Paul Williams is a Christian, the local head of the Salvation army said: “I have some concerns that we would have a city council person so anti-Christian, so anti-spiritual. I don’t know, I’m at a loss for words.” President Bush even weighed in on the issue by saying that the city council has “no right to tell the Salvation Army that the price of running a center was giving up its prayers”.

In another segment of the show, a teacher in Georgia talks about being bullied by her school principle into not teaching evolution. She was confronted by her principle. Holding the Bible, he said to her, “I believe everything in this Bible. Do you believe everything in this Bible?” He also confronted her again later, saying, “I can accept a lot of things about evolution. But, if the scientists ever get to the point where they say that God’s not involved; I can’t accept that. I want you to say that.”

More and more it seems that they are using deception and villification in order to bully their opponents and push the hot buttons of religious people (all the while claiming that they are the victims). More and more they are pushing forward their agendas by running over and demonizing the people who oppose them. (And while I’m not an opponent of the Iraq war, it’s clear that the republicans did the same thing there - villifying their opponents such as the French and going as far as saying that democrats were conducting “guerilla warfare” on American troops in Iraq.) Lately, the Right has been busy demonizing the judiciary (“activist judges”), and the Supreme Court especially (lookup the books “Men In Black: How the Supreme Court Is Destroying America”, “Judicial Tyranny”, “Courting Disaster: How the Supreme Court is Usurping the Power of Congress and the People”).

Oppose them, and be prepared to be labeled “anti-christian”, “anti-moral”, “anti-spiritual”, and “anti-American”. They won’t win the intellectual battle, but they’re definately trying to get their way through demagoguery.

As I did with John Lynch, I’d like to thank Reed for giving this issue some play. I would like to see this move to some sort of resolution. I hope Jonathan Wells will feel the same way.

Since I’d like for Dr. Wells to have a chance to offer his comments before the level of rhetoric gets ratcheted up on both sides (I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m usually as likely as anyone to be ratcheting away.) I’m not going to get into this too deeply. But because I had some of the same misgivings Mike Walker has expressed I wanted to make a few points,

1) The piece wasn’t as much work as it may have appeared. I type quickly enough, and much of it consisted of copy, paste, and transcription.

2) I think those of us who’ve argued with creationists and ID proponents for years tend to become a bit jaded about some of the comments made on both sides. Because we are so familiar with the arguments, and have come to our own conclusions about many of them, it doesn’t surprise us when a statement made by an opponent doesn’t have, shall we say, the ring of truth. But there are times when we have to realize that some rhetoric pushes the limits too far, and demands our increased attention.

There was something about this charge from Wells that seemed to me to go beyond the usual give and take. I could imagine earnest but naive viewers brushing off the dispute about whether ID is religion or not as a matter of interpretation. But this was an unequivocal, and unchallenged, assertion of fact that I felt held the potential for immediate and lasting damage. I couldn’t imagine viewers just brushing this off. And I felt it called for a formal response, not simply a note in a usenet post.

3) Last, although I’ve been critical of Wells’ position I have always felt that he was more measured and reasonable in his approach than most ID proponents. In the interviews that I’ve seen he has usually been willing to consider his answers and respond to the substance of either the question asked or the challenge posed by his opponent. I am hoping he will apply those qualities to this issue and redress what I believe to be an unfair characterization on his part.

(Of course it didn’t hurt that I happened to have some time to kill)

I’ve been seeing a pattern lately: religious conservatives and ID/creationists have been becoming more shrill in their denouncement of people who don’t follow “the party line”.

That’s because they are losing so badly, everywhere.

They are apparently following Lenin’s advice; “Better fewer, but better.”

Dr. Wells makes several mistakes with respect to his interpretation of these texts. He appears to have, in some cases, misread a methodological perspective to be philosophical intent

He hasn’t “misread” anything – he is MISREPRESENTING it. Deliberately.

ID’s entire “argument” boils down to “science is atheistic!!!”. It’s why they keep blithering about the unfairness of “materialism” and “naturalism”. It’s why all the Kansas witnesses yammered about the “religious implications of evolution”. It’s why the Thomas More Law Center wants to argue in court that evolution is a religion. And it’s why Rep Buttars and others accurately depict ID as “divine design”.

It’s also why ID will never pass a court test.

I’m probably going to have to take a shower afterwards, but at least with respect to Futuyama’s text it appears that Wells has a legitimate grievance - although the real source of his grievance is reality, not textbook authors.

When Futuyama writes

The entire tradition of philosophical explanation by the purposes of things, with its theological foundation, was made completely superfluous by Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

the context which Mr. Camp has been nice enough to restore does nothing to alter the plain meaning of the text so much as it evades its way around it. How in the world could any theist, of any degree of literalism or liberalism, read something like “we need not invoke, nor can we find any evidence for, any design, goal, or purpose anywhere in the natural world, except in human behavior,” and hear this emphasised as “profound” and “deeply unsettling,” and still come away from the text, well “profoundly and deeply unsettled”? I’ve been arguing alternately against and in favor of atheism for almost 20 years now, and I like to think I have a sense of what strikes close to home in an argument, and I simply can’t imagine a more direct attack on the foundations of someone’s religious beliefs than the passages quoted above.

The later hedging about “only being in conflict with literalism” (and don’t literalists “count” when we’re trying to determine whether something is hostile to religious belief?) seems to me to be just a thin patina of reconciliation that makes me wonder how seriously it was intended. So science does not and cannot rule out some vague unspecified supernatural “force” somewhere - after several pages of telling the religious believer there’s no purpose in the universe, what precisely are they supposed to take away from all this? That we are all basically like weeds popping up through cracks in the sidewalk, and God is somewhere in his recliner in the Andromeda galaxy watching us indifferently as he cracks open another beer and dozes off to sleep? Theists may wander around with blinders on, but the one thing you can count on them to be observant about is when someone is trying to tear down the entire edifice of their worldview and being told it’s just a new coat of paint.

“still not come away”, “not”. Yikes.

If you want to understand Wells you have to go to his webpage and read some of his shorter articles. It’s definitely a “through the looking glass” experience.

The citations in the text, to my way of thinking, do not lead inexorably to atheism. What they do promote (and quite rightly IMO) is a general scientific world view (or modern scientific world view) that scientific explanations do not have unexplained causes (or if they do we keep looking for explanations) and that evolution, when considered in the context of actually doing science, does not have a purpose.

From the viewpoint of Wells, and all other proponents of ID, it is this very statement, along with the general mechanistic view of science that they believe promotes atheism.

Personally, I disagree. There are many examples (de Chardin, Dobzhansky, Miller to name just a few) who reconcile apparent purposelessness in scientific explanation with a meta world view of ultimate teleology.

I don’t see Wells in this sense here as being consciously dishonest. I think he believes what he says.

I sometimes wonder (I am probably wrong)if a discussion of Dobzhansky’s “Biology of Ultimate Concern” in intro texts would not help to better frame the underlying issues.

This raises some difficult pedagogical and constitutional issues so I simply throw it out as a suggestion.

Chip P Wrote:

…scientific explanations do not have unexplained causes (or if they do we keep looking for explanations).…

So then biology is like other sciences and indeed like other activities from bookkeeping to bricklaying, not to mention crime investigation.

In my view, yes. Biology is a science like other sciences in important ways. The primary way is that it is mechanistic (in the good sense of the term), though not of necessity deterministic unless one wants posit an overarching Teleology at some metaphysical level. But Big T teleological explanations are hard to put into any form of a scientific research program.

Is Biology (or science in general) different from bricklaying or stamp collecting? That’s a complex question I won’t go deep into here. I’m only half persuaded by Laudan’s critique of the demarcation debate.

My view is that we can distinguish science from non-science in two ways:

1) the generic sense in which we have come to label the physical and natural sciences “science” (and I don’t dispute that this was a process of historical creation-but it has worked out pretty well);

2) a more general sense in which we have come to associate with a general committment to using the methods and standards of modern science (again, this is a process of historical creation but has worked out pretty well).

Taking the sense in which science is used as #2, sure, one could have a “scientific” approach to bricklaying, and I think that implicitly, good bricklayers must at least resort in principle to some general rules of scientific reasoning.

So I would argue we have well tested and understood ways of gaining knowledge which I think we can call “scientific” (what else should we call it?). Following Sober, I would assert that the probability of gaining useful and accurate knowledge from a scientific approach is overwhelmingly in favor of a scientific approach to knowledge. Thus if other ways of gaining knowlege (revelation, mysticism) posit phenomena at odds with knowledge gained from science, I reject the latter and go with the science explanation.

It is possible however that I am really just a battery for a group of machines who took over the world in the late 20th century and designed a computer program to mimic life in that era. But I prefer common sense realism to that point of view-again, because it is more probable and because it works out.

I have a copy of Futuyma’s textbook also. Thanks, Hiero5ant, for being willing to call attention to the point that “Wells has a legitimate grievance” with respect to Futuyma’s textbook.

I have a copy of Futuyma’s textbook also. Thanks, Hiero5ant, for calling attention to the point that “Wells has a legitimate grievance” with respect to Futuyma’s text.

FL: do keep in mind the following illustrative analogy.

Wells has a malignant brain tumor that is almost certainly inoperable. He complains, “these doctors are destroying my belief that I will live to be 1,000 years old.”

Some people are telling him, “Of course, it’s logically possible for you to have this tumor the size of an orange in the middle of your skull and still live to be 1,000 years old, so we’re not really calling your silly belief into question.”

I am making two points. First, it is faintly condescending to pretend that the findings of science do not obviously assault the foundations of silly religious beliefs like Wells’s. Second, Wells needs to stop blaming the messenger just so he can enable himself to cling to propositions divorced from observed reality.

HTH

Whatever orbiter dicta occur in Futuyama’s text, the fact remains that the structure of biological theory does not and cannot deny God because God is not represented in the theory. You can’t argue for not-A until you have some way of identifying A. The God case contrasts with, for example, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, something that the current state of theory can deny because it can define what it’s denying. In the context of contemporary biology, theism can’t even be false.

This American Life recently did a segment called “Godless America” (see the 6/3 entry, which is available via Real Audio http://www.thislife.org/pages/archi[…]chive05.html, http://www.thislife.org/ra/290.ram ). In one segment, federal money was being used to build a homeless shelter under the control of the Salvation Army. A city council member (Paul Williams) said the building should not be used for proselytizing because it would violate the separation of church and state since tax dollars were being used to fund the building. Even though Paul Williams is a Christian, the local head of the Salvation army said: “I have some concerns that we would have a city council person so anti-Christian, so anti-spiritual. I don’t know, I’m at a loss for words.” President Bush even weighed in on the issue by saying that the city council has “no right to tell the Salvation Army that the price of running a center was giving up its prayers”.

Get used to it. Any attempts to enforce separation of church and state or to stop the advancing theocracy will be portrayed as anti-religious bigotry. It goes all the way to the top. Frist in the senate is doing the same carp.

Futuyma wrote a high school text?

Somebody give me the cite.

If it’s not a high school text, he can say what he wants to.

No primary or secondary school text in the U.S. says anything opposed to Christianity. None of them says anything that might be interpreted to be close to Well’s criticisms, except by lunatics.

Ooops. Should be “Wells’”

BTW, has anyone ever seen a correction at an ID blog?

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This page contains a single entry by Reed A. Cartwright published on June 24, 2005 11:43 PM.

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