Contrarian or just lame?

[Mr. Michael Balter]( Intelligent_design_and_evolution,_let's_have_a_debate.php) wrote what he referred to as a “somewhat contrarian view on the ID controversy” which was published as an editorial by the Los Angles Times on October 2, 2005.

I happen to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times. I even tried to canceled my week-day subscription to the LA Times protesting the far-right political shift in their editorial pages. Perversely, the only result is that I now receive the paper for free. And, I did read the editorial written by Mr. Balter and would have responded at the time but for other deadlines. I was reminded when he posted a link to his essay on the TalkOrigins Feedback page for October. What irritates me most about Mr. Balter’s editorial is its presentation of ID arguments without refutations so that it reads more easily as a pro-ID than as anti-ID.

Mr. Balter, You wrote your article at the beginning of the trial phase of the Dover creationism case, and I am writing toward the end. I should have replied sooner, but I have had far too much fun reading the Dover trial transcripts. None the less, I would have written basically the same rejoinder a month ago as today.

You posed a number of questions, the first being, _“Should ‘Intelligent DESIGN’ be taught in school alongside the theory of evolution?”_You wave this off saying that this is the wrong question. This won’t do. This is the question at issue and there are several very good reasons what Intelligent Design or any other form of creationism should not be taught as alternatives to evolutionary biology. This fails quickly under simple consideration. First, the classroom hour is scripted down the the quarter hour (like my attorney’s billing rate) and there is not enough time under the current curriculum standards to actually present all the material in sufficient detail. The addition of a time-waster like ID to class schedules demands that something of merit be removed. The more creationism = the less science, even if you propose to use classroom time to criticize IDC. If you would like some further reason that teaching IDC is just plain stupid, read “Intelligent Design Has No Place in the Science Curriculum” by Harold Morowitz, Robert Hazen and James Trefil.

Second, Intelligent Design is creationism and is fundamentalist religion. This is not arguable. I direct you to “Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” by Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross for the best available dissection of this topic currently available. In a shorter form, there is also Dr. Forrest’s testimony in the Dover Panda Trial Days 6 and 7. Every significant IDC leader has admitted their prior religious faith and practice as their core motivation for promoting ID.

The American religious right has forgotten a critical historical lesson, which is that when government invades the church religious freedom is doomed and that injecting the church into government opens a two-way door that cannot be closed. The biblical analogy is the camel’s nose in your tent.

“A national debate over how best to explain the complexity of living organisms would better serve our children, and adults too.” which you followed by, “Most scientists don’t want any debate.”

A national debate over the “complexity of living organisms” is superfluous. There is no basis for debate on facts. Intelligent Design Creationism fails at every scientific test even disregarding its patent religious nature. We consciously took the premise that IDC was ‘scientific’ and addressed its ‘scientific’ standing in “Why Intelligent Design Fails”. Intelligent Design fails as science. I began to question your experience with scientists when you added that the majority of scientists “don’t want any debate.” As I have pointed out there is no “debate” over fact, but, it is true that the vast majority of scientists can’t afford to spend their time with these issues. They have productive work to do in field work and in their laboratories. The average working scientist won’t even notice this issue unless there is some interference with their studies. This interference is just becoming evident. It is becoming hard to find qualified student labor. Funding for critical research is withheld for political and religious reasons as we have seen now for nearly a decade in stem-cell research. Unchecked, this will drive talented scientists away from the US to more accommodating surroundings. In the 1950s and ’60s the “brain drain” flowed to America, but this is easily changed.

Using complex statistics, intelligent-design theorists contend that natural selection fails to fully explain life’s complexity, thus alternative explanations to evolution should be considered.

At most, William Dembski has promoted a statistical shell game that fools the mathematically challenged. Must I now count you in that number? For a thorough debunking of the “complex statistics” that have some people snowed, I recommend starting with “Not a Free Lunch But a Box of Chocolates” by Richard Wein, “Dembski “displaces Darwinism” mathematically – or does he?” by Mark Perakh, “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information” by Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit, and “William Dembski’s treatment of the No Free Lunch theorems is written in jello” by the co-discoverer of the No Free Lunch Theorems, David Wolpert. For a solid debunking of Michael Behe and David W. Snoke’s paper on computational models of protein evolution, I can recommend “Theory is as Theory Does” by Ian F. Musgrave, Steve Reuland, and Reed A. Cartwright. Further information can be gathered from the devastating cross examination of Dr. Behe by Mr. Rothchild representing the plaintiffs in the Dover Pandas trial.

As a rule, they don’t speculate over who or what did the designing.

This is true even though you are again very wrong, Mr. Balter.

It is true that the IDC advocates don’t speculate of the identity of the “Designer” because they are quite certain that he is the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God. They quite freely say, in front of friendly fundamentalist audiences, the designer is God. For example, Dembski recently (March 7, 2004) gave a talk at the Baptist Fellowship Church in Waco, Texas that was tape recorded. Relevant to the current topic, Dembski, in response to an audience member’s question said, “When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God’s glory is getting robbed.” He further added, “And so there is a cultural war here. Ultimately I want to see God get the credit for what he’s done — and he’s not getting it.”

Intelligent-design proponents also argue that the scientific consensus on evolution is not rock solid. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, whose Center for Science and Culture spearheads the intelligent-design campaign, has recruited more than 400 scientists to sign its “Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,” which states in part: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”

Mr. Balter, you are a professional writer. You write for a magazine published by the world’s largest association of scientists. That magazine, Science, has published dozens of articles in just the last year or two about evolutionary mechanisms that could be construed as non-random- “random” defined by creationists as “blind chance” or compared to by intelligent design creationists as “coin tossing.” In this later sense, all mutation is not random. At the same time, mutation does not, and can not anticipate future conditions and in this sense is “non-directed,” or “random.” These are totally distinct meanings that I would have hoped a professional writer for one the world’s premiere scientific publications should have been able to grasp. And there have also been articles published in Science that illustrate the complexity of “natural selection.” What is it that does the selecting in natural selection? The answer is the environment. Yet, organism’s’ most significant interactions (the ‘selecting environment’) are with other organisms which are also evolving. A further example is the impact theory of dinosaur extinction which is the sort of event that no trivial model of “natural selection” can accommodate. I could sign the Discovery Institute “statement” if I were not aware that the Discovery Institute “statement” was a shill for creationism!

And why did you not observe that over 650 scientists named “Steve” who are actually qualified to have an expert opinion have signed the following unambiguous statement,

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

How many creationist signatories you are impressed by are named “Steve,” Mr. Balter? And on the other side of the pro-science coin, as of 2 November 2005, 9,151 signatures have been gathered from clergy supporting in part, “We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”

In large part, Americans’ skepticism toward evolutionary theory reflects the continuing influence of religion. Yet it also implies that scientists have not been persuasive enough, even when buttressed by strong scientific evidence that natural selection alone can account for life’s complexity.

Could it be that the theory of evolution’s judicially sanctioned monopoly in the classroom has backfired?

For one thing, the monopoly strengthens claims by intelligent-design proponents that scientists don’t want to be challenged. More important, it shields Darwinian theory from challenges that, when properly refuted, might win over adherents to evolutionary views.

Mr. Balter is not a keen observer of educational issues in American schools. Perhaps living abroad has clouded his vision. Evolutionary biology is poorly taught, or not taught at all in most American classrooms as documented by Cornelia Dean for the New York Times. Go here for additional commentary from the National Center for Science Education. And from the Dover Panda trial, we learn that the creationist dominated school board was reassured that “macro evolution” and “common descent” were not taught in the Dover schools even before their official imposition of creationism. So, there has been no “monopoly” of evolutionary biology even in biology classrooms.

Mr. Balter used his essay to make some fatuous suggestions to “improve” the situation. He suggested classroom debates be held pitting creationism against science, and to have this echo nationally televised debates between scientists and “biblical literalists.” There are two rather ignorant features of this proposal. Easy first: it is a common fallacy that science is in diametric opposition to religion. This is not true even in the extreme case of biblical literalism such as Young Earth Creationism which posits the sudden creation of all existence, and of course life, just around 6,000 years ago. The existence of a entity that could create the universe as a simple act of will, could of course miraculously create that universe in any sort of condition that they wanted it. The point is that science is simply incapable of responding to such an assertion.

It is only the American Constitution that is protecting us from a 6,000 year old universe, global flood, and other assorted miracles being the legally enforced, mandatory religious beliefs dictated to all Americans. The Constitution is a very old and very fragile document that needs our protection. The least we can do is to keep public school science classes free of superstition and magic.

Mr. Balter’s essay next argues,

“Would this bring religion into the classroom? Religious faith and thinking are already in the classroom, as the opinion polls strongly suggest. And the courts should stay out of it because educators would not be required nor allowed to advocate a religious point of view.”

As we have seen in Dover, Intelligent Design Creationists and their more direct Christian fundamentalist brethren, count on the fact that public school teachers are prohibited from presenting any position that conflicts with a religious point of view. I frequently encountered this problem as Director of Education for a small natural history museum. For example, I could not present to public school children all the many reasons that we know that the “Noah’s Flood” never happened as described in fundamentalist/creationist myths. If I did this, I would be teaching facts but they would violate the US Constitution by discouraging a particular religious sect. Instead I could merely teach biogeography, and biostatigraphy and deflect any question regarding “the Flood.” This is a minor example of the problem faced by teachers every day. The “debates” called for by Mr. Balter could in fact be prohibited under the Constitution.

Let us consider what the First Amendment cases blocking religious indoctrination from public schools are really about. Science educators are prevented from exposing creationism’s absurdity in the classroom directly. We can insist reciprocally that creationists not inject their religious dogma in the guise of science. Creationists are crying for fair play - all right- they should start playing fair.

Near the end of Mr. Balter’s essay he makes the following assertion,

Given the opportunity to debate, scientists should say: “Bring it on.”

This is so foolish that I could almost be amused. Paraphrasing our creationist president is ironic, and I am glad that isn’t dead. The issue of creationism in school curriculums is political and this is a weak area for most scientists. Scientists have not shied from debate on the scientific merits of ID, there are none.