Wednesday, April 19, 2006

This week's exercise in futility

Local arch-conservative John Bambenek complained last week in his Daily Illini column that the university doesn't offer a course in intelligent design. Clearly, he says, this is because intelligent design is being stifled by closed-minded scientists who just won't give ID a fair shake and ban it “from the classroom with all the zealotry one would expect to find at a book burning." Squire, more on the ball that I am, caught this before I did, and responded to Bambenek's columnhere, here, here, and especially here. Bambenek stops by in the comments, but doesn't really make a coherent argument. His column drew one letter to the editor, then another one, and also sparked a post by another local blogger.

I’ve long been of the opinion that arguing with creationists is a waste of breath, since there is no refutation to their argument, no matter how correct, that will cause them to change their position. That’s because it’s based in emotion, not reason.

From some of the things I’ve seen Bambenek mention in his column and in other places, it seems he’s of the opinion that ID proponents have actual, scientific claims and theories that just aren’t getting considered by scientists. What he doesn’t know, or isn’t willing to admit, is that the entire Intelligent Design movement was invented by creationists -- not just to discredit evolution -- but to reframe science and the entire study of the natural world so that it is consistent with their view of God. Any discussion of ID is incomplete without understanding it. But for right now, I’m going to work under the assumption that Bambenek thinks ID proponents have some good, genuinely scientific ideas that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. His column is still wrong.

So, I’m going to turn the rest of this blog post to looking at what Bambenek wrote in his April 12 column:

Ward Churchill said in a recent appearance on Fox News that professors should be in the business of "challenging assumptions" and presenting "opposing points of view." He summed up what a university should be.

Right off the bat, a conservative invoking Ward Churchill immediately makes me wary. The guy is a bit of a kook, and is usually mentioned only by conservatives to paint liberals as anti-American.

In the intelligent design debate, we can clearly see that the University fails to live up to the ideal. Intelligent design is disregarded as "religious nonsense" and banned from the classroom with all the zealotry one would expect to find at a book burning. The charge? Challenging established orthodoxies.

Right there, Bambenek is wrong. Where has anyone suggested that intelligent design not be taught in schools because it "challenges established orthodoxies?" The problems with intelligent design are numerous and far-reaching, but the fact that it is unconventional is not one of them.

By denying intelligent design any space in the academy (at times with less than ethical means), they have declared that there are forbidden questions that may not be asked. The placement of restrictions on the question of how life began is the same behavior that fundamentalists visited upon science leading up to the Scopes Monkey Trial.

There's one accusation of unethical behavior on the part of scientists, but no explanation or description of what he's talking about. One thing he doesn't mention is the unethical behavior of evolution deniers, like lying about having a doctorate and cheating on your taxes. Note here that Bambenek is implying that evolution describes the "question of how life began."

Fundamentalists allowed no question of six-day Creationism. Decades later, the scientific community has returned the favor. They have come full circle and become what they hate.

Not content with simply ridiculing it out of the realm of inquiry, some have brought the force of law to bear with the ACLU. It is interesting to see the so-called defenders of liberty suggest that in order to protect freedom, free inquiry cannot be allowed. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. You know the drill.

I don't see anyone, including the ACLU, saying that research into intelligent design can't be allowed. There really isn't any, of course, but that's not the issue here. Bambenek's complaint in his column is that the university doesn't have a course teaching intelligent design. There's a significant difference between not allowing "free inquiry" and deciding what gets taught in a classroom to students. We don't have classes on theories that are incredibly controversial -- and that's a major understatement in this case -- regardless of the field of study.

The foes of intelligent design like to throw out the charge that it is not scientific. If by scientific you mean "capable of being confirmed or disproved by observation or experiment" then you would be correct. But you would also be stating that evolution as a theory of creation is not scientific. Evolution as a biological force is easily observed. Evolution as a theory of creation, however, is completely flaccid. The primordial soup theory is novel and interesting but, at best, it is a theory that fits the facts. It has never been observed or tested and cannot be. We have never seen life come from non-life. There is a strong metaphysical case to be made for that being the way it played out, but it's firmly in the realm of metaphysics, not science.

Again, Bambenek gets science fundamentally wrong. Science isn't always about direct observation. That would be great if it were always available. Sometimes, you have to infer your results from available data. That's how we know about things that haven't been directly observed, like the existence of the electron, continental drift, star formation, and the Revolutionary War.

I want to turn to Bambenek's criticism of "evolution as a theory of creation." Evolution says nothing about "creation." I'm going to assume good faith here, and assume Bambenek is simply confused about the distinction between evolution and abiogenesis. Evolution is the gradual change in species over time. Abiogenesis is the about the generation of life from non-living matter. Make no mistake, they are completely different things. Creationists like to conflate the two because abiogenesis is, admittedly, a lot more sketchy than evolution. Note, however, there is no course at the university on abiogenesis, as far as I can find.

I'm glad that Bambenek concedes that "evolution as a biological force" is easily observed. That's all that evolution is, the gradual change of one species to another. Unfortunately for his argument, that’s exactly what Intelligent Design denies! ID proponents especially hold to the belief that that Homo sapiens did not evolve from other life forms, but was created in its current state. All the Australopithecines and other Homo species have nothing to do with us biologically, they say. The whole point of intelligent design is that species are static, and growth and change are not possible.

They argue that evolution is scientifically complete and therefore, by exclusion, eliminates intelligent design. The irony is that while they use this argument, science itself doesn't believe that it has all the facts on evolution. With the discovery of tiktaalik roseae - essentially a fish with feet - last week, scientists lavished accolades on finding one of the "missing links."

Why celebrate an established fact? When I search for a burrito, I don't shout "Eureka!" when I cross the threshold of Dos Reales. The answer is simple - there are gaps and limitations in what we know about where we came from. That is why we're still searching.

Sigh. Why was the discovery of Tiktaalik so lauded? Creationists are always complaining that the fossil record is too incomplete to show evolution from one species to another. So this is one more piece of evidence that shows a chain of development from early species to now. Unfortunately, it's an old chestnut that creationists complain about missing links not connecting gaps between species, then when one is found, they then complain that there are now two gaps!

Furthermore, Tiktaalik isn’t just a cool fossil. Science isn't about just going into the lab and measuring a bunch of voltages, and writing a paper about what you found. The real, fundamental power of science is that we can make predictions about what we don't know based on what we do know. Tiktaalik wasn't just a fossil that someone found, it was a fossil that was predicted, and then found. Someone said, "Based on what we know about X and Y, there should be a Z out there somewhere." And then someone went out and found Z. Tiktaalik isn't just a "fish with feet," it's a clear link -- one of the "transitional forms" that creationists are always saying don't exist -- between fish and four-legged animals. (More on Tiktaalik at The Lancelet.)

If Bambenek lived in a world where fundamentalist Christians vehemently denied that Mexico and Mexican food existed and said that Mexican restaurants were just a figment of Ronald McDonald's imagination, he might just yell "Eureka" when finding a burrito. We are fortunate, however to live in a world that flows with queso and salsa.

The underlying conflict is just another battle of the same war fought in many different fields in the modern experience. The two camps can be summarized as "man is made in the image and likeness of God" and "God is made in the image and likeness of man."

Instead of trying to search out the truth free of presuppositions, science chooses arguments and theories that make the assumption that God must not exist. Anything challenging that assumption is labeled heresy and discarded, quite unscientifically. That's why theories that aliens brought life to Earth are O.K. while intelligent design is not.

Now Bambenek starts getting metaphysical. I'm tempted to ask if God has an appendix and if so, what's it for? And why does he need platelets? But I won't.

Science does not “choose argument and theories that make the assumption that God must not exist." What science does is choose explanations that make sense without needing to turn to those that require the existence of God. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest explanation is likely to be the correct one; given two explanations, one that makes no claims about God, and one that does, the one that doesn’t say anything about God (but still adequately explains the data) is the one that we should use. When lightning strikes, we attribute it to well-understood electrostatics, not the righteous anger of the Lord.

Anyway, no one important seriously makes claims about panspermia that I'm aware of. Ironically, it's a valid theory, since it is theoretically testable. Imagine if (after inventing warp drive or something) we start visiting other planets, find life, and start measuring how similar it is to our own planet. Now, imagine measuring genetic drift, not between races and across continents, but between alien races and across star systems. It is something that would be testable. Intelligent design's concept of "Poof, let there be mankind..." well, I'm just not sure how you could test something like that.

Is there a class on intelligent design at the University? (I couldn't find one). If not, why not?

The intellectual mind is not served by denying any challenge to assumptions and rejecting opposing points of view without consideration. For those interested in learning more on intelligent design, please attend the talk on it at 7 p.m. on April 18 in the Lewis Lounge at Newman Hall.

Pity, I never noticed that bit about the talk until it was too late.

Actually, I assume that intelligent design is covered, at least briefly, in the many courses at the university that deal with evolution. It would be difficult to teach such a subject without at least mentioning it. It was covered in mine, and that was more than a few years ago. Just to give you an idea of the scale and importance of evolution, and how well-studied and fundamental it is to modern science, there are fourteen classes taught that deal with evolution in one form or another, and that's just in the Department of Animal Biology.

There isn't a class on intelligent design for the same reason there aren't classes in the Political Science department on World Politics and the Bible Codes, in the Economics department on Predicting the Stock Market through Astrology, or classes in the College of Medicine on The Flow of Qi Through the Human Body. We don't teach courses on things that are not accepted by the mainstream community. This is probably less true in the humanities, where it's harder to determine which things are "true" and which things aren't. But evolution isn't subjective like ethics or philosophy, it's actually a science. Why isn't Bambenek complaining about the lack of courses covering cold fusion or the hydrino?


The Squire said...

Abiogenesis is a unit in IB 402: Molecular Evolution - mostly because once you get something that can replicate itself or other things (if not before), then evolution enters into the picture.

Narc said...

For molecular evolution, that makes sense. When the discussion is at the level of vertebrtes, abiogenesis is a bit low-level, like talking about the development of the transistor in a C++ programming course.

John Bambenek said...

I came looking for a line by line refutation and didn't find it.

You say the problems with ID are many, but the only things I see are "unscientific", "pseudoscience", and the like. And the painting of my as a devotee of ID (and no matter how much I say I'm not at this point, it doesn't matter).

I don't see any attempt, or very little to be fair, to actually engage ID and show that either evolution as it is currently believed is sufficient by itself, or that the various observational theories of ID (specified complexity, irreducible complexity, etc) are wrong.

I see plenty of attack the message by assassinating the messenger. That's why so many of the responses were rather amusing, they claim I'm trying to replace science with ID... yet I outright say ID isn't science (a definition I explicitly grabbed from an ID-critic).

ArchPundit said...

===I don't see any attempt, or very little to be fair, to actually engage ID and show that either evolution as it is currently believed is sufficient by itself, or that the various observational theories of ID (specified complexity, irreducible complexity, etc) are wrong.

29 evidence of common descent--or is that too hard for you to read. Or did you read the Miller's refutation of IC? If you actually read what people cited to you, it would help the discussion along.

If you think that evolution is insufficient you should provide a falsification of a key tenet. Instead you are asking everyone else to prove a negative. That's not how science or logic works.

--et I outright say ID isn't science (a definition I explicitly grabbed from an ID-critic).

So what is it? This question has been repeatedly asked of you, as has the question of what flavor of ID do you think should be addressed. If you want to teach something it should be a part of the accumulated knowledge of humanity---yet you don't seem to be able to address in what field of that accumulated knowledge it fits nor exactly what it is you want taught.

Finally, creationists and intelligent design proponents are quacks. That's why they get attacked for their credentials. Many have been caught lying, others simply are unqualified, and nearly all of them have a persecution complex. It's a small group of eccentrics who refuse to deal with the evidence of evolution and instead insist on rhetorical tricks.

A perfect example is your behavior in these discussions. Despite having repeated citations to the evidence for evolution, you continue to whine that everyone is personally attacking you. Deal with evidence and that problem goes away.

Narc said...

Mr. Bambenek,

If you couldn't find a line-by-line response, I suggest you go back and read my post again. I won't however, accuse you of being "illiterate" as you did to a DI letter-writer over on your blog.

The fact is, your column centered on why the university doesn't have a course on intelligent design, and accused the university and its researchers of being "book-burning zealots." The simple fact is that we don't teach classes on radical, unproven theories. We don't teach a class in cold fusion, either, and there are a LOT more papers written on it than on ID.

I specifially went to the effort of responding to only what you wrote in the DI column, and not you personally. Criticising your argument is not "attacking the messenger." The fact that you consistently make this charge whenever someone disagrees with you online or in print, makes me worry that you may have a persecution complex.