Tuesday, May 31, 2005

I gotta get my shit together

I'm one of the weblogs of the week at Pharyngula. Geez. I better put something good up here. Something science-y. Preferably creationist bashing-y. My friend Daniel Hanks has sent me this link from the great state of South Carolina. The Headline is:

'More scientists question theory of evolution'

Fair enough. Lots of chemists and physicists don't have a clue about evolutionary biology. They can question all they want. But unfortunately, this questioning leads to this sort of sentiment:

"Highlighting this phenomenon is an event planned for this summer at the Palmetto Expo Center — an "Uncommon Dissent Forum: Scientists Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing." Nine speakers, all of them Ph.D's, are scheduled to make their case before an anticipated crowd of up to 1,500 people.

'I think that if there's this much questioning going on by people who hold scientific degrees in these fields, what is the average layperson supposed to do except to try and make some sense out of these two camps?' said Lewis Young, a Greenville businessman who set up the conference."

This is scary. I think it's scary when otherwise pretty smart people use their scientific authority to motivate their religious causes. Because that's what it amounts to. These people are Christians, no doubt, that don't take the time to learn evolutionary biology and/or to learn a little about the philosophy of science. They are motivated by their religious beliefs, not by a concern with gaining knowledge about the world.

I think Billy 'god did it' Dembski is really just an evangelist in mathematician's clothing and his psuedo-scientific ID work is just a way to 'fight the good fight' for Jesus. What? You haven't accepted Jesus Christ into your life? Well that's the only way you can truly live a fulfilled life. God loves you and he gave us his only son so that we may attain happiness in this world and eternal life in heaven. What? You think there isn't a whole lot to recommend belief in god in our world? What? You find it far more reasonable to explain things naturalistically? You don't like unnecessarily inflated metaphysics? Well, says Billy, did you know that you can't explain everything so naturalistically? Did you know that you might have to inflate your metaphysics in order to make sense of your hand, and flagella, and rough endoplasmic reticula, and hexose transporters? They're all little machines you know. Dynein arms for fuck's sake! Clearly god made dynein arm!

Sorry. Got a little carried away there. I suppose the article made me think more about Dembski and how much I absolutely loathe him. Not only is he dishonest, really really dishonest, but he's blinded by his religion. He keeps grasping at straws. The same arguments in more sophisiticated language. Oooooooooooo...an equation. He must know what he's talking about. Anyway, I'm pretty sure ID folks are blinded by their faith. Pushing ahead in spite of being absolutely and utterly wrong, and shown to be wrong over and over and over and over. But they have the ear of the public. Of the mostly RELIGIOUS public. "Yeah, good idea," so says the religious public, "let's teach the controversy."

Well, first off, Dembksi's a mathematician, not a biologist. He seems to intimate (and this is one of his tactics, to intimate, not to be clear and direct) that modern day evolutionary biologists think that mutation and natural selection are the only important and efficacious evolutionary 'forces'. Secondly, he apparently isn't even a very good mathematician. Thirdly, and most importantly for my current rant, he is a pretty serious christian. Oftentimes in his blog he refers to some theologian or some such nonsense that had a big influence on him. And he went through a pretty serious new-pope-approving phase at his blog. Here is a link to his posts as sorted by his 'religion' category.

While I'm certainly no fan of fallacious ad hominem arguments, I'm pretty much done pointing out the shortcomings in ID reasoning. It's been done. Again and again and again. It doesn't seem to matter. People don't want to spend a little time (ok, maybe a lot of time) to learn about evolution. More importantly, they don't seem to want to believe the proper authorities, i.e. the people who spend the time thinking about evolution. They hear Dembski or Behe speak and say, "Oh, yeah. Eventhough I don't know a thing about evolutionary biology, that mathematician and that molecular biologists sure seem to know what they're talking about. Let's teach the controversy."

If I want to know how to reconcile evolution with religion, I might just ask ol' Billy (probably not actually, but I'm trying to make a point here), but if I want to know about the modern day theory of evolution, he is pretty much the last person I'm going to ask. Also, eventhough he has a PhD. in philosophy, from the University of Chicago no less, one of the better philosophy of science departments in the country, I doubt he took many courses in the philosophy of science. I'd like to ask him about demarcation criteria and see what he has to say. Clearly he doesn't subscribe to any of the mainstream criteria...if he did he certainly wouldn't think ID is science! I wonder what he thinks of Lakatos?

Anyway, I think I'm more interested in trying to understand exactly what motivates people like Dembski to do what they do. What motivates them to keeping pushing forward? I think this is the important question now.

I also think it might be a good tactic to discredit the ID proponents. Treat them like an object of study. A lab rat. A particularly complicated experimental organism. Have anthropologists write papers about them. Hire Jane Goodall to follow Dembski around all day. See what makes him tick. Write up papers with catchy titles like: 'Pathological Religious Idiot's Disease in ID Proponents: a case study of Billy Dembski'.


Brian said...

Here is a suggestion for a sciency anti-creationist blog post. Perhaps you should post a blog about how ID proponents have highjacked Lisa Lloyd's book on the evolution of the female orgasm. For example, see


There are others. The general gist is this: Evolution cannot explain something so complex as the female orgasm (just look at what Dr. Lloyd, a prominent Biologist and professor of History and Phil. of Science has to say), so it must be an instance of intelligent design. Apparently ID people have done this with Gould as well.

Jim said...

In the end, I don't think it does a lot of good for evolution proponents to attack Religion and the Bible. There are a lot of mainstream Catholics, Protestants, Jews etc. who have no problem with Darwin's theory. If your goal is to prevent the incursion of religion into the science classroom, they are your potential allies...if you don't choose to alienate them by trashing religion in general.

More importantly, such an approach is a funhouse-mirror image of biblical literalism, and like biblical literalism, bloody-mindedly misses the point. THEY say the Bible is worthwhile because it's literally true; YOU counter that the Bible is worthless because it isn't literally true. Both views ignore the real value of spiritual practices and traditions.

Matthew D Dunn said...

I didn't mean to attack religion in general. I was poking fun at christianity a bit, I mean, I hate that accept Jessus Christ crap. What does that even mean? But it doesn't really matter. I was just poking fun.

What I'm really concerned about is the fact that I think Dembski and other creationists are trying to show how there is some empirical evidence that should convince everybody there is a god. Maybe not a christian god per se, but definately some sort awkward metaphysical conception that has serious agency in our world.

I think this is absolute bull shit.

If people want to believe in God because they have faith in God, and maintain this belief in the face of mountains of empirical evidence against that god (at least the Judeo-Christian god), then that's their problem. If someone wants to endorse a modern scientific understanding of the world while maintaining belief in a Judeo-Christian god, they can have to it. These people are not the problem.

I think they hold some seriously inconsistent or at least incredibly flexible beliefs, but they aren't out there evangelizing. They aren't out there trying to change legislation to get religion in public schools.

They probably aren't even voting for George W.

Matthew D Dunn said...

Oh...and I never said anything like: the bible is worthless because it isn't literally true. In fact, I never said the bible is even worthless. I think a lot of people get something inter-subjectively GOOD from it. I think there is some good insight into the human condition in that book too. I think it's an interesting and wild fucking epic story to boot. I mean, it's some fucked up shit man. It's like pulp fiction but without guns and cars. Or is that Pulp Fiction is like the bible but with guns and cars?

Jim said...

Yeah well,
Let's not pretend that the religious have any corner on the 'beliefs held in the face of contrary evidence' market. A visit to any barroom will yield at least one guy who can vivisect every factual inconsistency in the New and Old Testaments but can't understand why his wife and employer resent the eight hours a day he spends at the Dew-Drop Inn. Likewise, if you want to see projection and unfounded conjecture treated as fact, try spending a few hours listening to an otherwise rational friend talk about their latest crush.

Perhaps Homo Sapiens 2.0 will reference its cerebrum more than its amygdyla, but I wouldn't count on it. Until then, people will continue to choose memes based on their ability to provide highly adaptive things like security, group affinity, relief from the stress of existential angst, a sense of purpose, guidance through moral complexities and the ineffable pleasure found in spiritual practices like prayer. (What tangible, everyday goodies does your weltanschauung bring to this party?)

Now you can rightly argue that each of the above components of aspiritual belief systems can, has been and is currently being misused, and I'd have to agree. The Creationist/ID hoo-ha going on in Kansas and elsewhere is a good example of this. But if you aim to win against abuses of that sort, rather than just be right, you would do better reserving your contempt for the specific abuses rather than believers in general. I mean, do you really want to make an enemy of Robert Bakker?