Sunday, May 11, 2008


In his new documentary, Expelled, Ben Stein offers his theory on why believers in Intelligent Design aren't winning the argument over evolution: academic oppression. While Stein's movie leaves no doubt that perhaps he has been a victim of academic repression, the idea that tyranny is responsible for his argument's downfall is less-than-satisfying.

Stein's basic premise is that biologists who believe in Intelligent Design (which is just a sneaky way of saying Creationism) and "express skepticism about Darwinism are likely to find themselves not granted tenure, castigated and ridiculed, and disqualified from the opportunity to have research papers published." [1]

But this perception relies on proponents of ID still treating evolution as a crack-pot theory without any scientific backing, that it is on no more stable ground than ID itself. This, of course, is erroneous. A true measure of the percentage of biologists who accept evolution is hard to come by, but fluctuates in the high 90s. Were not most of them raised in the Christian tradition, there would be unanimity.

Stein presents the monolith that is biological opinion as proof of a conspiracy against Creationists, but by that same thinking one must apply the same conclusion to believers in a heliocentric universe. Surely Stein is not suggesting that a teacher who wishes to teach the veracity of a geocentric universe should be granted tenure, or indeed employment in the first place.

The only reason evolution remains a controversy is because fundamentalist Christians say it is. It may be a controversy among the general public, but among biologists, it is nothing of the sort.

Robert Meyer does his best to defend Stein's position at The New Media Journal, but falls prey to the same erroneous arguments that have plagued public discourse of the subject for so long.

Any form of "science" that claims it is possible disprove Intelligent Design is no longer applied science, but philosophical speculation. That is really what is so egregious.

I can't believe this is still argument number one when defending religious principles against skepticism, but it is.

No one has ever proposed to disprove God or Intelligent Design, and no one suspects that there is any possibility that will ever happen. Intelligent Design is an inherently-disprovable theory. No real scientist dedicated to the principles of empirical evidence would ever feign such an argument, but that doesn't make the position valid, just non-disprovable.

Intelligent Design is conjecture. As Meyer illuminates, "Intelligent Design is not science, but a conclusion inferred by applying the scientific method [not really, but okay]. Asking whether or not a particular object of study is too complex to have evolved by chance is a question germane to scientific examination."

Of course, Meyer fails to follow that point to its conclusion. Namely, biologists, upon being greeted with such a question, gather evidence and form conclusions. ID proponents stop at the question. The Scientific Method requires more than unsubstantiated questioning, as Meyer supposes. Empirical proof (or contradictory evidence) must be gathered, and the conclusions must be reviewed by peers and repeated.

Much of the debate centers on the use of the term 'theory.' It is true that evolution is still a theory, but it is important to understand the distinction between that word in everyday life and in scientific endeavor. In the scientific arena, a theory is more than mere conjecture. It has significant empirical backing and significant replication behind it. To treat the word 'theory' vis-a-vis evolution as an indicator of significant doubt among biologists is to misunderstand the word's use in science.

Meyer tries to paint evolution into a corner similarly, by portraying it as a metaphysical argument rather than a scientific one. In doing so, he quotes John Tyndall from 1874, who says, "The strength of the doctrine of Evolution consists, not in an experimental demonstration." Meyer even states that this quote came from "as far back as 1874" as if that supports his point all the more. I suspect the latter.

Darwin's Origin of the Species was published in 1859. That Tyndall had yet to see its proposition fully fleshed out a mere 15 years later is not surprising. That Meyer ignores the 134 years following is, however.

One wonders at which point Stein, Meyer, and their fellow travelers would be satisfied with Darwinism. A century and a half of digging and collecting evidence hasn't produced anything to refute the theory. 150 years have yet to produce fossilized remains in a strata below where they should be, breaking Darwin's timetable irrevocably. If that happens, biologists will have to change. One can't imagine supporters of ID would do the same. The ID believers are left at the starting gate with their over-arching question, nothing to back their position but simple conjecture and proselytizing.

Belief in Intelligent Design is prefaced on starting with that belief and requiring an impossible set of circumstances to break from it. Devoid of an initial bias to the supernatural, no evidence generated by objective natural study would lead directly to the current beliefs of Creationists. That is what separates it from science. That is why it is not a controversy to only hire biologists who believe in biology.

Another favorite tactic of opponents of Darwin's proposition is to tie belief in modification in nature to its twisted application to the areas of eugenics and Social Darwinism. But one need only look at some of the atrocities committed with perceived Biblical justification to see the path down which that argument leads.

Of course I'm not suggesting that Christians inherently commit atrocities, but merely suggesting that those who twist the words of others to their own will are responsible, not the originator of the thoughts which were perverted.

By far my favorite argument from the ID supporters comes whenever they bring up Galileo, as Shaunti Feldhahn does here:

Remember, Galileo’s heretical observation that the earth revolved around the sun eventually separated science from both philosophy and religion. Science required a willingness to change one’s views based on observation instead of blind allegiance to authority or accepted beliefs. For that willingness, Galileo was ostracized, forced to recant, and no longer allowed to teach or publish.

To support their theory, they reference Galileo being oppressed by the Church for preaching heretical views? Hilarious. Galileo wasn't punished by his peers, he was punished by an organization (strangely, the same one that currently houses Creationists) that held fast and violently protected its beliefs against empirical evidence.

The view of the heliocentric [solar system] didn't perpetuate because of some academic conspiracy or geopolitical strategy, it perpetuated itself because it was right, and demonstrably so. And no protectionism on the part of the Church could change that. It would be just as egregious to hire an astronomer who believed the Sun revolved around the Earth as it would be to hire a biologist who ignored the physical in favor of the supernatural.


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danfive555 said...

Great blog. This is my favorite point, "A century and a half of digging and collecting evidence hasn't produced anything to refute the theory. 150 years have yet to produce fossilized remains in a strata below where they should be, breaking Darwin's timetable irrevocably. If that happens, biologists will have to change. One can't imagine supporters of ID would do the same. The ID believers are left at the starting gate with their over-arching question, nothing to back their position but simple conjecture and proselytizing. "

I wrote this recently (and referenced the same videos on youtube):

Theory of Evolution has withstood the scrutiny of academic debate and scientific experiment for 150+ years. Creationists try to undermine science and evolution mostly through willful ignorance and expecting others to just give in to their self-serving premises. They also try to defend this action by declaring Creationism, Free Speech.
And pitting Creationism-Free Speech vs Evolution, while one is an opinion and the other is an academically uncontested theory with 150 years of academic research, debate, and documented proof to back it up.

In fact Evolution won the debate because it had evidence to back it up, Creationism did not, this debate took place over a hundred years ago.
Today knowing they lack evidence, creationists muddle creationism as protected free speech, which in turn gives way to the general public believing that such an OPINION should be taught next to Theory of Evolution in the classroom.

Such Ignorance was usually dismissed prima facie. But due to links to Authority figures and Airtime in the mainstream media they seem to gain ground everyday, while science retreats (in the US at least).

So in the spirit of defending science I share the following series from youtube, "Why do People Laugh at Creationists?"

Link to youtube playlist (user = thunderf00t)

Tim said...

It's interesting you brought up the free speech angle. I negleted to mention it, but I agree. Too often, the First Amendment right is portrayed, not as the freedom to express opinions, but rather the protection of those opinions from scrutiny.

There should be no need to insinuate that it is not the latter case, but there is.

The problem with an inherent disbelief in scientific theories that contradict biases bred since birth is that it shows a protectionist intellectual quality that ignores the differences in Biblical opinion and scientific opinion.

Biological support for evolution is borne out by the fossil record, and open to a set of circumstances which would contradict it.

Creationism is founded only in the belief in itself. Nothing can propagate it further, nor will anything ever contradict it, given its nature as a non-disprovable theory.