What is Intelligent Design Creationism?

Obvs, he did it.

Obvs, he did it.

Larry Moran discusses some apologetics from Jonathan McLatchie, in which McLatchie briefly argues for intelligent design. I think the fact that it’s in the context of Christian apologetics already gives away the store, but at least he gives a succinct definition of intelligent design:

The study of patterns in nature which bear the hallmarks of an intelligent cause

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An unintelligent Intelligent Design creationism quiz

Larry Moran has been given a quiz to test our comprehension of Intelligent Design creationism. Unfortunately, it was composed by someone who doesn’t understand ID creationism but merely wants everyone to regurgitate their propaganda, so it’s a major mess, and you can also tell that the person writing it was smugly thinking they were laying some real traps to catch us out in our ignorance.

Larry has posted his answers. I’ve put mine below the fold (I sorta subtly disagree with him on #2). If you want to take a stab at it untainted by our answers, here’s the original quiz, untainted by logic or evidence, so you can view them in their pure naked ignorance.

Also, another thing: the person who composed the quiz clearly expected simple yes/no answers, yet wrote questions that demand explanation. Yet again, the idiocy of the IDiots is exposed. I’ve actually troubled to explain my answers.

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Behold! The Legendary Intelligent Design Creationism Research Laboratory!

The Discovery Institute released a video of one of their stars, Ann Gauger, explaining the flaws in “population genetics” (I put it in quotes because it wasn’t a description of the field of population genetics that any competent biologist would recognize). Larry Moran points out the errors.

But then, someone noticed something else: the video was fake. It was Ann Gauger, all right, talking in a “lab”. Again, the quotes are because she was actually talking in front of a green screen, and a stock photo of a lab was spliced in behind her. Oops. It adds comic absurdity on top of the egregious errors in her babbling.

But of course that’s exactly what the DI wants. They can’t answer for the stupidity of her comments, but they can wave their hands and shout, “We do too have a lab! A real lab! And it’s sciencey and everything!” Because, after all, when you’re doing cargo cult science, the props are all important, and the substance doesn’t matter.

So, yeah, the indignant DI released a real photo of their real lab, with Gauger gazing at a petri dish. And here it is:


Errm, are we supposed to be impressed? I could give you an equivalent photo of a few shelves in one of our student labs — it would look similar, just messier. A petri dish, a few orange-top bottles, a small hood in the background—all they needed to make it really sciencey were a few bubbling bottles of colored water. D. James Kennedy did a better job in “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy”.


See? Now that’s a lab!

But seriously, the furniture does not make the lab — the work being done in it does. When you think it matters that you can pose with a petri dish, you really are doing cargo cult science.

Republicans and Creationists are simply wrong


Alex Berezow is annoyed. Slate is picking on poor Republicans and Christians for their anti-science views! How dare they! Don’t they know Democrats and atheists are just as bad?

It’s a complaint that ignores reality. We can look at the voting record of congress: it’s eerie how polarized it is, and how the Republicans line up in lockstep to vote against any policies that might combat climate change, for instance. We can look at the current slate of Republican presidential candidates, and it’s terrifying — Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, etc.? Are you really going to argue that it’s one-sided to point out that the anti-science agenda of the Republican party is blatantly in contrast to that of the Democratic party (not that I’m a big fan of Democrats or Obama or Clinton: they are lukewarm swill against the toxic, corrosive sludge of the Republicans)? Of course he thinks it is.

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Nematodes are not designed, they evolved


The latest fatuous obsession by Paul Nelson, Philosopher of Biology at the Discovery Institute, is a real corker. He has decided that nematodes could not possibly have evolved, because scientists (real ones, not creationist pseudoscientists) have produced an extremely detailed literature documenting their development; because Brenner, Horvitz, and Sulston (no creationists among them) won the Nobel Prize for their work describing the cell lineages to produce the worm; and because he doesn’t understand developmental biology at all. I’ve got palm impressions in my forehead from smacking myself so many times while watching this terrible little video.

This is why Paul Nelson is laughed at by developmental biologists. He cannot be taken seriously. I figured, though, that if you’re not already familiar with concepts and details of development, you might find him credible — he’s so pompously earnest! — so I thought I’d explain all the ways he goes wrong.

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The god of vapor is hardly any kind of god at all

So Greta Christina wrote a piece pointing out that even the vaguest, waffleist, broadest version of God is incompatible with the science, and then my favorite tech and media pundit, Andy Ihnatko, wrote a critique of her article. It’s a decent attempt, but really, it falls into the same trap Greta is talking about.

I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.

I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable…

I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.

Ihnatko goes on to say much more, and in particular I’ll say his discussion of Intelligent Design creationism is spot on; ID is particularly vile for its calculated and disingenuous attempt to hide its religious foundations for marketing reasons. But I have to agree with Greta that science and religion are incompatible, and that sending your god off into the distant past and a tenuous and murky relationship with reality is not a good strategy for convincing anyone of its relevance…which is exactly what Greta is saying. This by Ihnatko, in particular, is not a defense of god:

Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

Let’s dissect that.

First of all, science isn’t in the business of proving anything, ever. It’s a process for developing knowledge about the world, and we don’t talk about proofs, because knowledge is provisional and changes as we learn more. We tend not to say “Prove it!”. Rather, we’re more likely to say, “What’s your evidence for that?” or “How does it fit into this other body of hard-earned knowledge?” We’re also much, much more likely to ask how you know something, what process you followed to arrive at your conclusion, and to ever-so-awkwardly point out errors in your logic or observations.

We don’t consider such questions vulgar. They’re necessities for assessing a claim. I wouldn’t flatter believers by suggesting that they’re “secure enough in themselves” — I’d be more likely to say that they’re arrogant to think that they don’t need to answer simple questions about their process, and that what they’re doing in their obstinate refusal to think about the mechanisms of their beliefs makes them more similar to a dishonest used car salesman trying to pass off a lemon by hiding its repair history.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. It was a Catholic philosopher, Pierre Abélard, who said that “By doubting we are led to enquire, and by enquiry we perceive the truth”. Honest inquiry is what scientists expect. Stonewalling the conversation by pretending inquiry is vulgar makes us very, very suspicious.

The heart of Ihnatko’s argument rests on assuming that there is an exception to Greta’s argument, that she has failed to sufficiently address deism or the Watchmaker God idea — that maybe there is a sufficiently non-dogmatic, non-specific version of the god concept in which it is a being that just started the natural world and stood back and let it play out. You can’t disprove that, he says.

I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).

I’ll repeat, science isn’t about proofs. You can’t disprove the idea that Superman built a time machine, traveled back 13.7 billion years ago, and used his super-strength to create an exploding singularity, either. But science doesn’t care. We just ask what your evidence is that such a being exists, how do you know that he did that, and when you cite some back issue of Action Comics, we know to dismiss your claim on epistemological grounds.

It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.

But how you choose to define god is the important question! “God exists, as long as you don’t ask me to say what God is” is not a good answer, but is an evasion. It makes it impossible to evaluate your explanation.

You could argue that religion and science are compatible as long as religion simply accepts whatever science says about the nature of the universe (which was basically Gould’s argument in Rocks of Ages — I thought it was a cop out when an atheist said it, and I still think it’s a cop out when a deist says it). But that should not be a reasonable approach to someone trying to defend religious belief, because it cuts religion off at the knees. It really says that those holy religious texts are nothing more than the imaginative speculations of human beings, which are to be superseded by science. That’s fine by me, but then be consistent, and follow through and discard the religion part.

There’s also an implicit bias in the language: “God” implies a conscious being, an entity that is actively doing something — it may be as generic as triggering the Big Bang, or as persistent as something that constantly tweaks the human genome to shape us. But there’s no reason to think that what created the universe was aware, or human-like in its purposes, or even deserving of personal pronouns. You could argue that nucleosynthesis is god, for instance; that the process that assembled larger atoms from smaller ones is the divine creative purpose. But you’d be silly to call nucleosynthesis a “he” or “she”, or to address it in your prayers, or to think your conglomeration of carbon is a holy act. Yeah, you can go ahead and call it “god” and make a “First Church of Nucleosynthesis”, but it would represent an absurd anthropomorphosis of a natural physical process.

I think there’s a fundamental property of the human mind that tends to do these sorts of silly theological exercises, and here’s how science gets appropriated. This is Jacob Bronowski’s definition of science:

Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.

We are typically successful in finding that unity, and then the human mind tries to call it God, bringing in all the cultural baggage that that word carries. It’s not helpful. It obscures more than it enlightens. We should reject the whole notion of “god” because it fails to clarify.

As Ihnatko says, though, you can make it work by not pretending that it has anything to do with science, or that your church can provide any insight into the nature of reality. Sure, go if it makes you feel better, but put away the pretense that you actually learn anything about reality there. You’re engaging in a social behavior that makes you feel good, which is fine, but not something more.

Drowning in noise: How accommodating nonsense poisons our discourse

I’m at the World Humanist Congress, and just finished up an hour and a half tag-teaming David Silverman on the topic in the title. He played the bad cop, while I was the good cop, which is an interesting switch. Here’s the text of what I planned to say, but of course I tended to drift from the script in the actuality.

Whoever said that the answer to bad speech is more speech never had to run a modern website. I used to run my own web server for my blog, before I realized that I had better things to do than nursemaid a swarm of technical details and decided instead to pay a professional to do it well, and one of the things I had to do was maintain all this code that was there specifically to limit access. It was vitally important. I could be down deep in the bowels of the beast, monitoring all the incoming data, and the instant I would plug that ethernet cable into my server to connect it to the internet, literally within milliseconds it would be getting hit with pings — almost all spammers, and also lots of automated hacking code, looking for loopholes in my implementations of communications protocols so that bad messages could be uploaded into my machine to do them harm.

Every website, even the ones that assert the most devout dedication to the principles of free speech, are extensively filtered. From my personal experience, I’d have to say that less than 1% of the attempts to communicate via the internet are legitimate, or are sincere, honest attempts by a human being to talk to other human beings, and the bulk of the attempted discussions are spam and dedicated efforts to corrupt communication.

You don’t have to run a server to know this. Just about all of you use email; every modern email server has built-in traps to block spam. Gmail, for instance, uses some smart algorithms to detect and dispose of spam and you don’t even see most of the garbage that is trying to come through. You really would be drowning in noise without those filters.

It’s also the case in every instance of non-technological discourse in which you engage. Look at this room; I’m talking, and you’re all being so polite and not interrupting; no one is yelling at me, and none of you are suddenly standing up and announcing that you’d like to sell me penis enlarging pills. And then when the Q&A rolls around, you’ll all take turns. Of course we limit speech all the time by common courtesy and by formal rules of order. We could not have a civilized conversation without these rules.

The tricky part is establishing those rules. The naive free speech absolutist is neglecting the fact that the privilege of free speech has to come with the responsibilities of free speech. Every right has to come with a recognition of limits on those rights.

Some of those limitations are easy. For instance, you may have a right to free speech, but you don’t have a right to an audience. Here’s David Silverman, who just gave a ferocious talk advocating the importance of atheism, and I might think everyone ought to hear that…but that doesn’t mean Dave gets to show up at someone’s house at dinner time and harangue everyone with it. It doesn’t mean he has the right to show up at an Anglican church on Sunday and override the religious sermon with his far superior atheist sermon. He should have the right to set up an Atheist TV channel, so people can voluntarily tune in and listen to what he has to say, if they want to.

I think we can all agree that we don’t have a right to impose our views on others, but that it is a violation of the principles of free speech when others, governments or religious organizations or corporations, try to dictate what we may read or hear — that on the one hand, forcing people to read a message is wrong, but on the other hand, limiting voluntary access to media is also wrong. So when governments arrest individuals who express their rejection of religion, or when they shut down access to Twitter by all of their citizens because the state is being criticized, or when the press is corrupted and no longer questions the actions of the state, we can all agree that that is a violation of a principle that we consider important for the welfare and happiness of free people.


Not even that idea is without exceptions.

Here’s one big problem I have. Words have power. I shouldn’t even have to say this to people in an organization which believes strongly in the power of communication and persuasion and reason: we’re not promoting the cause of humanism with soldiers and tanks, but solely by telling people about the virtues of humanist thought, and encouraging open-mindedness and critical thinking and the questioning of dogma. And we all think that working within the framework of law and media is an effective and appropriate way to do that. At least I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the world humanists need to start up a military arm.

But there’s often a curious asymmetry in how we think about this. Words have power, but we think everyone ought to be able to use this power freely? Really? There ought to be no restrictions on how words can be expressed? I don’t think we really believe that. We ought to recognize that, because it’s the only way we can properly develop rules and protocols for restricting speech.

Let me give you some specific examples where free speech absolutism fails.

Should creationism be taught in science classes? Many creationists literally argue that their freedom of speech is abridged when they are not allowed to teach their views in public school classrooms, to children. One of the most popular slogans of the intelligent design creationism movement is “Teach the Controversy” — they are arguing that the issues ought to be resolved by giving equal time to all sides, and letting the kids decide which is right. That really is a free speech argument.

I’m a teacher, and I have no illusions. If you give kids a choice between an easy answer that says all you have to do is believe, and that god did it is an acceptable alternative, vs. the complex answer that requires math and data and a rejection of the dogma their parents promote, most will happily accept the one that makes studying for the exam easiest. I also know that if we open the door to anything goes, then education becomes a matter of opening a firehose of noise on the classroom, and drowning the kids in chaos.

The answer is that we have to have criteria for determining what core ideas must be taught, and that we humanists and atheists have a pretty clear idea on that: we advocate for a secular and universal education, where the content is dictated by reality : if an idea is supported by the evidence and there is a clear reasonable path by which any reasonable person can arrive at a consensus, then we should teach that, and not the idea that is contradicted by the evidence. But even that answer is fraught: how do you teach poetry? And the creationists will reply that what must be taught is socialization and the proper place of the student in society, and only religion can give that. We could argue for hours over this issue, and we do.

Here’s another example:

Should rape and death threats be protected as free speech? This is a hot issue on the internets nowadays, and yes, people are actually arguing that using online media to harass, stalk, and threaten people is a free speech issue. And it is! If you’re a purist who believes that everyone ought to be free to create multiple pseudonymous accounts and deluge their enemies with racist, sexist, or abusive slime, then of course you’re going to demand that your right to do so may not be infringed. You’ll also make the same playground excuses we all heard as kids.

“Toughen up.” “Only crybabies can’t take it if they’re called a mean name”. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

These excuses are all wrong. Remember, words have power, and only abusers of that power will deny it. The victims of these abusers are already tough — it takes a thick skin to persist on the internet anymore — and they’re not complaining about one insult. They are drowning in the noise: technology has given bullies the power to deliver a torrent of abuse online with great ease, and unfortunately, most of the media are enablers of that bullying. Getting told once that you ought to be raped is annoying and infuriating; being told dozens of times every day is discouraging and repressive. I know way too many people who have been driven completely off the internet by free speech fanatics who flood all of their communications with hatred and abuse.

Just because I’m trying to be difficult today, keep in mind as well that some people find messages that their cherished religious beliefs are false to be discouraging and repressive. These are concerns that must be recognized; it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of glibly announcing that free speech is simply wonderful, all we have to do is talk to each other in the sunlight and reason with one another, and everyone will be won over by the side of goodness and logic and mutual respect. Because that won’t happen.

Should lies be protected as free speech? How do we deal with, for instance, faith healers? Their promises don’t work. They are so tempting to the weak and sick, though: when the choices are to undertake an agonizing regime of chemotherapy, against simply praying harder, there are many people who will understandably choose the latter course, because someone is lying to them about the effectiveness. How do we deal with advertising? It’s easy when the lies are obvious, such as the old campaigns in which doctors were recruited to endorse cigarettes, but what about ads that say beautiful women will find you irresistible if you swamp your body odor with Axe body spray and drink the right kind of watery beer? Don’t pretend that it’s all just caveat emptor and the weak have only themselves to blame — we’re all susceptible to psychological games, says the guy using an Apple iPad, because they’re really cool.

I think, and I suspect that most of you agree, that truth ought to be an ultimate arbiter — that what we ought to prize most is honesty and accuracy in our communication, and that it ought to be a human value to demand evidential support for any claim. It is important that we state our expectations up front and clearly, and that that value is a significant component in how we evaluate speech. But we also have to appreciate that that is not a significant component to others: that they may define truth by how well a statement can be reconciled to their holy book, rather than to reality.

To sum up my concerns about free speech:

You don’t have a right to an audience. This is a critical limitation of free speech right now, in a day when technology has made it trivially easy for abusers to circumvent the limitations of courtesy and protocol.

Words have power. Guns also have power; is unregulated access to guns the best path to a free society? We’re engaged in that experiment in the US right now, and I can tell you…no. Similarly, we have to recognize that words must be used responsibly.

Speech can do great harm. Words can enlighten and educate, but they can also oppress and mislead. As humanists, we must appreciate the importance of truth, and do what we can to stop the promulgation of lies.

There are no easy answers. A commitment to free speech is hard — and the easy answers are so attractive. On the one side we have the contingent arguing “You can’t say that!”, and on the other we have people saying, “I can say anything I damn well please, anywhere, anytime!”, and neither is right. We must be aware that the task is one of navigating between the two extremes.

What happens to creationists who dare to step into this den of evil?

If you ever want to see the typical course of a creationist’s visit to Pharyngula, we’ve got a good example in medic0506, who showed up to argue and then didn’t. I mostly ignored him, but his announcement that he was disappointed caught my eye.

I was told on DDO that there were actual scientists here who would engage in informal argumentation, so since I’ve had my fun with the whineylibs, I’ll scroll through an see if there is any valid posts by someone who wishes to have a discussion rather than just try to scratch my eyeballs out.

This is standard noise from creationists: get thrown lots of evidence, then claim that there was no evidence and they’re all so very tired of it. So I thought I would take a look at his posting history here to see what kind of substantial, thought-provoking, evidence-based arguments he had made.

Surprise. There weren’t any.

He’s very proud to have coined the term “National Coven for the Solicitation of Evolutionism” for the NCSE. He thinks it fits because Eugenie Scott reminds him of the wicked witch. Why? Because she lied and said Meyer’s awful paper, The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, didn’t mention ID (what? It was an ID paper; the whole issue with that is that it was smuggled in by a creationist editor friendly to the idea, making a farce of peer review). As evidence, he provided this video:

I really would not want to cite that as favorable to intelligent design creationism. Meyer was disgraceful, Eugenie was patient and calm, and she didn’t say what medic0506 claimed she said.

Then he declares that he is a young earth creationist. In reply to a comment that he’s flat-out denying the overwhelming scientific consensus, he waves away that little problem of contradicting physics, chemistry, and geology by saying it only takes 1 to be right.

Next we learn That “old book” [the Bible], on the other hand, paints an accurate picture of what nature should, and does look like, so I see no need to disregard it in favor of what others believe. He then ignores all the comments that point to verses in the Bible that paint a very inaccurate picture of the world. Sometimes the absence of a reply is as damning as the content of a reply.

When confronted with standard evidence for an ancient universe, like the existence of galaxies farther away than 6000 light years, he simply denies it: your belief in deep time is heavy on theory but light on actual evidence.

The rest is just repetitive noise, and then he starts talking about retreat because there is a dearth of scientists here. He can’t make a single positive argument for his goofy beliefs, and his entire visit was simply an exercise in evasion.

Unimpressed. Bored. That’s why I didn’t bother to engage with yet another asinine fool stopping by — he had nothing to discuss, and he knew that if he brought up any actual arguments for a young earth or creation by divine poofery, he’d have his head handed to him.

Yay! We have a major eruption of kookery from medic0506!

I’m willing to be proven wrong on this, but I don’t believe that starlight is something that actually physically travels to earth, in order for us to see it. I think that light is emitted from an energy source, and if the amount of energy released as light is enough, the object will be bright enough for our eyes to see it from earth. I don’t buy when someone argues that starlight has been traveling for billions of years to get here. Feel free to prove me wrong by proving the current understanding of light travel, but no one else so far has been able to address this without just throwing more theoretical BS at it.

So light doesn’t actually travel at some limited speed, but if it’s really, really bright, it is instantly transported to our eyes. All that empirical evidence, all those measurements of the speed of light…that’s all just theoretical BS. Why should we throw out all of physics? Because a creationist thinks brightness can substitute for velocity.