That Bergman-Myers debate


It was a strange event. Kittywhumpus and Greg Laden have good detailed breakdowns of the debate, so you can always read those for the audience perspective. As for me, I’ve learned that you can never prepare for a debate.

I tried. I had a focus — the topic, chosen by Bergman, was “Should Intelligent Design be taught in the schools” — and what I prepared for my side was a set of arguments on that point. I used my own experience teaching biology to lay down a few principles: to teach a subject as science, you need an explanatory mechanism or theory that provides a conceptual framework for understanding the data, and you need a body of evidence, real-world observations, measurements, and experiments that you incorporate as well as you can into the theory. I explained that Intelligent Design, in the estimation of scientists and by its proponents own admission, lacked both. Therefore, it didn’t belong in the science classroom. It is not enough for a science teacher to simply declare that “some people think an intelligent agent intervened at some point in the history of some species”, she needs specifics. She needs to be able to answer questions about how and when this intervention occurred, and how we know it. I explained that whenever IDists try to concretely define what they would teach in the classroom, it’s never about their theory or their evidence, because they have none, but that it’s always reduced to a laundry list of gripes about evolution…and I predicted that that’s all we’d hear from Bergman.

I thought it was a good argument, anyway. Too bad the other guy never addressed it.

Also, I read Bergman’s dreadful long book, Slaughter of the Dissidents. It’s entirely about how cruelly Intelligent Design creationists’ careers were cut short by a reactionary establishment that unfairly silences new ideas. It’s complete BS, but I prepared brief rebuttals of some of the major instances he wrote about, like the cases of Rodney LeVake and Carolyn Crocker and Guillermo Gonzalez and a few others, just in case. There was no just in case needed.

Fortunately, I’ve come off a couple of big science meetings, so I had at the tip of my brain several pro-science case studies, good examples of theory guiding science to produce productive information. This, also, was not needed.

There was a point in the debate where I did just throw a stack of my notes over my shoulder. They were pointless.

Bergman’s argument was bizarre and irrational. We got a long biographical introduction in which he described bouncing about from atheism to faith to a different faith, and how nobody liked him because he was an ideological pariah (I felt like mentioning that there might be other, more personal reasons people avoid the crazy person, but that would have been cruel). He made concessions and seemed to think I was right that ID lacks a strong theory, but that that wasn’t important — you don’t need theory. He teaches medical school, and he just teaches the facts.

There were two linchpins to his argument, neither of which addressed the topic at hand.

One is that he had scientifically proven that there were no such thing as vestigial organs, therefore evolution is false. How did he do this? By redefining “vestigial” to mean “having no function at all”, so all he had to do was demonstrate that it did or potentially did anything to make his case. One problem: that’s not the definition. Vestigial organs are those that are greatly reduced in one species relative to a homologous organ in another species. He kept returning to the appendix, like a dog to its vomit, all night long.

He did a lot of quirky redefinitions throughout the evening. Apparently, everything is religion, and he seemed to be on the verge of claiming that teaching science in the science classroom was a violation of the separation of church and state. He had this bizarre case of a teacher somewhere who was fired for posting the periodic table in his classroom. The periodic table was his religion, you see. I could not make sense of what he was saying, or understand how it related to the topic of the debate, and I asked for confirmable details and mentioned that I’d read his book, but didn’t remember that story anywhere in it…to which he replied that it was in volume II, and that the book was just the first in a 5-volume series. My brain briefly whited out at that revelation, and there was a moment or two in which, if I’d said anything, it would have been a chain of profanities. I kept my cool, never fear.

Oh, by the way, the periodic table is irreducibly complex. That’s also why the administration hated it.

That was his second key point: everything is irreducibly complex. He has this radical, dare I say insane, version of irreducible complexity in his head in which everything except sub-atomic particles are irreducibly complex. A carbon atom, for instance, has a specific number of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and if you change those, it is no longer a carbon atom, and therefore it fits Michael Behe’s definition of IC perfectly. Here’s Behe’s definition, if you need reminding.

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional. An irreducibly complex biological system, if there is such a thing, would be a powerful challenge to Darwinian evolution.

Bergman claims that everything is IC. Which I suppose one could support with an exceptionally naive reading of the definition, in which case Behe’s argument that you need intelligent agents to create irreducibly complex systems is effectively refuted, since natural processes going on in the sun are producing irreducibly complex carbon right now. I expressed some incredulity at Bergman’s use of the term, and actually, horrendously, guiltily spent a moment defending Behe’s definition, which made me feel so dirty inside. I need a high colonic right now.

And that was it. That was his side of the debate. The only surprise left at the end was that yes, of course, Bergman puked out the “evolution leads to Hitler” argument, well past the time at which I could rip into that ugly lie. Talking to people afterwards, that seems to have been one of the most memorable moments, when Bergman briefly took off his cheerful loony yokel mask and revealed the ugly hater beneath.

Then we got a long parade of questions from both sides of the aisle (did I mention the joint was packed? It was one of the larger crowds I’ve had). Mark Borrello was a fabulous moderator — we didn’t work him too hard during the debate itself, since we both managed to hew fairly close to our allotted time slots, but he was an excellent enforcer in the Q&A, cutting short those long pronouncements we often get in these kinds of events. I did notice that he was practically choking himself after the Hitler bomb was dropped — as a historian of science himself, he would have been the perfect fellow to dismantle that nonsense, but then of course his neutrality as moderator would have been blown.

Afterwards, I joined a group from CASH and Minnesota Atheists to, I guess, celebrate. It was a total rout, I’m afraid. I have no idea what the creationists did.

And finally, we left the Twin Cities after midnight for the long drive home. I can tell I’m not going to be good for much of anything today.

(Oh, the inevitable question: yes, it was videotaped by the creationists. They said a DVD will be available. I don’t know when; somehow, I don’t think they’ll be in an enthusiastic rush to get this one out.)


  1. Nathan says

    Wow, you guys do not disappoint. Thanks for the many comments. Will read and digest again, and try to post again within a week (I’m sorry if you came back here today hoping I’d have read everything and try to substantially respond) if I can.

    Also, thanks to P.Z. for making it possible to continue posting here…


  2. Owlmirror says

    Also, thanks to P.Z. for making it possible to continue posting here…

    Note that by the time you come back, registration may be turned back on. There’s just too much spam that builds up.

  3. Kel, OM says

    In short, scientists should be more humble about sciences quest for truth

    You said that while arguing they need philosophy? lol, thou cracketh me up.

    Science follows the data wherever it leads, because if one scientists starts going against the data you can be damn sure that there will be many others willing to pounce on such anti-scientific practice.

    Sure there are arrogant scientists around, but look at how the scientific knowledge in the last few hundred years has radically changed. If seems if science itself was so arrogant that it should stay static, yet the scientific endeavour now paints a radically different picture to what was held only a few hundred years ago.

    If you get a chance, get on Youtube and search for Knowledge or Certainty? Watch the full thing, and maybe then you might get an appreciation for how humble science is in the face of truth.

    By the way, have you considered the possibility that the reason that scientists don’t bother with a designer is that they have no evidence supporting a designer?