Michael Behe and the Centre for Intelligent Design

November 29, 2010

Last week, some of the student humanists and the skeptics went to Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe, the Intelligent Design proponent from the Discovery Institute, who was speaking fot the Centre for Intelligent Design.

It was the same old crap.

That could be the totality of this review, but there are a couple of issues that come out of the talk which I’ll discuss here. He went through the usual stuff about how we recognise things as designed, using the difference between a mountain and Mount Rushmore as an example. I didn’t have much of a problem with this section because he continually referred to ‘the appearance of design’ rather than the fact that something is designed.

Then he went onto the mousetrap claptrap and his baby, Irreducible Complexity in the bacterial flagellum. It’s complete rubbish and purely by coincidence, QualiaSoup has just released an excellent video which includes a section on that very topic, starting at 4.20:

So as you can see, systems can evolve even if they seem irreducibly complex because parts of the system can have different functions, parts that were previously necessary can be lost, and parts themselves can be changed.

It was mentioned in the (very short) question section that parts of a system can have different functions, and Behe’s reply was basically “yes, but look at the definition of Irreducible Complexity that I gave at the start, it says objects are Irreducibly Complex if removal of one part means it cannot carry out that specific function.” That’s fine if he wants to define it that way, but he can’t simultaneously define it that way and claim that Irreducibly Complex systems are a significant obstacle to the evolution of those systems. In order to claim that, he must come up with a system which is truly Irreducibly Complex, in the sense that it couldn’t have evolved through the gradual addition, removal and change of parts and functions. If he has any examples of that, he hasn’t been showing them.

After he’d explained a feature of organisms which he considered a blow to evolution, he then went back to the fact that organisms appear designed. He then said that concluding they are designed is an inductive argument, and then looked up a dictionary definition of inductive reasoning which said that’s the kind of reasoning used in science, and concluded that therefore Intelligent Design is a scientific hypothesis. If I’d had time for a question I would have asked whether he could see the leap in logic he’s using here. Let’s take a look at it again.

Inductive reasoning is used in science.
Concluding things are designed from their appearance is an example of inductive reasoning.
Therefore that conclusion is scientific.

Using the same logic, I could make the argument that:

Bands played at Woodstock.
U2 is a band.
Therefore U2 played at Woodstock.

I would have pointed out that although inductive reasoning is used in science, there are other things that make a hypothesis scientific, just as there are other things that define bands that played at Woodstock. So for example, how would Behe use the Intelligent Design hypothesis to make specific predictions? What evidence should people look for if they want to disprove his hypothesis? I suspect he wouldn’t have had an answer.

The last part of the talk was phenomenally ignorant. He just boldly asserted that his findings are consistent with findings in other fields such as the fine-tuning of the universe.

There is also an issue with universities hosting speakers such as Michael Behe. Yes, there is a free speech argument to be made, but free speech does not imply that you must give a platform to anyone who wants to speak. You’re free to say what you like but that doesn’t mean I can’t kick you out if you come and say it in my living room. You could say that having both Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionary scientists speak is a form of balance, but the difference is that evolutionary science has gone through peer review and is established, and then it is put into books and taught at universities. Behe and his colleagues can’t get through the peer review process, so they try to bypass it by going straight to writing books and getting talks at universities. I think it’s pretty clear that hosting these kinds of speakers at prestigious locations such as universities gives an air of credibility to a movement that doesn’t deserve it.

Back to the ECG… again!

October 15, 2008

So last night kick-started another series of lectures from the Edinburgh Creation Group, hosted at the Greyfriars and Buccleugh Free Church. Take note that I’ve added their blog to my blogroll on the right of your screen. I only discovered it yesterday but it’s good to have a written explanation of a theory. I’ve often said that text such as on websites and forums is a much better medium through which to hold a debate than in person, so maybe it’ll be a catalyst for further blog posts in the future.

Anyway last night’s presentation was entitled “Chosen Planet: Earth’s Uniqueness for Life” by Dr George Marshall. In many ways it was quite similar to another talk last year but it didn’t go anywhere near as far as that one did. Several things were covered that I wasn’t aware of. For example, I knew that the moon caused the tide but I thought it was just the gravitational pull of the moon which pulled the water towards it, causing deeper water. Apparently there is also a high tide on the opposite side of the earth too! The point was that if the moon was closer it would cause catastrophic floods which would hinder the development of life on earth. Any further away, and the oceans wouldn’t be churned up enough to allow nutrients to come to the surface and feed the algae which are so fundamental to the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But ours is juuust right, so that’s ok (you’ll notice this becomes something of a theme).

Next up is the Earth’s orbit. If it were smaller, we’d be too hot, bigger and we’d be too cold. If our orbit were more elliptical the temperature would be too temperamental, and if other planets had elliptical orbits it would pull ours out of orbit creating the same problem. A bigger orbit would also result in a greater level of vulnerability from comets and asteroids. But ours is just right.

Many stars, including red dwarves, give out massive solar flares which would also make the climate too temperamental to support life. But ours is just right. Our solar system’s location in the galaxy is also idea to support life.

So, as the more astute among you may have noticed, this is no coincidence. We shouldn’t be surprised that, as living beings, we live on a planet that is suitable of supporting life. I was about to point out that the way the world is is exactly as we should expect it if it happened naturally, when someone on the front row came out with “What exactly is your point?” What followed was a very heated discussion whereby the question-asker didn’t at all make himself clear, really annoyed Dr Marshall (who didn’t understand the point he was making at all), and abiogenesis was brought up which has absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand (oh, I should mention that halfway through the presentation it emerged that Dr Marshall is a biologist, not an astronomer), and the discussion went nowhere. I kind of brought it back up again in a more polite and clear way, and got the answer we were looking for. Dr Marshall wasn’t arguing that all these parameters amount to such a coincidence that God must have done it, it’s just that you have to step back and say “wow”. He still referred to it as a coincidence though, so I don’t think he grasped the idea that it’s not a coincidence at all.

Anyway, I think this shows the importance of at least appearing to be tolerant of people’s ideas. You don’t get anywhere by shouting and screaming, you just kind of come across as a bit childish. We were both on the same page, he just went about it a different way which I think was detrimental to the discussion.

In short, I’d heard all the arguments before and more along the same vein (which if people would like to bring up here I’m happy to discuss – last time Dr Ross’ 101 quantities was mentioned), so it was nothing new, although some things were mentioned that I hadn’t been aware of. It was also claimed that it takes faith to believe in a multiverse or an oscillating universe just as it does to believe in God. I have my own opinion on that and if anyone wants to discuss it further, drop me a comment here.

Evolution vs Intelligent Design

September 5, 2008

Last night I attended a talk at the Edinburgh Zoo given by Stuart Ritchie, President of the Humanist Society at the University of Edinburgh, as part of the Darwin 200 celebrations. Stuart is a good friend of mine and I looked forward to the talk a lot, as I know he’s very enthusiastic on the subject of creationism.

Basically he outlined the difference between Creationism and Intelligent Design (ie. not much, according to the Wedge Document), then outlined the theory put forward by evolutionists. He then took arguments used by Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents in turn and demolished them as he knows how to do so well, incorporating the circular logic of the Bible, information theory, the bacterial flagellum, the Climbing Mount Improbable analogy, the scrabble analogy, and pretty much everything important that needed to be included, although I’m sure he could have continued for much longer afterwards if he’d had the time. He placed evolution side-by-side with both creationism and Intelligent Design to see which one stood up to scrutiny, and lo and behold evolution came out on top.

What interested me was the Q&A section towards the end. Several people who appeared to be from a religious background said that Stuart was simply bashing religion and its theories in the same way as ID proponents bash evolution. This is completely untrue! If ID theorists stood their own theories up to half as much scrutiny as Stuart did to evolution, I would be a happy man. In reality it is a blinkered, religiously motivated view which holds them back from seeing the truth and leads them to take others into their false beliefs. And if nothing is done, they will still be doing it when we’re celebrating Darwin 300.

Another man who confessed to being a Christian and a former RE teacher said to me afterwards that really both his position and that of Stuart were against fundamentalism. Whilst Stuart repeatedly said he had no qualm with religious people who kept their beliefs out of science (I happen to know otherwise 😛 ), my major problem with the so-called “religious moderates” is that they rarely, if ever, speak out against fundamentalists within their ranks. How often do we see the British Muslim Council speak out against lies told in the name of Islam? How often do Christians turn on creationists and say “hold on a sec, you’re talking rubbish, I’m not letting you represent me”? We only ever see religious people speaking out against fundamentalism after a serious terrorist attack, when they’re effecively forced to. Instead the debate is between different faiths, or between faith and science, and too seldom do religious people scrutinize themselves. I suspect there’s a reason for that; if they did, there wouldn’t be too many religious people left.

In any case, I fully support the Darwin 200 events, and urge anyone who’s remotely interested to get along to one of the many events happening nationwide. You won’t regret it. I think we’ll be getting Stuart to do the same talk again in the Humanist Society’s first semester programme, too.