Editor’s note: I am very busy and/or have major writer’s block. I am thus recycling my greater hits. Here we see a review of a review (a metareview if you will) of Ben Stein’s dawkumentary “Expelled”. The original review appeared in the Carolina Review. For those unfamiliar with CR (you blessed souls!), it is UNC-CH’s ” journal of conservative thought and opinion”. It is a perennial lulz-bucket, attributing climate change to solar forcings and/or Milankovich cycles, mangling ocean acidification, and wondering out loud, in public, why a 2008 paper was not included in the IPCC AR4 (published in 2007). They consider community reclamation of a long-standing eyesore to be a ‘hostile act‘ worthy of paramilitary response, citing the presence of ‘posters’. Here’s my response to one of their more abysmal publications. The article it responds to can be found here; my critique originally ran in CackalakConspiracy, back in a time when I still cared about typos.

Walker’s review, like Stein’s movie, is full of florid talk about “freedom”: freedom of speech, religion, science (the last ironic, for the creationist/intelligent design movement has done everything it can to prevent science from being taught in public schools). America has “an amazing record for upholding freedoms.” Stein rolls footage of Soviets and Nazis; Walker calls the dismantling of science and science education “a struggle against a great tyranny.”

But this talk of freedom is merely an emotional appeal. The speech of creationist “scientists” and ID advocates is not being squelched; it is just not taken seriously. For whatever successes creationism may have in philosophy or religion, it has failed as a science. This is why the mainstream rejects creationism for funding, publishing and inclusion in school curricula, not because of atheistic preconceptions. Film critic Roger Ebert drew this analogy: The final question on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” asks you for a scientific explanation for the patterning of life on Earth. You phone not just a friend, but the scientists of the world, who overwhelmingly advise you to choose (A) evolutionary biology. Yet you choose (B), intelligent design, and claim censorship upon being denied your millions. This is not an expulsion; it is a flunking.

Walker characterizes evolution and ID as rival “theories” in the “scientific community”. However, in science the word ‘theory’ does not mean a guess or an opinion the way it does in popular speech; it refers to an explanatory construct which is used to interpret data and to make predictions. By this standard, evolution wins hands down and ID falls flat on its face. Because any piece of data can be interpreted as evidence for a Designer (for example, by sufficiently muddying the proposed design goals), ID makes no predictions and no explanations (a “theory” that accommodates anything explains nothing). On the other hand, evolution makes several strong predictions about the world (the existence of a nested hierarchy of physical traits, for example.) ID is not a rival scientific theory; it is an attempt to inject religious propaganda into public education.

We don’t accept non-explanations elsewhere in science. Why should the origins and evolution of life on earth be different? Image from the internets….

Nor is evolution “all a question of faith,” a rival religion. It is purely descriptive, not perscriptive. It has no infalliable holy text; it has no ritual structure; it has no ineffable mystery. Though some may use it to bolster their religious beliefs like “renowned evolutionary biology [sic] and atheist Richard Dawkins,” the theory of evolution is no more a religion than the theory of gravity or relativity. Walker claims that “by definition and practice creationists and ID scientists are quite different”. This is incorrect, both because ID is not science and because it is accurately classified as a subset of creationism. Classical creationism and ID are both are antiscientific programs with thinly veiled religious agendas. They both negate accepted evolutionary biology, often along with other aspects of mainstream science such as molecular biology, genetics, and paleontology. Both reject “naturalism” in the scientific study of life, as though science was not based upon methodological naturalism to begin with. Both tend to blame various social ills on the theory of evolution, and erroneously infer from this that it is incorrect. Perhaps most tellingly, Expelled’s own publicity team advertised the movie as “Evolution vs creationism”. 

As a political movement, ID is a refinement of creationism’s public appearance. Non-ID creationism has been largely rejected by the public as science and laughed out of the courtrooms time and time again; ID appeared as a more moderate-sounding movement with a program well within the variation of other forms of creationism. The budding of ID from creationism is not hard to trace. For example, as revealed by the National Center for Science Education during the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial, the proposed ID textbook “Of Pandas and People” began life as a creationist text, with the word “creationist” replaced by “design proponent”. In one instance, the rewriting was sloppy, leading to the infamous “cdesign proponentsists” incident. The rewording appeared after a 1987 court decision recognized creationism as religious propaganda and banned it from public science classes; ID is merely a rebranding of discredited antiscience. It is thus not “science” that “is being repressed” in the opposition of ID, but religious psuedoscience.

For all the talk of “war” between mainstream science and freedom-loving iconoclasts, you’d think that Stein could have found some “casualties” who had been “expelled.” The usual laundry list comes out, but like so much else in ID, it crumbles upon closer inspection. To deal briefly with some:

  • Sternberg, “prominent evolutionary biologists [sic],” was not “fired as editor” of the PBSW for authorizing a pro-ID article; Meyer’s infamous paper was published a full six months after Sternberg’s resignation for his unpaid editorship was in. Meyer’s paper, which dealt with the Cambrian explosion, was of shoddy quality and long rebutted, and was later recanted by the PBSW. it appears that Sternberg circumvented the PBSW’s peer review standards to get it published- grounds enough had he been dismissed. (here, here, here, and here)
  • Crocker was not fired; her contract was not renewed, common for untenured professors in an industrialized academic environment with more candidates than positions. However, she was not simply “questioning Darwininsm,” or “mention[ing]” ID (as has been claimed elsewhere) but recycling creationist falsehoods about evolutionary science, such as accusing the famous peppered moth studies of being fraudulent. She has elsewhere made other extreme claims, for example that only one Archaeopteryx fossil exists and that it is thought to be a fake.
  • Gonzalez’s publication rate plummeted after he arrived at Iowa state. Universities want tenured professors who will publish new research and collaborate with their colleagues, and after Gonzalez became involved in ID, he stopped doing either. (ID had the same effect on Michael Behe.) Gonzalez simply didn’t meet the qualifications for tenure, and if he hadn’t wanted his thoughts on ID to be considered in his tenure review, he shouldn’t have included his shoddily argued ID book, “Privileged Planet,” as part of his tenure application. Nonetheless, ISU president Gregory Geoffroy, responsible for rejecting Gonzalez’s tenure appeal, stated: “I did not consider any of the issues that have been circulating around about intelligent design.” Again with the industrialized education system, Gonzalez’s inability to raise grant money was cited. (More)

Walker’s claim that people who stand up for evolution in research and teaching don’t suffer “real losses” is also false: Chris Comer, for example, was recently dismissed from her position as Texas Education Agency Director of Science for merely forwarding an email to an online community regarding a talk critical of creationism.

Photo by Mark C – Sauce linked.

Walker makes several insightful remarks, but manages to completely miss their implications in her review. It’s not until halfway through the article that we get to the crux of the matter, expressed succinctly and unironically by Bruce Chapman:

“Put the science and evidence on the table and see who wins.”

Unfortunately for Chapman, evolution won a century ago; it has all available science and all available evidence. It does not matter how many biochemical systems Michael Behe proclaims are irreducibly complex, how much psuedomath William Dembski spews, or how much Stephen Meyer distorts the Cambrian explosion, ID has no scientific leg to stand on.

Walker also manages to separate the questions of abiogenesis (how life began) and evolution (how life has changed over time). In spite of making this distinction, she seems to imply that “unanswered question[s]” about abiogenesis reflect badly on evolution, or are somehow evidence for intelligent design. There are many problems with this. First, because abiogenesis and evolution are distinct (albeit related) fields, “uncertaint[ies]” for one are not problems for the other. Claiming otherwise is equivalent to saying that uncertainties about the development of an organism as an embryo reflect poorly on our knowledge of said organism’s postpartum development and  anatomy. It is also worth noting that, although abiogenesis is perhaps not as well understood as evolution is, it’s not entirely a mystery: there is a fair amount that is known about early biochemistry, and more is being discovered all the time. No amount of sneering the word “crystals” on Stein’s part will change that. Finally, and in a way most importantly, “unanswered question[s]” in biology are not something for “evolutionist [sic]” to “fear.” There are several reasons for this:

  1. Unanswered questions exist in every field of science. That physicists do not have a good way to unify quantum mechanics with relativity does not reflect badly on physics, and it certainly does not mean that “Intelligent Falling” should be offered as an alternative explanation of gravity.
  2. While biology may not have solid answers to detailed questions like “What is the relative importance of natural selection and neutral drift in evolution?” (questions that can be and are debated in appropriate contexts), it is extremely good at answering broad, big-picture questions like “Is all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor?” (Yes.) There is no scientific debate about these answers, just as there is no scientific debate about the broad, big-picture questions about gravity. (“Does its force drop off with the square of its distance?“)
  3. Unanswered questions are not at all undesirable. Science is not just a static collection of information and ideas, but a dynamic process used to answer questions that we have about the world. A field that answers all its questions, as Thomas Kuhn has pointed out, is a dead science.
  4. The sheer hypocrisy of ID advocates criticizing biology for having unanswered questions is hard to overstate. The critical questions that ID has been unable and apparently unwilling to address include but are not limited to: What is the Designer like? Is it a deity, as religious fundamentalists believe? A race of aliens, as in the Lovecraft mythos? Where is this Designer? Is it even still alive? How did it do its designing? What are its design objectives? What are its design constraints? What, for that matter, is a reliable and objective method of detecting design? Did the Designer simply specify basic properties of the universe, as some cosmological fine-tuning proponents argue? Or did it also design the solar system, the planet, the biosphere? Did it start up the first life forms and let evolution do the rest? Or did it stand with its hands in the evolutionary process? If the latter, are human beings its final goal, or an intermediate? Is the existence of athlete’s foot, hemmhoragic fever, and Glenn Beck evidence that the Designer is a sociopath? Or just that it has a sick sense of humor? Who designed the Designer?

Hopefully now it should be clear why it matters if a “‘lesser’ [non]theory” forces itself into the scientific community: it squanders resources and funding that could otherwise be used for, say, medical research. It blurs the line between science and psuedoscience in education. And most globally, it diminishes science’s ability to meaningfully ask questions about the world around us. Walker asks,

“If ID truly has no stable foundation, then why does the Darwin supporting community work so hard to ensure that no one speaks of it? If it will fall naturally- because it has no ‘stable foundation’- why keep hitting it with a hammer?”

The problem is that creationism, though a failed science, is successful political movement, with well-funded organizations such as the Discovery Institute, and adherents in state and national offices in the United States. Mixing politics and bad science is historically dangerous. Stein blames the reign of Stalin on evolutionary biology (as though state tyranny was born on 24 November 1859), but doesn’t mention Stalin’s prize agronomist, Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was anti-Darwinian, adhering to the discredited Lamarckian notion of acquired traits. He rejected natural selection, Mendelian genetics, and in a step beyond even most creationists, the existence of DNA. But he rose in the government, eventually controlling Soviet agriculture. The result was disastrous: crops grown in unfavorable conditions, expected to adapt, failed, and food shortages worsened. Critical scientists were arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death; Vavilov, previously a world-renowned Soviet biologist, died in jail while awaiting execution. By Stein’s account, Michael Egnor’s ‘expulsion’ consisted of people saying mean things about him on the internet.

Antievolutionists have not been as successful in the United States as they were in the Soviet Union, but their attempts to dismantle science and science education are nonetheless dangerous. They weaken popular scientific literacy, leaving behind a consent factory for other antiscientific policies. In the hands of governments and industries, this can be as problematic as any consent factory; a similarly structured system is behind the denial and trivialization of climate change, with potential for very real, very serious repercussions.

Further Reading

The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution. By Sean Carrol. For a terrifying account of Lysenkoism.

Evolution vs. Creationism. By Eugenie Scott. im still reading it >.>

Intelligent design and academic freedom” at RationalWiki