Review: Debate on the teaching of intelligent design

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It’s been a while since I’ve talked about religion, and the issue which refuses to go away, no matter how much of a smack down it receives, is intelligent design (ID).

For those of you not familiar with ID, it was invented in the 90’s to replace creationism. You know – god did it. This was done to try to sneak it into classrooms in the US, which had banned the teaching of creationism. So a new version was born which masqueraded as science, and there are periodic outbreaks – a bit like head-lice really.

ID gave proponents the ability to say, well, here’s another theory, which should be taught alongside evolution in science classes, since evolution is ‘just a theory’, to quote their own words. Indeed, they had success with the ploy, until the now famous Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial.

In this landmark case, parents in the Dover school district took the district board to the federal court over their decision to enforce the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes. The prosecution argued that ID was just creationism re-heated, while the defence wheeled out a barrage of ‘experts’ to testify to the scientific basis of ID. I’ll let you read about the details in the link above, but be sure to read the judgement. It is widely considered one of the most elegant and yet forceful judgements ever made in any area of science, accurately and concisely capturing and presenting the key issues. There is also a re-enactment/dramatisation which is worth watching here – but beware, if you’re anything like me, you’ll end up yelling at the TV during the procession of liars wheeled out by the defence. I say ‘liars’ because the ID movement was caught out lying. While steadfastly claiming that ID was different to creationism, the prosecution turned up an early draft of the ID text book called ‘Of Pandas and People’, which had the word ‘creationism’ at every spot in which the final draft had ‘intelligent design’. Oops.

The crux of ID’s claim to legitimacy is the principle of irreducible complexity (IC). Despite the fancy terminology, this is nothing more than the old, old, old argument proffered by believers that there must be a creator – otherwise it would be like finding a fully functioning watch in the forest. It wouldn’t just grow somehow, but would have to be made by someone. They’ve refined this little pearl of wisdom, and now apply it to all sorts of biological features, including the cute bacterial flagellum, which I won’t go into here, but is an interesting thing. This video has a nice description of it. It’s basically a molecular motor, which ID proponents argue couldn’t have evolved, because none of the individual components have a function outside of the flagellum – i.e. it is irreducibly complex.

This was comprehensively shown to be false at the trial, as were all of their other examples. It’s fair to say that the prosecution was exceptionally well organised, and presented the strongest possible case.

None-the-less, ID survives to continue to provide good fodder for exercises in clear thinking.

All of the above is an introduction to this video, posted by PZ Myers on his blog, in which he debates an ID proponent (Jerry Bergman) about whether ID should be taught in schools.

What’s really interesting about this, is that Bergman is clearly not up to it. For most of the time he just talks nonsense – it’s kind of embarrassing for the guy, but there’s no substance to what he’s saying at all. And this leaves PZ with precious little to argue against. Here’s a short review of how it pans out. Otherwise, watch the video for an interesting exercise in ‘spot the logical fallacy’.

The Debate

Bergman opens with a long waffle about his credentials and upbringing, and the number of people who share his views. He also claims to have come to his faith via science, and annoyingly goes on about how much he reads (yes, but do you understand it?). Interestingly, he later goes on the contradict his own argument by saying the science and faith are two different things. He then follows up by probably the lamest description of IC you will come across, claiming that even a carbon atom is irreducibly complex, and that therefore everything made of carbon atoms is IC. So, by his logic, the whole universe is IC. Err, this is not how the rest of the ID fraternity define IC.

Myers opening (and whole argument) is very simple – we can’t teach ID in the classroom, because there is nothing to teach. What is the theory of the mechanism? And where is the supporting evidence for the theory? We don’t have either. This is something that even ID proponents agree on, so what do you do research on? Rather, he points out, the teaching of ID focuses on simply tearing down evolution – that is not science, unless you’re really pointing out problems and identifying improvements. He further adds, that teaching of science is a social responsibility, and that people who are taught ID will be poorly prepared in later studies.

Bergman’s rebuttal is under-graduate at best. He states that there are thousands of papers on ID, and predictably resorts to the claim that more people would publish data on ID but are persecuted so they stay in the closet. He trots out one anecdote after another. Again he goes on with IC, and makes even more of a meal of it. He says ‘you can’t get a radio from a quark’, and ‘show me a young lady that exists on the basis of a single quark’. I kid you not. To top off this section, he tries to equate ‘god did it’, to ‘natural selection did it’, ignoring the fact that you can observe and test one, but not the other.

PZ Myers tackles the ‘thousands of papers’ statement, claiming that they are misleading – they simply restate beliefs, rather than tackling actual biological problems, and demonstrating how they are solved by ID. He also tackles Bergman on his bizarre version of IC, revealing that we do know how carbon atoms are made – they are being made in nuclear processes in the sun as we speak, and not ‘by angels’.

In a particularly humourous moment, Bergman asks Myers, if he knows of any ID supporter who every got tenure (at university). Myers responds, no, but what’s the problem?, and goes on to explain that to get tenure, you should have a basic competence in your discipline, and a publication record. If you reject the basic principles of biology, why expect to get tenure teaching it? Bazinga, as Sheldon would say.

The Q&A session which followed had some amusing moments too: there was the guy who raised with Bergman the issue of whether a car is irreducibly complex. Bergman thinks it is, and the questioner points out that if you remove everything but the engine and alternator, you still have a perfectly good petrol-powered batter charger. Hence, it is clearly not irreducibly complex.

The closings were also interesting. While Bergman bleated a bit more about academic freedom to challenge Darwinism, Myers pointedly asked ‘isn’t this debate about teaching ID in the classroom?”, and closed with the observation the “ID was invented in 1992, and we’re still waiting for evidence”.

Worth a look if you’ve got a couple of hours to kill.


5 thoughts on “Review: Debate on the teaching of intelligent design

    Blamer .. said:
    July 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    2011 Pew Foundation Survey of Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization:

    Which statement comes closest to your own views?

    1. Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes such as natural selection.
    2. A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.
    3. Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

    Hint: 3%, 41%, 47%

      mike said:
      August 3, 2011 at 2:45 am

      Yes, it’s all very frightening. But I note the source of the survey, which leads me to question the type of survey, was it self selecting? Given at church, or did it use random chance over a very wide geographical area and over a wide period of time, so that the majority of respondents come from “the bible belt” or all answer their home phone during the middle of a Wednesday, leading to a larger sample of unemployed, who are statistically more likely to be not high school graduates.

      So many different possible possibilities of the survey going wrong, or being designed by choice or accident to get a biased result.

      But still, there are a lot of people who believe and continue to believe in the strangest things. I’m concerned for the future of mankind, especially since I saw a video of Neil Degrasse Tyson talk about how Islam was once the center of learning, until an Imam linked mathematics with the devil in the 1100’s, and in Tyson’s words “Islam never recovered”.

      It seems to be occurring again in the US. It would be sad to have to count on China to get us out into space and otherwise further the next leap in the sciences. But from the look of things in the US today, it appears that a small radical group in the US is going to hold the rest the US hostage.

      Plus some fools are recommending the cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope, after 80% of the costs are already spent. As “punishment”. Talk about short sighted and lack of reasoning skills. Who is really going to be punished? The US, European, and to a (very) lesser extent Canadian taxpayers, and all the people of the world who rely on quality science, wonder and curiosity to get them through the day.

      It almost makes a full grown man want to cry.

        rationalbrain said:
        August 3, 2011 at 8:10 am

        Given that this survey was part of his ‘research’, and is unreferenced, I wouldn’t give it any credence. I wouldn’t be surprised if the survey didn’t even exist, given the other porkys to which he and his ilk are prone. His whole routine is about obfuscation – hiding behind all the people he knows who believe X, and all the research he’s done and the books he’s read. In the end, all the really matters is that there is no evidence for creation by a god, which leaves them nothing to teach. All it leaves is whiny sooks complaining about how evolution can’t possible be true because of X, Y, and Z.
        He resorts to the tired old ploy of ‘everyone believes in a creator’, which is just crap, trying to accommodate both sides, as if they are on an equal footing.
        As for the US situation, I don’t think space science will suffer much from the tea party/right wing hijnks at the moment – there’s too many votes in the southern states which employ so many in that industry. What will suffer is health care and education and anything related to helping those in need. More evidence of christians at work.

    […] I know this article is parody, but it could well have come straight out of the mouths of those who brought you that other pathetic piece of bullshit,  Intelligent Design. […]

    […] there are the complete mismatches – revisit the Dawkins vs Pell fiasco for a bit of fun, and this great effort by PZ […]

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