November 2011

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Via NCSE Evolution: Education and Outreach for free | NCSE) and Panda’s Thumb (Evolution: Education and Outreach free in December), I see that the Springer journal Evolution: Education and Outreach is offering open access until the end of the year.

The Christians in Science website (which I’ve hitherto not visited) has a brief report on Stephen Meyer’s C4ID sponsored lecture (Stephen Meyer – 17th Nov).  This is the lecture that I didn’t attend last week (An evening with the Centre for Intelligent Design: why I didn’t attend).  Sounds like I didn’t miss much!  The writer begins by saying that pretty much everyone he know sin the Science Faith community was invited to the lecture.  He goes on to review the contents and the (anonymous) reaction of at least one senior attendee, before concluding:

I was hoping for a much better talk from so well known a speaker, but basically it boiled down to the incredulity argument coupled with a God of the gaps conclusion. The event reminded me of why I no longer bother to read any of the ID literature, and generally consider anyone who takes ID seriously as either being naive about science or alternatively a bit stupid.

Pretty much par for the course for the strategy of ID creationists, I’d say.

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Back in September, I received a plain envelope at my work address.  In it was an invitation to attend an event in Whitehall, London.  This invitation from Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was for an’”Evening lecture and supper with Dr Stephen Meyer”, which would feature a “careful presentation of the ‘fiendishly difficult’ problem of the origin of life and the evidence for intelligent design”, and was held on 17th November.  I’ve obscured my name from the image below (click the image for a larger version).

Interestingly, the front of the invitation was a little coy about the organisers.  It did surprise me that Lord Mackay, one of the more outstanding lawyers of the 20th Century (according to Wikipedia) would take an interest in intelligent design creationism.  But Lord Mackay was a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland until a rumpus developed following his attendance at a Roman Catholic colleague’s funeral.  From Wikipedia:

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is also remembered for an incident when he, an elder of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, attended the funeral Masses of two close Roman Catholic friends. On one of these occasions, Lord Mackay attended in his role as Lord Advocate as the deceased was a member of the judiciary. This was considered a grave offence by the Free Presbyterian Church authorities and he was suspended from church office, bringing about a split and the formation of Associated Presbyterian Church in 1989, which supported greater “liberty of conscience”.

Notably, the triumvirate  behind C4ID hold strongly religious views, and at least one is a lay preacher.

All is made clear on the reverse of the invitation, where the Centre for Intelligent Design logo is prominently displayed.  And indeed the accompanying letter is headed with the C4ID logo.  All attendees are to be blessed with a copy of Meyer’s book ‘Signature in the Cell’.

Bizarrely (as you can see), the reverse of the invitation uses a piece of puffery from  Thomas Nagel, Professor of Law and Professor of Philosophy at New York University.  This, rather than being derived from an actual review of the book (which, it might be suggested, a Professor of Law and of Philosophy might not be best equipped to deliver) was actually Nagel’s submission to the Times Literary Supplement 2009 Books of the Year.

I haven’t read Meyer’s book, so receiving a copy would have been interesting.  I have, however, read a number of articles about the book, both supportive and dismissive (particularly those who take issue with Meyer’s (mis)use of information theory), together with a number of Meyer’s articles.  Most of these are un-refereed book chapters, though a recent review paper has appeared in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity (of which, more later in this article).  As an aside, the Discovery Institute has released a brief publication entitled ‘Signature of Controversy‘, which is a response to the many criticisms of Signature in the Cell and very largely figures the rather abusive and puerile writing of one David Klinghoffer.

It would seem that the topic of the lecture (entitled “Is there a signature in the cell?”) principally relates to the origins of life, and in particular, it would seem to relate to the difficulty Meyer has in understanding how the genetic code was able to arise in the first place.  Of course, once organisms with heritable genetic material were present on Earth, normal and well understood evolutionary processes would have given rise to the diversity of life on the planet.  I don’t suppose that is something Meyer subscribes to, since he is one of the principal architects (and an author) of the Wedge Strategy- the duplicitous strategy that aimed to supplant evolution with creationism by an extensive rebranding exercise.  The scheme came a little unstuck when the Dover school board in Pennsylvania, which was at the time influenced by creationists, attempted to force Intelligent Design into science classrooms.  The subsequent trial (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) ruled that Intelligent Design was a rebranding of creationism, that it was not a scientific approach and that teaching it in American schools was unconstitutiomal.  This judgement forced the Discovery Institute onto the back foot.  More recently, the Centre for Intelligent Design was established in the UK, based in Glasgow, apparently to regurgitate the DI line.

The Centre for Intelligent Design makes much of the supposition that only intelligence can bring about ‘information’.  Unfortunately from their point of view, increase (and decrease) in gene number and genome size are clearly observable, not only by comparative genomics studies of a wide variety of taxa, but by direct observation of within species genome variation. What’s more, those of us engaged in laboratory genetics are well aware of the kinds of genome changes that can occur even within the timescale of laboratory work.

In contrast to the ongoing efforts of science, one of the hallmarks of Intelligent Design creationism is that they don’t conduct novel research aimed at proving the existence of design.  How can they? – ID isn’t science and makes no testable predictions. What ID creationists do is to focus on individual cases where they assert evolutionary biology cannot explain how some feature arose (usually by claiming “irreducible complexity” or some such tosh) and claim that if evolution wasn’t responsible, intelligent design is the only alternative – a pretty dubious way of claiming evidence for ID.  Unfortunately for the likes of Michael Behe, each time one of these assertions is made, those pesky scientists come along and knock it down.  Examples include the bacterial flagellum and the vertebrate immune system.  The rather wonderful Nova TV documentary about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District I linked to the other day (US TV Documentary – Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial) demolishes those two canards of intelligent design creationism in a very accessible fashion.

From what I’d read of Meyer’s written output, it seemed likely that Meyer’s tack would be to claim that the probability of the appearance of a genetic code that enabled life to begin is so vanishingly small that it must have been designed.  What I have noted is a paper by Meyer (with his colleage  Paul A. Nelson) in the Biologic Institute house ‘journal’ BIO-Complexity.  The Biologic Institute is funded by the Discovery Institute and really fits the Wedge Strategy as an attempt to portray ID as a scientific discipline, largely by playing at science.  BIO-Complexity is an example: an apparently above-board journal website with quite specific aims:

BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal’s scope.

(I note that Kluwer, a respectable scientific publisher, originally planned a journal called Biocomplexity: its launch issue was cancelled due to a lack of submissions.  I don’t think this should be confused with the Biologic Institute creation.)  BIO-Complexity’s editorial board comprises a disparate collection of people who support Intelligent Design creationism or, it would seem in some cases, a more conventional young earth creationism.  To date, and through two years of publishing, only a handful of publications have been made.  And these are derived from members of the editorial board, and largely include members of the Discovery and Biologic Institutes (vanity publishing?).

Meyer and Nelson’s recent publication in BIO-complexity is really an objection to the work of Yarus and colleagues modelling how an RNA world could have come into being.  It’s not really a research paper, and kind of fits the ID strategy of knocking down science with the intention of allowing an ID ‘explanation’ to fill the gap.  This would be in keeping with Meyer and Nelson’s expertise (Meyer qualified as an earth scientist and has a PhD in Philosophy of science, while Nelson similarly has a PhD in Philosophy): Nelson appears in the past to have held young earth creationist views.

My particular scientific field is not related to the origins of life, and it’s always seemed to me that figuring out how life began on Earth is particularly challenging, especially as our understanding of likely pre-biotic conditions changes periodically. Nevertheless, the scientific approach is to try and figure out plausible hypotheses: if Meyer and Nelson have bona fide concerns about Yarus’ hypotheses, I’d be the last to censor them.  I’d be even happier if Meyer and Nelson had the science background sufficient to set up their own experimental programme.

An email communication from C4ID a week or so before the lecture said in part (the comment is mine):

At the request of some guests and to encourage open discussion, we wish to conduct the evening with a modification of the Chatham House Rule as follows:  Guests are free to report, formally or informally, on the content of the lecture, the nature of the issues raised at question time, and the identities of the host, lecturer and representatives of the Centre for Intelligent Design.  However the identities of all the other guests who attend and who may contribute to the debate should not be revealed unless specific permission is given by them to do so. [ It's hard to see how the planned release of video recording of the event could avoid identifying attendees if they questioned the speaker] We thank you for respecting our wishes in this matter.

Quite what significance (if any) this holds I don’t know.  But one interpretation might be that attendance from individuals outside the obvious ID creationism circles was looking low, and the organisers felt this statement might encourage them to come along.  In the end, I chose not to attend, not because I have scientific objections to hearing Meyer’s message, but because I object to the Discovery Institute’s working methods, its deceptive Wedge strategy (of which Meyer is an author), and that attendance might be taken as offering support to ID creationism (despite C4ID’s intention that attendee identity be kept secret). I did not want to add apparent legitimacy to ID creationism my my attendance, even though my attendance would have been as a private individual rather than as a representative of my employer. Finally, I don’t believe that lectures delivered to lay audiences are the most effective way of communicating science (or, in the case of ID creationism, pseudoscience): I would much rather read the technical literature. Unfortunately, Intelligent Design creationists are unable to generate research of the kind that would find its way into the science literature.

 

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The British Humanist Association alerts those concerned about such matters to further attempts by creationists to attain free school status (Another creationist Free School proposed for 2013):

A creationist Free School, Sheffield Christian Free School, has been proposed to open in 2013, and last week held a public meeting to gauge parent support. The British Humanist Association (BHA), which recently worked with other groups to launch a new campaign website, ‘Teach evolution, not creationism!’, has expressed concern at the continuing confidence of creationist groups in applying to open Free Schools, and disappointment that the Department for Education (DfE) hasn’t taken firmer steps to discourage such applications.

Sheffield Christian Free School will be run by Christian Family Schools Limited, who already run two private schools in Sheffield, including Bethany School. Both are members of the Christian Schools’ Trust, a network of over 40 private schools founded by creationist Sylvia Baker, author of Bone of Contention, who was the guest speaker at the public meeting. Sheffield Christian Free School’s curriculum policy will be ‘broadly based on nine themes found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis.’ Bethany School’s science curriculum is all about God’s role in creation, and creation appears throughout the school’s curriculum grid.

Presumably Michael Gove’s response to the Everyday Champions Church proposal will be repeated for this case.  The danger is that the Sheffield Christian Free School will succeed in pulling the wool over regulators’ eyes, unlike the Everyday Champions Church, which openly espoused the teaching of creationism.  Until they tried to deny it that is (Why the Everyday Champions Church’s Free School bid was rejected).  Going on the evidence of Bethany School cited by the BHA above, the Sheffield Christian Free School proposal is something to be worried about.  Interestingly, the Sheffield Christian Free School makes the astonishing claim that (my emphasis):

Professor Francis, based on extensive research carried out in the 1990’s, found that teenagers in the new Christian schools were spiritually and psychologically healthy. They were less superstitious, less racist, less likely to be bullied and more concerned about global issues than their counterparts in secular schools.

The claim that kids attending a school with a deeply religious focus are less superstitious than those attending other schools is quite interesting.  Perhaps faith schools breed atheists?  Or maybe the survey was carried out by people who don’t class christian belief as superstitious!  If you go here, you find a bit more information, such as the proud claim that only 7% of kids at Christian schools agree with the statement “I believe in evolution creating all things over millions of years“.  Ho hum.

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There’s a post over at Uncommon Descent in which Jonathan Wells laments quote-mining as applied to his career history (Here’s Jonathan Wells on destroying Darwinism – and responding to attacks on his character and motives*). Wells has had an eventful life, as judged by his account at Uncommon Descent (and his page at Wikpedia) – he sounds like a guy it would be fun to talk to. Apart from the gulf that lies between us over science, that is.

Wells has not one, but two doctorates. The first is in Religious Studies (Yale, 1985), the second in Molecular and Cell Biology (UC Berkeley). What’s interesting is the reason why someone with such a commitment to the Unification Church (and with such strong opposition to evolutionary explanations of life’s diversity) would embark upon a PhD in a subject related to one he has such difficulty in accepting. Incidentally, the Unification Church was founded by Sun Myung Moon (known in the media as the Moonies), and was the subject of much alarm in the UK during the 1970s due to its perception by the media as a destructive cult.

At any rate, Dr Dr Wells claims to have been selectively misquoted as to his motives in undertaking his second PhD. Personally, I find this quite amusing, given the typical quote-mining strategies often employed by creationists to discredit Darwin and evolutionary biology.   The quotation that’s doing the rounds on the internet, and which Dr Dr Wells believes is being improperly taken out of context reads as follows:

“Father’s [Sun Myung Moon's] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism.”

Dr Dr Wells paints a scenario that differs from this account in some respects, mostly because there is rather more detail:

I still felt called to devote myself to toppling Darwinism, however, so in 1988 I resigned from my position to return to graduate school—this time in biology. I applied to several schools in California and moved there with my family, only to learn that I had not been admitted anywhere. I took a job as a medical laboratory technologist (the Army had taught me a trade!) and sometime afterwards went back to New York to attend a meeting between Unification Church leaders and Reverend Moon. When he learned that I was planning to go back to graduate school he admonished me not to do it, saying that I was too old (I was 45 at the time). After the meeting, however, I prayed for a long time and decided that I had to continue on my course.

I returned to California and applied again to various graduate schools. In 1989 I was granted interviews at Cal Tech, Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and U.C. Davis. I chose Berkeley, where I completed a Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology in 1994. By then—having been exposed to the actual evidence—I was skeptical of Darwin’s claim that all living things share a common ancestor. [my emphasis]

The essence of the disputed internet quote is that Dr Dr Wells undertook his second doctorate with the specific aim of trying to undermine ‘Darwinism’ (Wells conveniently elaborates on what he means by Darwinism) – but judging from the emphasised words in the quoted section, this would seem to be the case, though without Moon’s blessing.

But over at this site (which appears to be run by the Unification Church), we see this account, penned by Wells (Darwinism: Why I Went for a Second Ph.D.):

Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

Presumably this refers to Wells’ first PhD, in Religious Studies. Wells continues…

I eventually decided to join the fray by returning to graduate school in biology. I was convinced that embryology is the Achilles’ heel of Darwinism; one cannot understand how organisms evolve unless one understands how they develop. In 1989, I entered a second Ph.D. program, this time in biology, at the University of California at Berkeley. While there, I studied embryology and evolution.

It’s true that an understanding of developmental biology is one of the approaches to understanding evolution (but not the only approach**), but this quotation contains the widely quoted statement (emboldened). Essentially, he embarked upon a PhD, and a postdoc position with a clear preconceived goal, namely that ‘Darwinism’ was wrong, and that he would work to topple it.  And this in the face of mountains of evidence sufficient to convince the vast majority of active research scientists of the reality of evolution.  That is not science.

I see that Wells says he wrote that document for private consumption within the Unification Church, and that its wide publication was made without his wishes:

A senior Unification Church leader then asked me to write something for other church members explaining why I went for a second Ph.D. even after Reverend Moon had admonished me against doing so. I wrote an essay that I thought would be for in-house use only, but it was subsequently posted on the Internet without my knowledge or permission.

I first learned that my essay was available online in 2001, when Jerry Coyne made it the alpha and omega of his review in Nature of my book Icons of Evolution.

But why should he tell one version to the Unification Church while seeking to send a different message to the world?  Could it be that confession of his motivation would significantly dent his work towards ‘destroying Darwinism’?

* I don’t often read Uncommon Descent because I find reading stupidity rather irritating.  But I note Larry Moran (who has taken the time to plough through Dr Dr Wells book on junk DNA, and written a lengthy series of articles detailing his criticisms chapter by chapter) has engaged with a bunch of commenters who largely spout vast amounts of pure stupidity and ignorance.  I envy Larry his patience.

** I have to observe that the vast published enterprise of biology contains a huge body of literature supportive of evolution. The distinction between the scientific approach to biology and that of the ID creationist is that where poorly understood cases are uncovered, the scientist seeks to find an explanation, whereas the ID creationist merely invokes a supernatural agency as a designer.  More on this in a later blog post.

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Here’s a YouTube link to an American TV documentary about the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case concerning the attempts of the Intelligent Design creationists to inveigle their anti-science into American school science classes.

I wonder if Alastair Noble and the rest of the C4ID people have ever watched this.  And in particular taken note of the demolition of the notion that Intelligent Design creationism is some kind of scientific enterprise.  And indeed the evidence of ID as a mere rebranding of creationism by ‘cut-and-paste’.

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