An evening with the Centre for Intelligent Design: why I didn’t attend.

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.


14 thoughts on “An evening with the Centre for Intelligent Design: why I didn’t attend.

  1. Hi Alastair, thanks for the comment.
    Of course, I haven't written a critique of Signature in the Cell. I was trying to give an overview of why I chose not to attend (I only made my final decision late on Thursday): I spent a couple of weeks trying to track down an essence of Meyer's position from his published output (which in peer-reviewed terms is not huge). In my personal experience as a genetics researcher, I see organisms gaining genetic information, even in the timescale of laboratory experiments, and if one looks at the growing collection of genome data, it is clear that large-scale changes in gene number and genome size (which of course don't necessarily go hand-in-hand) have occurred during this history of life on Earth.
    Now, the main issue in Meyer's publications (that I've looked at, anyway) seems to revolve around the origin of life, and in particular the origin of heritable characteristics – correct me if I'm wrong. This is indeed a thorny problem, but at least there are researchers around the world prepared to have a go at looking into possible solutions, rather than invoking a supernatural entity.
    If you send me a copy of SitC, I will review it. Promise.

  2. Actually the PBS / NOVA documentary badly misrepresented the Dover trial and contained lots of errors. The details are at:…

  3. I don't think an item at the deceptively named evolution news website is particularly useful in this regard. I doubt the Discovery Institute people are going to give a balanced view of the Dover trial, since it was their devious and duplicitous strategy that was taken apart at the trial.
    I have read the trial papers and a number of reviews – I think the Nova documentary is fair.

  4. Bob
    A few questions arising from your post.
    1. In the first paragraph you say you received an “invite.” Although you don’t expressly say so, can I take it you accepted this invitation?
    2. Assuming the answer to 1 is yes, did you at any stage notify the organisers that you would not, in fact, be attending? I see in your reply to Alistair Noble’s comment that you say you made your final decision ‘late on Thursday’ (presumably this is the day of the event). I’m assuming that as a matter of basic common courtesy you did, but as your blog is silent in this I just wanted to check.
    3. As to the C4ID email re Chatham House Rules, are you able to shed any light on whether C4ID have said anything about the video recording? I know you added a comment of your own in square brackets, but another reading of the email would be that the lecture would be released on video but the Q&A bit would not be.

    1. I received an invitation. As I recall I said I would see if I would come.
      I don't know much about what use C4ID will make of the video recording, or whether they will release it (possibly depends on how good a recording it is). And if they do, I suppose whether or not they choose to release questions might relate to the Chatham House rule and/or whether they felt the questioning added anything.

  5. 4. Have you any evidence for your interpretation in respect of low attendance levels? Clearly there is any number of possible interpretations or reasons for the email, the least flattering of which, so far as C4ID is concerned, would be the one you put forward. I was just wondering whether you had any specific reason for suggesting this interpretation or if it is just a case of the default position being that which is least flattering to C4ID.
    5. I am a little puzzled about the reasons you give for choosing not attend. If I understand you correctly there were 4 reasons. i) objection to Discovery Institute’s working methods; ii) the deceptive Wedge strategy; iii) the possibility of your attendance adding apparent legitimacy to ID; and iv) objection to lectures being delivered to lay audiences as being the most effective way of communicating science (or pseudoscience).

    1. Nope, mere supposition, as I said in the blog article.
      As to reasons, I guess (iii) is the most pressing, but bolstered by my low opinion of DI and their working methods. (iv) just reflects my opinion that the take-up of Intelligent Design creationism by the scientific establishment will not be via public lectures.

  6. Taking each in turn
    i) Surely you knew about this before you accepted your invitation to attend? (I am assuming you accepted). If so, why didn’t you just refuse the invitation? If this reason is correct, I am struggling to understand what changed on this point between you accepting the invitation and then deciding, apparently just before the event started, not to attend.
    ii) The same point as i) above.
    iii) Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you really think your standing in the academic/scientific community is such that your attendance at a free lecture would be seen by others as giving legitimacy to the subject matter of the lecture? Even if you do, couldn’t you have made it clear to C4ID that you were attending as a private individual – as you state in your final paragraph above? And why didn’t the Chatham House Rule allay your fears? If it is because you thought the video might show people asking questions couldn’t you have i) not asked a question; or ii) sought clarification from C4ID in advance?

    1. Actually my biggest issue with the Chatham House thing was that it would limit discussion later.
      And, yes, I would not like it said that attendees included a number from UK HEIs.

  7. (all this in addition to same point as i) and ii) above re knowing all this before you accepted the invitation).
    iv) Again, in addition to the fact you presumably held this view before you accepted the invitation, is this a view you hold to strictly? Have you not been to any public lectures where ‘lay people’ might be in attendance? Does it also follow that you do not support and would not attend lectures by Eugenie Scott or P Z Myers (both of which have in the last year been hosted by the Glasgow Skeptics and were lectures open to ‘lay people’)?
    I appreciate these questions may give the impression I am being critical of you. However, for the record I have no problem whatsoever with you saying you think Steve Meyer is a complete idiot and that you would rather repeatedly poke yourself in the eye with a fork than have to sit through one of his lectures. My reason for asking the questions is because I am trying to establish whether you really mean what you have said, or whether the truth is that you just couldn’t be bothered to attend but for whatever reason don’t want to say so.

    1. You are pumping comments too quickly. As I say in my response above to your point (iv) this was not a reason why I chose not to attend. In fact I enjoy communicating with the lay public, and on those occasions when I have been the lay audience I've found talks sometimes very informative.
      I don't actually think that Meyer is an idiot (and I certainly made no comment about eyes and forks!). I think Meyer is misguided, and from reading some of the literature seems to be a bit outside his expertise area.
      The principal reason I initially thought of going was to meet some of the C4ID people – and I'm particularly pleased Alastair Noble (I assume it really was him) left a comment here, and would welcome further communication.
      Apart from the scientific misinformation available at the C4ID website, one of the problems there is the unwillingness to encourage any form of discussion via comments or discussion fora.
      Can I ask whether you are associated with C4ID?

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