Sunday, May 15, 2005

It's Official: The Truth Counts for Nothing!

So let me see if I have this straight. First Nature writes this ridiculous puff piece about my occasional sparring partner Salvador Cordova. Then Slate presumes to lecture us about how creationism has evolved over the last few years and us blinkered scientist types haven't noticed.

Now The Washington Post writes this glowing profile of Phillip Johnson.

As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, Johnson is the author of Darwin on Trial, the steaming pile of lies, distortions and ignorance that kicked off the modern ID movement roughly fifteen years ago. Somehow the fact that every major scientific assertion in that book was false, that Johnson routinely quoted scientists out of context and that he plainly did not understand the branches of science he was writing about didn't find it's way into the Post's piece.

Instead we get passages like this:

The Washington Post reporter has just walked out of a spray of Pacific-borne rain into the living room of a modest bungalow west of downtown. There's a shag rug, an inspirational painting or two and Phillip Johnson, dressed in tan slacks and a sweater and sitting on a couch. He pulls a dog-eared copy of a Post editorial out of his shirt pocket and reads aloud:

“With their slick Web sites, pseudo-academic conferences and savvy public relations, the proponents of 'intelligent design' -- a 'theory' that challenges the validity of Darwinian evolution -- are far more sophisticated than the creationists of yore. . . . They succeed by casting doubt on evolution.”

The 65-year-old Johnson swivels his formidable and balding head -- with that even more formidable brain inside -- and gazes over his reading glasses at the reporter (who doesn't labor for the people who write the editorials).

Gives you the warm fuzzies, doesn't it?

The article does occasionally drag itself away from the arduous business of presenting Johnson as the simple country lawyer who, doggone it, just isn't convinced by all that ev-o-dence the academic pointy-heads keep throwing at him about evolution. Occasionally we get the other side:

William Provine, a prominent evolutionary biology professor at Cornell University, enjoys the law professor's company and has invited Johnson to his classroom. The men love the rhetorical thrust and parry and often share beers afterward. Provine, an atheist, also dismisses his friend as a Christian creationist and intelligent design as discredited science.

As for the aspects of evolution that baffle scientists?

“Phillip is absolutely right that the evidence for the big transformations in evolution are not there in the fossil record -- it's always good to point this out,” Provine says. “It's difficult to explore a billion-year-old fossil record. Be patient!”

Provine's faith, if one may call it that, rests on Darwinism, which he describes as the greatest engine of atheism devised by man. The English scientist's insights registered as a powerful blow -- perhaps the decisive one -- in the long run of battles, from Copernicus to Descartes, that removed God from the center of the Western world.

I don't know what fossil record Provine is looking at, but it sure seems to me that the fossils do indeed document quite a large number of big transitions. When we can arrange the fossils into a veritable flip-cartoon and practically watch our ape-like ancestors turn into human beings, or watch a reptile transform itself into a mammal, among other examples, I'd say the fossil record documents major transitions about as well as it theoretically can. And fossils are hardly the only line of evidence to suggest how the big changes occurred.

And, just in case Provine wasn't obsequious enough for you, here comes Stuart Kauffman:

Is it irrational to inquire if intelligent life is seeded with inevitabilities?

“Give Johnson and the intelligent-design movement their due -- they are asking terribly important questions,” says Stuart A. Kauffman, director of the Institute for Biocomplexity at the University of Calgary. “To question whether patterns and complexity, at the level of the cell or the universe, bespeak intelligent design is not stupid in the least. I simply believe they've come up with the wrong answers.”

People on my side of this really have to learn not to balance their criticisms of ID with corresponding bits of praise. Especially when it's totally undeserved praise. Who, exactly, thinks it's stupid or irrational to wonder whether the universe and everything in it is the product of a designer? I'm as hardcore an atheist as you're ever going to meet, but I think it's a perfectly reasonable question. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a scientist who thinks the question itself is stupid.

But what is stupid and irrational is the idea that any of the arguments the ID folks are presenting have any merit at all. The contribution of the ID folks to the public discourse is not simply to wonder whether God exists. Pretty much everyone since the dawn of civilization has wondered about the same thing. No, the only thing the ID's have contributed are a collection of spectacularly bad scientific arguments.

The article goes on like this. Towards the end we get a quote from Ken Miller, but it's too little too late.

As I've said before, there are countless scientists toiling away in labs, working their tails off to try to push back the frontiers of ignorance just a little bit. Virtually none of them will be profiled by The Washington Post.

If you want the Post to notice and be nice to you, it seems the way to do it is by writing sleazy dishonest books and finding a lot of right-wing donors to fund the promotion of your ignorance. That'll get you on the front-page of the Style section.


At 10:26 PM, Blogger roger said...

You are right about that idiotic piece in the Post, but one thing you forgot -- the reporter apparently knows very little about biology to begin with. Would they send a movie reviewer to interview an economist?

The WP has committed journalistic malpractice of a pretty low order on that one. And the maddening part is you know all of their kids are in private schools. So promoting the debasement of public education just advantages them.

Do complain to the ombudsman.

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was deeply problematic article. And Provine is wrong. Nearly every known organism is very similar anatomically to at least one known organism that is older than it and relatively close in age to it. And no known organism is very different anatomically to every known organism that is older than it. See the transition from fish to amphibians and reptiles to mammals.

At 6:46 AM, Anonymous Mike Trettel said...

You have to understand Post logic-the article was printed in the Style section of the dead tree edition. That's where the Post puts the "less serious" news-the fluff pieces, fawning personal interest stories, man bites dog bits, and so forth. No matter how true any criticism of the story is, the Post will blow it off because it's assumed that one wasn't meant to take it as a serious news story.

At 10:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article says that Johnson accepts that the Earth is billions of years old. I was a little surprised to see that statement, which was not a quote, by the way. I read a number of his early articles years ago, have read some of his more recent work, and I've always been left with the feeling that he was being deliberately ambiguous as to what his actual beliefs on questions like age of the Earth were.

For me this question also relates to the recent Slate article taking evolutionists to task for not seeing the distinction between "Young Earth" creationism and ID. I understood the author to take it for granted that the ID folks accepted the age of the Earth to be
4.5 billion or thereabouts. Especially after reading news stories describing the Kansas hearings, it's not at all clear to me that most ID folks actually accept the 4.5 billion figure.

Are there any writings by Johnson where he does clearly state the he believes the Earth to be billions of years old?

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

The article is consistent with a trend in the media. IDists are being presented in an ever increasingly favorable light by the media.

With the exception of Richard Dawkins, I think IDists are far more charming and stylish than their counterparts on the Darwinian side, and this is striking a chord with the reporters.

Even the more statesman-like and charming proponents among the Darwinians, like Ruse and Provine, are seen authoring books with IDists like William Dembski and having beers with Phil Johnson. What message does that send to the media?

I was personally astonished at how ID was presented by Nature. We were thinking ID would be absolutely slammed by the article, but to our surprise, they gave very polite and respectful coverage of IDists.

There was some things that didn't make it into the article which Brumfield discussed with me:

In the reporters eyes, I'm sure truth counts for something, but the IDists are definitely getting major style points.....

At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salvador, what do you mean by "IDist?" What event(s), if anything, do you think the designer(s) caused on or near planet earth? And what evidence, if any, suggests that the designer(s) did that?

Or do you just that that the designer(s) caused the Big Bang? If so, what evidence, if any, suggests that the designer(s) did that?

At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Who, exactly, thinks it's stupid or irrational to wonder whether the universe and everything in it is the product of a designer?"

It's not an irrational question. What's irrational is to expect to find an answer to a supernatural question via a naturalistic discipline. You can't prove or disprove god using science. But the IDers know that. That's why they try and prove their theory correct by proving evolution is wrong. This is the essential dishonesty of ID. It's a strategy masquerading as science.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger Arne Langsetmo said...

Phil Johnson's brain wasn't even that formidable on matters of law when I had him as a CrimLaw professor. He didn't intimidate me in the least. And when he'd get into his sideline creationism in the hallways afterwards, I could rip him a new on on his scientific ignorance. Some folks are waaaaayyyyy to easily impressed (or intimidated).


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