Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Chang's Article

As I mentioned yesterday, Kenneth Chang of The New York Times wrote this lengthy article for yesterday's edition. My side of the blogosphere was not amused. P.Z. Myers weighs in here (be sure to go well into the comments to see Chang's response), Chris Mooney offers his thoughts here, and Arthur Silber weighs in here.

Now, I hate the fact that the Times is covering this at all. In a better world cranks and charlatans would simply be ignored. But the fact is that numerous state school boards have had to deal with this over the last few years, and that fact makes it news.

Given that the Times is covering it, I would prefer an outright hatchet job on the ID folks. But that is likewise not realistic. Journalistically it would reflect badly on the reporter to present such an obviously biased account, and politically the Times is very touchy about being perceived as a left-wing organ.

So I think Chang did a reasonable job given the constraints he was working under. What I liked about the article was that in every case real scientists were given the last word. Many of the commenters to P.Z. Myers' blog entry on the article complained that it was standard he said-she said journalism, which in this case accords too much respect to the ID folks. I didn't read it that way. To me it looked more like, “ID folks claim X, but here's why they're wrong.”

I also liked the fact that Chang makes it perfectly clear that the restriction of science to natural causes is purely practical, and that evolution is accepted because it consistently produces results:


“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That's a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live.

And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations. So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories.


It's not all good news; there's certainly ample fodder for complaints:


Mainstream scientists say that intelligent design represents a more sophisticated - and thus more seductive - attack on evolution. Unlike creationists, design proponents accept many of the conclusions of modern science. They agree with cosmologists that the age of the universe is 13.6 billion years, not fewer than 10,000 years, as a literal reading of the Bible would suggest. They accept that mutation and natural selection, the central mechanisms of evolution, have acted on the natural world in small ways, for example, leading to the decay of eyes in certain salamanders that live underground.


That's totally wrong, I'm afraid. Officially ID folks take no stand on the age of the Earth. Many ID proponents accept it, but others, like Paul Nelson, are traditional YEC's. The fact that ID refuses to take a stand on this fundamental issue is highly significant, since it helps make obvious the fact that ID is nothing but a big-tent for creationists of all stripes, as opposed to a serious attempt to understand the world.

Furthermore, a willingness to accept “microevolution” in no way distinguishes the ID folks from the young-Earthers. YEC's also accept that mutation and narual selection can lead to evolutionary change.

But for all of that I don't see how anyone could come away from the article thinking that ID has any scientific merit at all. That's especially true of people who, unlike readers of this blog, are not completely immersed in this issue. Most people reading the article will not be familiar with the minutiae of the debate. They will come away from this article seeing the ID folks as the ones wanting to give up on, and attribute to God, any remorely puzzling aspect of natural history. In Chang's article the ID folks come off as the religiously motivated simpletons, while real scientists come off as the ones genuinely trying to solve problems.

If I had written the article it would have looked much different. It would have been far more condemnatory of the ID folks, and much of the scientific discussion would have been phrased much differently. But I also think people on my side of this are being too hasty in dumping on Mr. Chang.

From the other side of things, you can find ID proponent Jonathan Witt weighing in here. In the course of trying to persuade people that Chang's article is somehow helpful to them he writes:


Despite getting plenty of ink, the Darwinists don't come off looking so well in Kenneth Chang's story about intelligent design in the Science section of today's New York Times.

Imagine intelligent design is an elephant in the next room. A cat lies crushed on the floor before us, with the clear mark of an elephant's toe imprinted on his poor, flat, fuzzy body.

You say, “I hear and smell an elephant in the next room. I say the most likely culprit is the elephant.”

But then some guy who hates cats almost as much as he hates elephants--and therefore doesn't want to give the elephant credit for killing the cat--insists there is no elephant. When it's finally clear that the empirical evidence for the elephant can no longer be ignored or denied, the elephant denier disappears and comes back with a large stuffed elephant and begins literally beating the straw out of it. He's trying to tell you the elephant isn't worth bothering with, isn't up to snuff.

If you desperately want to ignore the real elephant, then you'll find this ridiculous display quite convincing. Everyone else will know immediately that the man hasn't torn the real elephant to shreds but only a straw mock-up of the creature. This is what we find the Darwinists doing in the Kenneth Chang article. They set up strawmen of several intelligent design arguments, then dismember them most effectively.


Of course, this is a ludicrous presentation of what the article says. Consider what Chang actually wrote:


  • He began by describing Behe's hand-waving argument about the irreducible complexity of the blood clotting cascade. This is followed by a fairly detailed description of a possible scenario for blood-clotting coupled with a quote from Russell Doolittle about the evidence for this scenario being rock-solid.

  • In the next section he quotes several design proponents in ways that make it perfectly clear that they are motivated by religious considerations, and have concerns that go far beyond science. This is followed up by making it clear that science has the far more mundane goal of explaining the natural world, and that design hypotheses are rejected simply for lack of evidence.

  • Next comes Meyer's bloviations about the Cambrain explosion. Chang makes it perfectly clear that since the fossil record is inevitably imperfect, it's rather poor form to base an argument entirely on missing fossils. He also mentions some recent discoveries in genetics and paloentology that shed light on the problem. Once again, it's the design proponents throwing up their hands in the face of something mysterious, and real scientists doing the hard work of figuring out what is going on.


I could continue in this way, but I think the point is made. Who's going to read this and come away thinking that it's the evolutionists who are responding to straw men, while the ID folks are interested in evidence?

Witt goes on to cite two examples of evolutionists refuting straw men from the article. Here's one of those examples:


I'll offer just two of several instances here. A brief summary of Stephen Meyer's argument for design as the best explanation for the Cambrian explosion of animal forms some 530 million years ago is rebutted by this passage:


But molecular biologists have found genes that control the function of other genes, switching them on and off. Small mutations in these controller genes could produce new species. In addition, new fossils are being found and scientists now know that many changes occurred in the era before the Cambrian - a period that may have lasted 100 million years - providing more time for change.


However, Meyer's argument takes both these points into account, and his rebuttals are based on well-established evidence in the peer-reviewed literature. One of his articles on the subject was edited by a biologist with two Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology, and peer-reviewed by three scientists with relevant Ph.D.s from well-respected institutions here and in Europe. If Meyer had not addressed those points, they no doubt would have insisted that he do so.


Of course, Witt is vamping here. Anyone who actually follows these things knows that the Meyer article being referred to above was worthless garbage regardless of how many PhD's the editor of the journal had. And the legitimacy of the peer-review process that led to the article being published is very much in question, to put it mildly. Meyer's arguments about the Cambrian, expressed in that paper, were wrong as a simple matter of fact.

But more to the point, the only people who are going to react the way Witt suggests are those who are already firmly on the ID side. Normal people will know nothing about Meyer's silly paper, or much about the Cambrain explosion at all for that matter. All they will see is Meyer waving his hands in a desperate attempt to find someplace to insert God into our understanding of natural history, while real scientists produce the evidence that can provide real resolutions to such mysteries as exist.

In fact, that all sounds so convincing that I'm feeling better about Chang's article now than I did when I started this blog entry!

6 Comments:

At 7:02 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

Jason,

Been reading your blog for some time and just wanted to let yu know you are doing a great job. I usually don't comment, because there is little to add. Thanks for the great clearinghouse of info.

 
At 7:22 AM, Blogger Benoit Lapierre said...

Hi from Canada.
Your Blog is very interesting!





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At 8:01 AM, Blogger afp763389 said...

... :)

 
At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Given that the Times is covering it, I would prefer an outright hatchet job on the ID folks. But that is likewise not realistic. Journalistically it would reflect badly on the reporter to present such an obviously biased account, and politically the Times is very touchy about being perceived as a left-wing organ."

How would an article destroying the claims of people who think that African slaves in the US led lives of leisure be perceived? Would such an article be 'obviously biased'? Would that come across as "left-wing"?

More importantly, why should Americans give a shit what Rush Limbaugh says about the NYT?

Why do you seem to give a shit about that?

 
At 2:34 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Anonymous-

Please don't use profanity in your comments. This is a family blog!

I, personally, don't care if the Times is viewed as a left-wing organ. But I can understand why they care about it.

As I said, I think Chang wrote a decent article given the constraints he had to work with. It was certainly far from perfect, but overall I don't think he deserves the contempt that is being heaped upon him by people I normally agree with.

 
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