Monday, November 14, 2005

God Bless The Wall Street Journal

Today's Wall Street Journal offers this magnificent reminder of why the excellent WSJ news section must be sharply distinguished from their lunatic editorial page. The article discusses the spate of pro-ID courses, generally not offered for science credit, popping up at various colleges. We consider a few excerpts, starting with the opening grafs:

With a magician's flourish, Thomas Ingebritsen pulled six mousetraps from a shopping bag and handed them out to students in his “God and Science” seminar. At his instruction, they removed one component -- either the spring, hammer or holding bar -- from each mousetrap. They then tested the traps, which all failed to snap.

“Is the mousetrap irreducibly complex?” the Iowa State University molecular biologist asked the class.

“Yes, definitely,” said Jason Mueller, a junior biochemistry major wearing a cross around his neck.

That's the answer Mr. Ingebritsen was looking for. He was using the mousetrap to support the antievolution doctrine known as intelligent design. Like a mousetrap, the associate professor suggested, living cells are “irreducibly complex” -- they can't fulfill their functions without all of their parts. Hence, they could not have evolved bit by bit through natural selection but must have been devised by a creator.

In just a few paragraphs the article's author, Daniel Golden, makes it clear that ID is all about religion and gives a decent summary of the irreducible complexity argument. There is also the clear implication that the goal of ID is to provide validation for students' prior religious beliefs.

Given Golden's very clear presentation of the logic of irreducible complexity, it should be obvious to everyone that the argument is not correct, simply as a matter of logic. Requiring all your parts in the present does not imply that you have always required all of those parts in the past. When you further note that biologists have actually had considerable success explaining a great many specific complex systems, you begin to see just how vacuous ID really is.

Incidentally, I would add that if Golden had written a further sentence giving a wink and a nod to the equally vacuous notion of complex, specified information, he would have, in the space of three or four sentences, explained the entire scientific content of ID.

Moving on:

The spread of these courses reflects the growing influence of evangelical Christianity in academia, as in other aspects of American culture. Last week, the Kansas state board of education adopted new science guidelines that question evolution.

Intelligent design does not demand a literal reading of the Bible. Unlike traditional creationists, most adherents agree with the prevailing scientific view that the earth is billions of years old. And they allow that the designer is not necessarily the Christian God.

Still, professors with evangelical beliefs, including some eminent scientists, have initiated most of the courses and lectures, often with start-up funding from the John Templeton Foundation. Established by famous stockpicker Sir John Templeton, the foundation promotes exploring the boundary of theology and science. It fostered the movement's growth with grants of $10,000 and up for guest speakers, library materials, research and conferences.

Exactly right. ID is about the growth of an especially narrow sort of Christianity; the scienitifc cover story is a sham.

Citing what they describe as overwhelming evidence for evolution, mainstream scientists say no one has the right to teach wrong science, or religion in the guise of science. “My interest is in making sure that intelligent design and creationism do not make the kind of inroads at the university level that they're making at the K-12 level,” says Leslie McFadden, chair of earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico, who led a successful fight there to re-classify a course on intelligent design from science to humanities. “You can't teach whatever you damn well please. If you're a geologist, and you decide that the earth's core is made of green cheese, you can't teach that.”

Folks, we're not very far into the article. But I need to stop at this point to make a note to name my first-born after Mr. Golden. After reading article after article in which the ID folks are allowed to prattle about academic freedom, without any cogent reply from the evolution side, it's alomst too wonderful to see an article include the obvious counter. Academic freedom does not mean you get to teach whatever you want in the classroom. You can't present any old lies and distortions simply because they flatter your religious biases. If you are teaching your students that irreducible complexity presents some kind of challenge to evolution, then you are teaching your students something that is false. False as a matter of fact, not opinion.

We'll be here all day if I pick out every passage I liked in this article, so let me get to my one little nit pick:

At stake in this dispute are the minds of the next generation of scientists and science teachers. Some are arriving at college with conflicting accounts of mankind's origins at home, in church and at school. Many of Iowa State's 21,000-plus undergraduates come from fundamentalist backgrounds and belong to Christian student groups on campus.

Actually, the next generation of scientists is not at stake in this dispute. Anyone wanting to make a career as a scientist will eventually be expected to produce actual research results, and a student who insists on believing nonsense will not be able to that. But the next generation of science teachers is, indeed, at stake. That is why ID must be vigorously countered.

Let me close with this excerpt from the article's closing section:

On a brisk Thursday in October, following the mousetrap gambit, Mr. Ingebritsen displayed diagrams on an overhead projector of “irreducibly complex” structures such as bacterial flagellum, the motor that helps bacteria move about. The flagellum, he said, constitutes strong evidence for intelligent design.

One student, Mary West, disputed this conclusion. “These systems could have arisen through natural selection,” the senior said, citing the pro-evolution textbook.

“That doesn't explain this system,” Mr. Ingebritsen answered. “You're a scientist. How did the flagellum evolve? Do you have a compelling argument for how it came into being?”

Ms. West looked down, avoiding his eye. “Nope,” she muttered. The textbook, “Finding Darwin's God,” by Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, asserts that a flagellum isn't irreducibly complex because it can function to some degree even without all of its parts. This suggests to evolutionists that the flagellum could have developed over time, adding parts that made it work better.

During a class break, Ms. West says that Mr. Ingebritsen often puts her on the spot. “He knows I'm not religious,” she says. “In the beginning, we talked about our religious philosophy. Everyone else in the class is some sort of a Christian. I'm not.” The course helps her understand “the arguments on the other side,” she adds, but she would like to see Mr. Ingebritsen co-teach it with a proponent of evolution.

ID laid bare. If you can't on the spur of the moment, devise a step-by-step account of the evolution of some complex system, then you should just chalk the whole thing up to an intelligent designer.

Go read the whole article. And get angrier at other media outlets when they don't rise to this standard.


At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Fred said...

Of course a mousetrap functions without all of its parts! Without the spring, the base can be used to hammer in thumbtacks or kill ants. Without the base, the wires make a good lock pick or something to scratch an attacker with.

Why do the ID folks insist on claiming that the present use for something is the same as what it was used for during the entire course of its evolution? Heck, even the mousetrap itself evolved (so to speak) from other things.

At 7:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I don't share your enthusiasm for this story. Yes, it's demonstrably better than the typical MSM treatment (one is tempted to say that it was more "intelligently designed" :-) ) but it still has too many elements of the he-said/she-said angle and portrays ID proponents as beleaguered martyrs perservering in the face of estabishment dogmatism instead of as the lunatic fringe crackpots that they are.

I'll be happy when I see an article in the MSM that draws the obvious parallels between ID and holocaust denial, alien abduction and moon-landing hoax "theories".

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Maybe my standards are too low. To me the ID folks in the article came off as a bunch of religious zealots more interested in prostletyzing than in science.


A good point, and yet another problem with the irreducible complexity argument. It's very hard to understand how anyone with a modicum of scientific training could parrot such an obviously fallacious argument.

At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You wrote:

"To me the ID folks in the article came off as a bunch of religious zealots more interested in prostletyzing than in science."

That may be what the writer intended and it may be what you and I would conclude, but I really wonder how the average, scientifically naive WSJ reader will interpret this article.

I also had a real problem with the article describing the silly mousetrap example without any of the well-known refutations of it as an illustration of "irreducible complexity" or it's lack of relevance to the evolution of biological organisms (after all, mouse traps do not reproduce themselves).

The part where Ms. West is unable to supply a retort to the instructor's challenge to supply a "compelling argument" for the evolution of the flagellum was really stomach turning. Why would one expect an undergraduate student (perhaps not even a biology major) to supply such an argument? True, the author did include Ken Miller's assertion about the evolution of the flagellum but it comes off as a weak, grasping of straws rather than the compelling argument that it actually is.

Finally, consider the following excerpt:

"The course helps her understand “the arguments on the other side,” she adds, but she would like to see Mr. Ingebritsen co-teach it with a proponent of evolution.

Ms. West and other honors students will have a chance to hear the opposing viewpoint next semester."


Whatever good may have been done in the rest of the article (not much, in my opinion) is completely undone by this section. The clear message here is that ID is competitive with evolution as an explanation for biological complexity and diversity and that it's a good idea to teach the two side by side. What's worse is that if I didn't know better this article would lead me to conclude that evolution was playing catch up.

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be happy when I see an article in the MSM that draws the obvious parallels between ID and holocaust denial, alien abduction and moon-landing hoax "theories".

Behold, I give you this. OK, I don't think the History News Network qualifies as MSM, but it's still a good article.

At 6:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

She should have said, "Sure, I have a great idea as to how the flagellum arose, but right now it doesn't involve mutation or natural selection. Here it is: When a species is on the brink of exinction, it sets off a chain reaction in an alternate universe that sends signals of 'complex specific information' into this universe via the 11th dimension. These signals build up in the DNA of the organism to produce, in some cases, a new and functional feature that aids in the species' survival. This is how irreducibly complex features arise in organisms. I call my new theory 'Information Directed Into Obvious Targets' theory (IDIOT for short), which posits that the diversity in life cannot have arisen without the injection of information from alternate universes via the 11th dimension. It's about as plausible and testable what you are spouting here, dear Sir."


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