29 October 2008

The Discovery Institute send big guns to Ireland but only manage to fire blanks (guest post by Dr Bob Bloomfield)

We are pleased and proud to host this incisive guest post by Dr Bob Bloomfield* who defended clear-thinking rationalism at a creationism debate two weeks ago in Dublin. His report mentions the Causeway Creation Committee, whose oxen I've previously gored here and here. -KJ

When the Trinity College Dublin Student Philosophical Society debated the merit of creationism at its weekly debate on Thursday 16th October 2008, there was a remarkably eager response by the Discovery Institute who provided their ‘big-guns’ to this student affair.

Following a formula of debate established over its seasoned years of philosophising, the proceedings began with an essay that I was invited to present. This in essence laid out the case that there was nothing new within the ideas of creationism to contribute to science, but also offered the proposition that evolutionary biology need not lead inexorably to materialism. Instead I argued that within the paradigm of an evolved diversity there was the potential for an ethical framework where, as part of the economy of nature, people might recognise their intimate interaction with the world around them. This way of thinking offers hope to the perils of anthropogenic change and the concerns over, for example, biodiversity loss.

The debate proponents were then invited, in an alternating sequence to respond in support, or in opposition to this proposition.

Three local speakers argued in support of the essay, each taking a different line. The gentlemanly Christopher Stillman, Emeritus Professor of Geology at Trinity, argued the case that science and religion are 'nonoverlapping majisteria' (see Stephen J. Gould), each exploring different needs for human knowledge (as in the reference to Islam, ‘Science teaches how the heavens go, the Quran teaches how to go to heaven’). Trinity’s young Anglican pastor, Darren McCallig, took the view that mainstream Christian theology rejected any notion of a ‘God of the Gaps’ (Intelligent Design), insisting that a Christian understanding of the Almighty was of an all encompassing nature that set in motion the laws of the universe, within which the mechanism of evolution by means of natural selection was completely in accord. Finally, a charmingly irascible Dr David Colquhoun FRS, Professor of Pharmacology from Imperial University College London [who tells me in a follow-up email to this post that he will soon be posting his own take on the debate on his blog Improbable Science -KJ], rose to take an atheistic position that at it simplest asked people to ‘consider a mother gorilla cuddling her offspring to ask whether we are related?’, and which at its most scathing aligned creationism to pink fairies at the bottom of the garden.

Among the student’s contributions one ebullient young woman defended the right to have creationist views while making it clear she didn’t entertain them herself, while a second ‘hack’ of the society rejoined with a blistering response that majored on the pink fairies, Santa Clause and a host of other fantasies that could be equally regarded as ‘legitimate world views’. Among this hilarity a third student stood up to give witness to his personal, recently realised faith, explaining that he now proclaimed it on the streets of Dublin. He burned with passion professing an absolute and fundamental view, explaining how dinosaurs where easily explained as part of the divine creation alongside man, referring to the Congo monster the Mokele-mbembe (right) as his proof (see how this is also taken seriously by oxymoronic creation-science). In his fervour the young man denounced all scientific dating methods as false using the apparent evidence of lava from recent eruptions in New Zealand being dated as several millions of years old as evidence.

Listening to his contribution I could not help reflect on the young man’s fervour. Perhaps the chamber should be grateful that this was the particular position he chose to ‘witness’, in the UK, in the same week the trail was concluding of another young man who had been inducted into a fundamental faith position. He had witnessed his conviction by trying to set off a home-made bomb of caustic-soda, petrol and nails in a family restaurant in the cause of his Jihad – there but the grace of God you might say, and one of the issues of creationism being exported into the European context.

The final student contribution came from a young woman geologist. She first reminded the audience that magma beneath New Zealand, as elsewhere, moves slowly, deep in the earth’s mantle for millions of years and that its K-Ar radioactive signals are locked into mineral xenoliths such as olivine as they differentially crystallise out of the magma - long before they are exuded as volcanic lava. In any event these isotopes are used to measure the ages of igneous rocks over the vast time-period of geological time where this is a minor discrepancy, methods such as radiometric carbon and oxygen-isotope dating are used to measure more recent timescales of a few tens-of thousands or a few millions of years. She poignantly pointed to the knowledge of science that would need to be rejected if extreme creationist perspectives were upheld, not just biological evolution; but geological plate-tectonics; planetary-science; modern medicine and epidemiology were on her list. Her hilarious conclusion was simply that, in any event, if she were wrong the worst that could happen was that she would go to hell – and that would be great because it would be full of geologists!

So amongst this student light-heartedness we can only speculate why The Discovery Institute of America chose to send in a delegation of not one, but two of its big-guns. Could it be that they were taking the opportunity to support the efforts of their colleagues in the Causeway Creation Committee? This little group in Northern Ireland is lobbying to have a ‘creationist explanation’ of the basalt columns, which resulted from an ancient volcanic eruption, included alongside that of more charming story of how the mythical hunter Fionn mac Cumhaill built the causeway to keep his feet dry as he headed for Scotland. Not so amusing when the same group is lobbying to ban the teaching of evolution in the schools of Northern Ireland.

The pro-creationists presented a rather amusing parody of the Great Debate of the British Association in Oxford of 1860. Instead of an imposing Sir Richard Owen in the background, there was instead the diminutive Paul Nelson in the foreground (hiding his Discovery Centre allegiance by presenting himself as representing of the 'Access Research Network'!). His role was to make the case that an ‘intelligent agent’ having a part in science, arguing that this was increasingly apparent as the process of science in answering questions only resulted in more questions emerging that were unanswered! (The Owen analogy is not insignificant, Nelson would look a the tree of life in a similar way to how Owen hypothesised it consisting of groups around archetypes, in which animals were all variations on an Ideal Type – originated by a designer)!

Then in place of Bishop Wilberforce, the Discovery Institute presented its own Soapy Sam. The role of David Berlinski was to throw doubt on all - but insight into nothing. He presented straw-men with a superciliousness which had none of the humor of Samual Wilberforce’s, ‘was your grandfather an ape on your mother’s or your father’s side?’ but was equally deserving of T H Huxley’s famous response that he ‘was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great intellectual gifts to obscure the truth’. To make up the trio Peter Korevaar of the Studiengemeinschaft Wort und Wissen (Word and Knowledge Study Community) had been flown in from Germany. His bland assertion that while microevolution was demonstrable, macroevolution was not possible was no more convincing than it was memorable.

The proceedings drew towards a conclusion by me being asked to respond to the positions that the debate proponents had offered. I kept this short, first commenting that the actual responses had concentrated on the issues of creationism – which is actually marginal within the discourse in science. I pointed out that prior to coming I had considered carefully whether to attend a debate that offered a platform where the creationist movement could play out their mantra of ‘talk the controversy’. However, there is debate within society which is intergenerational - as young people such as the students in the society draw on their own perspectives and experience, and they deserve to hear both sides of the argument.

I pointed out to the society members that, despite appearances, the creationist camp included two speakers this evening that were directly associated with the Discovery Institute and commended that the audience took time to read for themselves the leaked internal political document that set out the true aims of this organisation. That is, to use the undermining of evolution as the ‘thin end of the wedge’ to topple western science. Their belief being that in doing this they will reverse materialism and replace it with a science consonant with Christian values (see "Wedge strategy"). I demonstrated the point by referring to one resent post on the Access Research Network website under the title of ID and Human Cloning which I had come across whilst researching the speakers:
‘…If however, our lives are the product of intentionality and design, then purpose and meaning as well as right and wrong may not be just arbitrary human constructs. In fact, the reverse might be true. Far from needing us to carve them out, purpose and meaning could form part of the very template from which we ourselves were stamped! With this starting point, cloning looks quite different...’
Turning back to the debate I suggest the Society should consider what were truths and half-truths. Was there a significant debate within mainstream science? Was the creationism position evidence-based or a political device to intercede in science?

I asked about the intentions of attempting to create a distinction between natural agent and intelligent agent, pointing out that the only intelligent agents accessible to being explored being the minds of organisms which are the product of evolution, not apart from it. Was this attempted distinction a subterfuge to avoid the more obvious distinction between natural and supernatural?

I concluded by saying that though I had being given the privilege of the last word in the discussion, it seemed appropriate to give it to my opponent as the focus had been primarily of the case for creations and Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute, AKA Access Research Network, had made written his own assessment of its status in the creationist Touchstone Magazine …
'Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.' - Paul Nelson 2004
I asked if this, the sum of creationist thinking, along with half-truths and straw men was more reasoned and supported by evidence than the huge advances in evolutionary biology achieved over the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection?

The Society chairman called for the response of the Society, first for those in support of the essay, and secondly for those rejecting creationism, in both cases the hue of voices and hands were an overwhelming 90+%, a tribute to Trinity’s Students acceptance of reason over ignorance.

*The views expressed in this post are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any of the organisations with whom the author is affiliated.


rpg said...

Hoorah for you, Bob.

As a Christian, I applaud your well-aimed and high calibre barrage directed at the trolls inhabiting the DI. They have neither scientific nor theology integrity.

Psiloiordinary said...

Great post.

Can we also post it at the BCSE blog?




Karen James said...

Psi, I'll pass your request on to the author. Thanks, Karen