Sunday 28 February 2010

Premier's screening of Expelled — 27 February 2010

I was initially reluctant to take up Premier's offer of attending a screening of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed followed by a debate about the issues it raised. I'd already seen the film (thanks to the wonder of the internet) and I knew what a pile of (ahem) misrepresentation it was. But I'd never been to Imperial College, despite passing it scores of times over the years on my way to the Royal Albert Hall. Then I hit on the idea of going to the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in the morning, which I felt would be an appropriate precursor to (and inoculation against) the horrors to come. (I'll post later about the Darwin Centre and the Cocoon.)

Just in case anyone doesn't know what the film is about, the theme of Expelled is that scientists in America who espouse intelligent design are being systematically expelled and excluded from universities, and journalists who write articles sympathetic to ID — or its proponents — are losing their jobs, and that this whole thing is a Darwinist conspiracy. I won't go into the merits or otherwise(!) of the film here as I've made my views on it clear enough elsewhere.

The debate panel comprised, on the pro-ID side: Steve Fuller, Professor of Sociology at Warwick University, who appears in Expelled, and who also testified in the Dover trial in favour of ID; Alastair Noble, an ex-schools-inspector, who not so long ago wrote a disturbing piece for the Guardian exposing his ID credentials. On the panel against ID were: Susan Blackmore, Visiting Professor in the School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, and whom I've seen debate before (this time she was without her signature multicoloured locks); Keith Fox, Professor of Biochemistry, Southampton University, a theistic evolutionist — he's a Christian who doesn't believe ID is a valid proposition for explaining the presence of complexity in DNA. Justin Brierley, host of Premier's Unbelievable? radio programme, moderated. At the end of the debate Mark Haville, responsible for bringing Expelled to the UK, read a statement (see below).

I'd met up with MSP and a friend of his in the foyer, and as the three of us sat down in the third row of the Alexander Fleming lecture hall at Imperial College (I wanted to be sure of being able to hear) I joked that we ought to have a label in front of us reading "Atheist Contingent". I actually had no idea of the audience make-up and it remained unclear even during the screening, when there was a good deal of laughter at certain points in the film.

Once the debate began, however, it became clear that we were much in the minority. Sue Blackmore was interrupted in her opening remarks (though Justin Brierley is to be commended for his instant quelling of any potential for heckling). Alastair Noble began by congratulating Premier Radio for bringing Expelled to the UK (not an entirely accurate portrayal of events as I understand them) and hoped that every student in the country would see it. This brought a round of applause.

He said, "I have found it to be the most interesting, the most thought-provoking, in many ways the funniest film I have seen in a long time, but also a film with a deeply serious message." He stated his opposition to the materialistic "bias" of science as follows: "In the area of origins, you cannot limit yourself only to material and physical explanations. You must consider intelligent causation, and that's what lies at the heart of intelligent design, and that is what is ruled out by an arbitrary definition of science." (In his opening remarks he didn't suggest — given what the endeavour of science actually is — exactly how scientists might be expected to investigate anything that wasn't material or physical. If we wanted to know how science might investigate the nature of the soul, for instance, I guess we'd have to wait.) He did give us his definition of ID: "a minimal commitment to the possibility of intelligent causation." But just how minimal is minimal? Goddidit? I-don't-know-who-or-what-didit? Calling this "science" is a bastardisation of the term.

Keith Fox's opening remarks answered Alastair Noble directly, making the obvious point that the physical and material is all that can be addressed by science, and ID is therefore not science. He went on to criticise the film for its distortion of the idea of freedom of speech, and for its offensive muddling of the relationship between belief in God and evolutionary theory. He also condemned its erroneous linking of evolutionary theory with eugenics, and other misappropriations.

Steve Fuller began by excusing the tone and style of the film as comparable to anything produced by Michael Moore (as if that was somehow a recommendation), and went on to maintain that what happened to Michael Reiss (when he was ousted from the Royal Society for his soft approach to creationism in the classroom) is comparable to what was portrayed in the film with regard to scientists losing their jobs if they so much as mentioned ID.

The ensuing debate was hopelessly muddled — confusing creationism, intelligent design and abiogenesis, and included disagreements as to whether IDers actually were being expelled from academia. The panel represented a mix of overlapping views and beliefs, with Steve Fuller (who appeared in the film) seeming especially hard to pin down, despite being extremely vocal on the side of the film's producers. In contrast, ex-schools-inspector Alastair Noble was responsible for the most egregious and forthright comments of the afternoon. He's an unabashed IDer, plainly parroting the buzzwords of William Dembski and other ID ilk ("functional specified information", "front-loaded with information" etc) but did not follow his argument through to its next stage. He claimed that DNA code is evidence for a designer, stating that all examples of coded information that we know about come from an intelligent mind, so why should that be different for DNA?

It could well be different, and here's why. It's because his characterisation of "all examples of coded information that we know about" as originating from an intelligent mind leaves out a vital corollary of that intelligent mind, which is this: it's a human mind. All examples of coded information that we know about originate from intelligent human minds. Does Alastair Noble believe, therefore, that the coded information in DNA comes from human minds? Apparently not, and neither do I. But the only intelligence we know about, that's capable of producing coded information, is human intelligence. The commonality here is not "intelligence", but "human intelligence". How many different types of intelligence do we know about, that are capable of producing coded information? One: human intelligence. (I'm sorry to belabour this point, but the IDers really need to get it.) It's invidious to attempt to extrapolate from the capabilities of the single example we have of an intelligence that is capable of producing coded information, to claim that all coded information of any kind must therefore be produced by intelligence.

To put it another way — there are too many variables in this equation; coded-information-produced-by-non-human-intelligence is one. Non-human-intelligence is the other. Since one of these variables is contained within the other we will get nowhere in speculating about cause and effect. It's a bit like trying to solve simultaneous equations in algebra — you need at least as many independent equations as you have variables to solve. With intelligent design you have at least one more variable than you have equations. The scientifically correct, current answer to the question of where the coded information in DNA comes from, is "As of now, we don't know".

The IDers claim they have an answer ... wait ... no they don't, they claim they have a question — the same question that legitimate science has: where does DNA code come from? The difference is that while legitimate science says "we don't know but we're working on it", the IDers say "we don't know but we're not working on it".

And they expect this stuff to be taught in schools.

There was a significant exchange towards the end of the Q&A, when Alastair Noble invited Keith Fox to read Department of Education & Science guidance of a few years ago, about how intelligent design was to be handled within science. He said it stated that ID was "not to be regarded as science." He then went on to say, "And that's the problem — we do not have freedom of enquiry in this matter." Keith Fox effectively rebutted this saying that in schools, when teaching at a basic level, only accepted science should be taught.

If the IDers want intelligent design taught in schools, they need to provide evidence that it's a viable theory. So far they've not done so. For a movement that talks so much about science, it has remarkably little actual scientific research of any kind to show for itself. Alastair Noble stated that Alexander Fleming (for whom the hall we were in was named) noticed something that no-one else had noticed. He maintains that likewise IDers have noticed something. Very well then, show us the evidence. Evidence is what the scientific community needs in order to consider a theory viable; until that scientific evidence is presented ID will continue to be treated, rightly, as unscientific, and no amount of bleating about unfairness and ostracism will change that fact.

As the Q&A session came to a close the make-up of the audience had become a little clearer. Several of Alastair Noble's emotive but puerile comments were applauded instantaneously, as were some smart-alec interjections from Steve Fuller, including an entirely gratuitous, unjustified denigration of David Attenborough. Some of the questioners were obviously creationists who denied evolution outright, and at least one questioner self-proclaimed as a fundamentalist. Given that the event was put on by a Christian organisation, with the assistance of a pro-ID DVD company, to promote a pro-ID DVD, it's not surprising that the majority of the audience would favour the faith-based viewpoint.

What I did find surprising was the low-key wrap-up provided by Mark Haville, responsible for the promotion of Expelled in the UK. He announced some generous discount offers on his company's range of ID and creationist DVDs, then went on to read a prepared and somewhat long-winded statement. I've transcribed it from my recording — I omitted to ask for a printed copy — so there may be transcription errors in what follows. He said it was aimed at the press, so I assume it's OK to post here:
Once again, welcome to the debate. I hope, and dare I say pray, that this event will bring much-needed change, and promote truth in science where it is lacking. Science can mean knowledge, and many people rightly expect truth to go hand-in-hand with that knowledge. Winston Churchill once said truth is incontrovertible, panic may resent it, ignorance may deride it, malice may distort it, but there it is. Knowledge and truth are important for a stable society, and whilst it is beyond the remit of empirical science to speak to every kind of knowledge, especially metaphysical things, it is therefore an undeniable hypocrisy when atheism, materialism and scientism are being promoted by so many today under the guise of authentic science. Atheistic philosophies and world-views, which have no foundation in empirical science, are routinely forced upon students, professors and the general public alike without the logical, ethical and moral implications of those ideas being explored or explained. Magical and mythological hypotheses like inanimate molecules producing life, and eventually consciousness, while time, space and matter coming into existence from nothing, or the eternal existence of matter, are only a few of the invisible fabrics woven together to form the atheists' new clothes. Such theories are not testable science, based on observation and experiment, and people who have this religious faith in such notions have no right to continually force their world-view or agendas on everyone else, while simultaneously denying free scientific enquiry from those who doubt Darwin's dubious deductions, or to castigate those with opposing world-views. As you heard in the film, evolutionists are free to believe there is no evidence for morality, no ultimate foundation for ethics, no free will, and that for some it may be better to shoot yourself in the head than to endure prolonged suffering from a brain tumour. Or to believe a person who doubts macro-evolution means that he is insane, stupid or ignorant. But these are implications evolutionists believe science reveals and are not scientific facts in and of themselves. And so the question that must be allowed, without boilerplating, additional distortion, misrepresentations or even lies, is where does the evidence lead. There must now, more than ever, be the freedom to challenge unsound theories, examine new evidence, and most importantly there must be the liberty to follow that evidence wherever it may lead, or conversely the individual freedom to ignore the moral and ethical implications if one so chooses. But not to fear investigation or worse still to silence, ridicule or vilify those who question materialistic concepts dressed up as science. Those scientists who hold such radical views should not dictate what is scientific fact, as this is the clearest case of the foxes guarding the scientific hen-house. This must change, as negative effects of scientific atheism on our society are now far reaching. So today I would like to announce the beginning of a national campaign to expose this bias to the public and to hopefully legislate necessary changes, so that science can have the freedom to advance and serve mankind to its fullest extent, whether in our schools, our laws or our lives. And again, thank you for attending, and for listening.
I have to say that it was a bit sneaky, putting this in at the end without the chance of a reply, chock-full as it is with fallacies, straw men and most of all projection. But hey, that's ID for you.

Sunday 14 February 2010

Burnee links for Sunday

On Faith Panelists Blog: Haiti and the hypocrisy of Christian theology - Richard Dawkins
Dawkins (uncharacteristically but justifiably) lets rip.

Butterflies and Wheels Notes Archive: "The mystery of the providence of God"
The appalling suffering in Haiti continues to tax theodicy's advocates — to no avail. "God moves in a mysterious way." — substitute "unbelievable" for "mysterious" and you have a far more accurate description of the way things are.

'Jesus wouldn't want bishops in House of Lords,' says critic — Ecumenical News International
First report of the informal debate I attended at the Houses of Parliament a couple of weeks ago.

Famous philosopher and Templeton-Prize winner: science = faith « Why Evolution Is True
Science is faith. Wait ... no, it isn't. Jerry Coyne deconstructs.

The Atheist Blogger » Open Letter to the Student’s Union
Freedom of speech is under threat at Royal Holloway, University of London. If you censor speech you forfeit the opportunity to disagree with it in public.

'A religious but not righteous Judge: Cherie Blair' by AC Grayling - Specially written for -
The judge may not have been lenient because the defendant was "a religious man" but rather because she equates being religious with high moral standards. This, we know, is false. See also Jack of Kent's comment on the New Humanist post.

Atheists are wrong to claim science and religion are incompatible, Church of England says - Telegraph
Peter Capon, a lay member of Synod from Manchester diocese who tabled the Private Member’s Motion on the compatibility of science and religious belief, said that Christians believe the world exists because of the will of God whereas atheists consider this to be a “complete delusion”.
He went on: “We wish to refute the idea promoted by atheist scientists that science is on the side of the atheist in answering these sorts of questions.
"We wish to refute the perception that you have to choose between science and faith
"We wish to refute the crude caricature of faith, as being blind and irrational, propagated by some atheist scientists."
Go on then. Refute this idea, this perception, this caricature. But remember that mere denial is not refutation. To refute something, you need evidence.

I note that Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, is persisting in his erroneous definition of faith:
He said that belief in the invisible subatomic particles of quantum physics requires just as great a leap of faith as belief in God.
“If believing that isn’t faith I don’t know what is and I don’t think that we need to be defensive about ours,” the bishop said.
It's clear to me that Tom Butler is correct: he doesn't know what faith is.

Rationally Speaking: How to Want to Change Your Mind
Julia Galef gives advice on not being too attached to our beliefs.

Clerics’ ‘dark age’ comments about women causes outrage among their flock
Enlightenment and civilisation correlate well with the emancipation of women. Of course, correlation doesn't necessarily indicate causation, and even if causation is indeed present, it isn't necessarily specified in which direction. But if both of these things are desirable, does it matter whether or not one of them causes the other? Let's strive for them both.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

Shaking Hands with Death — Sir Terry Pratchett's Richard Dimbleby Lecture

Assisted death has always been a touchy subject for religionists — who are generally against it for no other reason than they believe it is against holy writ. They make noises about the danger of coercion, of a "slippery slope", but these objections appear to be so much smoke, intended to conceal their real (and arbitrary) reasons for opposing it.

Those who show true compassion in this matter tend to be the godless ones, unfettered by irrational scripture, and I can cite no better example than fantasy novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, a notable humanist, in his BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture, broadcast on Monday 1 February 2010:

Part 1
Part 2

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

With heartfelt sincerity, plus his characteristic wit, Sir Terry tells it like it is, superbly mediated by his "stunt Pratchett" and friend, Tony Robinson. Watch, listen, and know the truth.

( BitTorrent-enabled users can get a high-definition version here: )

Knowledge and faith are not remotely the same thing

On this morning's Thought for the Day the Rev Tom Butler, who claims to be trained in both science and theology, said this:
One physicist has written: "Our measurements point to a universe filled with a kind of matter which we've never seen, propelled by a force which we don't understand." If believing that isn't faith, I don't know what is.
It might help if Tom Butler had been trained in logical thinking as well. The unnamed physicist is clearly making a statement about a lack of knowledge, and it is revealing that the cleric interprets this as faith. Cosmologists speculate about about the nature of the universe, and see that their knowledge about it is far from complete. Clerics may speculate about the nature of God, and with even less knowledge go on to claim that they know in detail what this deity wants you to do with your genitalia.

Sorry to labour the point, but I find it frustrating that this has to be pointed out yet again. Cosmologists may indeed suggest that the universe is largely composed of quantities of matter and energy that they know next to nothing about. But they then go on to suggest how this stuff might be accounted for. They hypothesise. They speculate. They calculate. They test.

Theologians, on the other hand, faced with something about which they have a comparable lack of knowledge, do not do this. They just make stuff up.

Thought for the Day is available as a podcast feed here:

or from iTunes here:

(BBC podcasts, like the iPlayer streams, usually expire after seven days, but all the Thoughts are available for audio download as mp3s on the TftD archive website.)