Tuesday 30 November 2010

Michael Behe: still flogging the flagellum

Westminster Chapel is a large 19thC Romanesque style evangelical church located in Buckingham Gate, London, opposite its junction with Petty France. On Monday 22nd November I arrived at the appointed hour of 6:30 pm just as the doors were opened. I presented my ticket and was given a question slip and a "Promo Copy — Not for Resale" DVD, Unlocking the Mystery of Life by Illustra Media.

Taking advantage of my punctuality I was able to grab a good position in the centre of the third pew from the front. Before me a large screen hung above a raised stage with a lectern to the right and a drum kit to the left. (I hoped we were not to be subjected to live evangelical music, though faint recorded music emanated from the PA speakers either side of the stage.) The screen above displayed the logo for Justin Brierley's Premier Christian Radio Unbelievable? show, promoting the evening's event, Darwin or Design: An Evening with Michael Behe.

Professor Behe arrived about 6:35, and a little later I noticed Keith Fox take a seat near the front. As seven o'clock approached I estimated that between 150 and 200 people filled the ground floor pews, leaving the galleries empty. (I saw no video cameras, though an official-looking photographer took pictures throughout the evening from various viewpoints, including of the audience).

At about 7:05 Justin Brierley mounted the stage to introduce the evening's proceedings. David Williams, a trustee of the Centre for Intelligent Design was first up, touting the centre's ID merchandise, including DVDs of that disgracefully mendacious film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and the textbook Explore Evolution. Also available was Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box, though strangely not his latest, The Edge of Evolution. After a short introduction from Justin, Prof. Behe took the stage.

I shall not give a blow by blow account of Michael Behe's talk. Justin mentioned that the event was being recorded for later broadcast, apparently including the Q&A, so those interested will be able to hear the talk for themselves. What follows are my comments on what I consider Behe's more contentious points.

Behe used the mousetrap as an example of irreducible complexity and proceeded to speculate as to how it might work if any one of its parts were removed — concluding that of course it wouldn't work, it would be broken. But Prof. Behe knows (I hope) that mousetraps don't reproduce, and that they are, in fact, designed. This IC argument is no better than Paley's Watch. Watches, you'll note, also don't reproduce.

Dean Franklin - 06.04.03 Mount Rushmore Monument (by-sa)-3 new

Would you believe he's still using Mount Rushmore as an example of design detection? But the only reason we can tell that the sculptures of US presidents' heads were designed is because we know what faces look like, and we also have some concept of the shapes that natural erosion can produce on a mountainside. Suppose Mount Rushmore was observed by an alien race who had no concept of human faces — would they be able to detect that the mountain's contours had been designed? Behe's design detection is based entirely on preconceptions and comes down to no more than if it looks designed it must have had a designer.

Behe's problem is in the way he formulates his thesis. He claims that the way to detect design is to look for "a purposeful arrangement of parts", and apparently can't see that this is begging the question. By describing something as "purposeful" he's assuming that it's designed, in a kind of teleological tautology. Once again Behe's "design-detection" is no more than it's designed if it looks designed.

Along with repeating his "purposeful arrangement" mantra, Behe consistently labelled Darwinian evolution as "chance" and "accident" when he clearly knows that these words inaccurately characterise the process. He must be aware that the only accidental or chance aspect of evolutionary theory is random genetic mutation. The component of evolution that causes the actual evolving — natural selection — is far from chance or accident.

Flagellum base diagram enAfter fourteen years of comprehensive refutation, Michael Behe is still flogging the flagellum. Indeed, during the Q&A he was challenged that his examples of irreducible complexity, including the bacterial flagellum, have all been refuted. His response? "They're wrong!"

At one point in the lecture he asserted that the evidence for design is strong, while there is little evidence for Darwinism, going on to describe Darwinism's attempt to explain complexity as "wishful speculation". But intelligent design is itself the ultimate wishful speculation: "it's so complicated it must have been designed."

SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, was raised in the Q&A. SETI is often cited by ID enthusiasts as an example of design-detection, as if to give ID legitimacy by comparison. SETI scientists, however, are not looking for an intelligent signal from space, but for a narrow-band signal. Any modulation of that signal is expected to have been lost (smeared out), so it's unlikely to carry any intelligent content. Comparisons with the efforts of ID proponents are unwarranted.

When challenged by Keith Fox, Behe stated that if ID is correct, evolutionary biologists are wasting their time looking for evolutionary pathways to explain complexity. And yet he insists ID is not a science-stopper. Behe has claimed elsewhere that mainstream science ignores ID for "philosophical reasons", but there's a good reason for that — it's because ID is a philosophical idea, not a scientific one.

Behe claims that complex biological systems are "best explained by intelligent design" — this is a very peculiar use of the word "explained". One might reasonably ask for some — indeed any — details of this explanation. But ID proponents never provide any. Behe's response elsewhere to this criticism, and in the light of apparent flaws in the "design" of nature, is that "we can't know the mind of the designer." This is what I find so profoundly frustrating about ID. In what way can any of this be even remotely described as science?


ID has no evidence of its own. ID proponents carry out no research, restricting themselves to pointing out gaps in evolutionary theory. If something can't currently be explained by evolution, they claim that somebody (the "intelligent designer") must have done it instead. They contend that science is itself unnecessarily restricted in its scope by a priori ruling out supernatural explanations. But science must, if it is to be at all useful to us, restrict itself to methodological naturalism. If science were to accept non-natural explanations for observed phenomena, the scientific method would be irretrievably broken and useless, and scientific progress would grind to a halt.

It was an interesting but frustrating evening. Given the hype surrounding Behe's week-long whistle-stop UK lecture tour I had expected something new. But it was the same old nonsense — indeed the same old non-science.

UPDATE 2010-12-02:
Here's a short, useful video on Behe's irreducible complexity.

Michael Behe's presentation slides are available as a PDF here:

Early in his presentation Behe showed this Far Side cartoon, and went on to say that anyone will recognise that the skewering device was designed for a purpose — to which I would ask, has he never seen a Venus Flytrap? The way Gary Larson has drawn the device indicates to me that it could well be a rare jungle plant that has evolved to capture large animals. The ankle suspension is obviously a plant. So I think Behe clearly missed his point here, exposing his ID presuppositions.

(Go to the presentation PDF for the cartoon caption, though it's not part of Behe's thesis.)

Monday 22 November 2010

Darwin or Design — tonight!

In a few minutes I shall be getting on a train to London, to attend this:
I'll post a report here, probably towards the end of this week.

UPDATE 2010-11-30: Somewhat delayed, my report is now posted.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Burnee links for Thursday

BMJ Group blogs: Journal of Medical Ethics blog » Blog Archive » Odone and the CPS: Scaremongering about Euthanasia
Cristina Odone's report eviscerated.

Jim Mulligan - Faith in schools? | New Humanist
There's hope yet, it seems. One thing we must discourage, however, is any increase in exclusively Muslim schools.

The Atheist Experience™: Another year, another Hell House
Maybe Russell Glasser is a glutton for punishment, but he has some clear-sighted observations in this piece.

British Centre for Science Education: How not to attack Intelligent Design Creationism
Some more for the armoury against ID.

Sex before marriage is a path to misery, teenagers are told - Home News, UK - The Independent
Sex before marriage is evil.

Dolphinarium: Tribune Vardy statement in open court
Did Sir Peter Vardy pay for the teaching of creationism in British schools' science lessons? For some background, see this 2004 article:
Revealed: Blair's link to schools that take the Creation literally - UK Politics, UK - The Independent

I said I wouldn’t blog but...
Increase your bust size (with added "libel-chill").

Modern Technology is Making You Stupid. Sorry What? | Neurobonkers.com
Professor Susan "Unsubstantiated Assertions" Greenfield is, regrettably, still at it.

Why Libel Laws Must Change | The Quackometer
Andy Lewis gives his personal account of "libel chill" — and why it's got to stop.

Baskers - honestlyreal
An account of thoughtless victimization.

Christopher Hitchens: 'You have to choose your future regrets' | interview | Books | The Observer
A useful interview of the Hitch, who's still going strong despite his gloomy prognosis.

Charlie Brooker | The words you read next will be your last ... | Comment is free | The Guardian
Irony overload: Charlie Brooker gives his unique take on the #TwitterJokeTrial.

The Associated Press: Palestinian held for Facebook criticism of Islam
Where atheism is a criminal offence.

The Free Speech Blog: Official blog of Index on Censorship » Palestine’s ‘Atheist blogger’ behind bars
Arrested for atheism.

The Shadow Scholar - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
Disturbing revelations — on so many levels. (Via Pharyngula.)

See Yourself Reflected | Science | guardian.co.uk
Stephen Curry uses some modern public sculpture as inspiration for a piece on Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski (but mostly Carl Sagan).

The accidental exclusion of non-white atheists | Alom Shaha | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Do we need positive discrimination? See also...

Science, Reason and Critical Thinking: Middle Class, Middle Aged, Rationally Minded, Educated, White Gentlemen in the Pub (MCMARMEWGitP)
Do we need positive discrimination? Crispian Jago seems to be suggesting that we do, or at least he's pointing out that minorities are not equal, by virtue of being minorities, and perhaps we should make allowances for that.

Monday 15 November 2010

Cory Doctorow at TAM London 2010

The subject of copyright might not at first appear entirely relevant to the skeptical theme of TAM London, but Cory Doctorow is an engaging speaker and I was keen to hear him in person. (I also had a personal interest in hearing him speak, as I've had my own creative work published beside his, in the podcast fiction anthology Voices: New Media Fiction, edited by Mur Lafferty.) In the event Doctorow's talk fitted the theme perfectly, as he is skeptical of the whole idea of copyright as it is attempted to be implemented in the modern digital world.


Doctorow is himself a pioneer in copyright reform. As a science-fiction writer he makes all his novels available for free under Creative Commons, yet still earns money from the same novels published conventionally. He worked for some years at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, so is no stranger to challenging accepted paradigms.

He pointed out that the way copyright-owners currently seek to restrict use of their intellectual property is simply impractical in the age of the internet, and that "yesterday's pirates are today's admirals". As an example he cited the invention of the phonograph, which appeared to threaten publishers of sheet music. When it became possible to mechanically record music played from the printed sheets, the music publishers understandably objected to the recording companies' selling their recordings direct to the public. They considered the recording companies pirates, but now the recording companies are the admirals, protesting at the ease with which their recordings can be shared at very low cost without remuneration to the companies that manufactured the recordings. He described Viacom's attempts to force YouTube to vet — for copyright violation — all uploads to the world's most popular video-sharing website as doomed: there simply isn't enough time between now and the heat death of the universe for YouTube to do such a thing.


Cory Doctorow is always great value as a speaker — clear, provocative, funny and disciplined. He dealt with questions from the floor in typical no-nonsense fashion. Other public speakers could learn a lot from his style. If you want more Doctorow, I recommend his website Craphound.com as a first stop. He's also an editor of BoingBoing, the well-known tech/culture blog.


Wednesday 10 November 2010

Libel reform — mass blog posting

I post the following at the suggestion of Simon Singh:
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at www.libelreform.org/sign
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at www.libelreform.org/sign