Tuesday 19 June 2012

Monsters in an area of confusion

As discussed on Skepticule Extra 28, the Goddess Roundtable podcast is a festival of woo. After hearing co-host Paul Thompson describe this particular episode I decided to give it a listen. I posted a link on Facebook and commented as it progressed:

Listening to this now — it's hilarious:


Sunday 17 June 2012

Extra Skepticule goodness for your downloading and listening pleasure

Skepticule Extra 28 is now available, just as we've recorded number 29:


Creationist crop circles in your vagina call for more skepticism, zero atheists and serpentine health and safety precautions.

Parts of SkepExtra 30 (a milestone!) will probably be recorded next Saturday, during Alan Turing's centenary (another milestone!) at Bletchley Park. See you there — and if you see us, be prepared to speak into the mic.

Friday 8 June 2012

Obscure reasons to believe

Two weeks ago it was the second Unbelievable? conference. Premier are now taking orders for the DVD set, for those who were unable to attend, or who did attend but want to hear the sessions they inevitably missed in a single-day, multi-track event.

Here's what Premier are saying is on the DVDs:

"God & Science: Cosmic Reasons For Christ"
"Whose worldview? C.L.E.A.R. reasons for Christianity"
"Gunning For God: Why the new atheists are missing the target"
"Evangelism remixed: new models for evangelism in the 21st Century"
"Evangelism in a sceptical world"
"Evangelism in a multifaith world"
"Confessions of a compulsive thinker"
"Confessions from the mission field"
"Confessions of a former atheist" 

I can't work up much enthusiasm for anything listed above, so I won't be sending an order. I bought last year's DVD set — for reasons I set out in the first of my three blogposts about it:

This year's conference was in association with "Reasons to Believe", and Hugh Ross — the President of Reasons to Believe — was a guest on Unbelievable? prior to the conference. He was also on Revelation TV opposite Malcolm Bowden, a Young Earth Creationist, which by comparison made Ross's views seem fairly conventional. But Ross, and Reasons to Believe, strike me as leaning further towards the fundamentalist side of Christianity than Premier — or at least Unbelievable? — have so far appeared to do.

As an atheist curious about the prevalence of religious belief, I've been interested to learn what makes religious people tick, but my investigations to date have been disappointing and inconclusive. As part of those investigations I read and reviewed a recommended book purporting to offer scores of arguments for faith, and I watched and reviewed the whole of last year's Unbelievable? conference DVDs. Both were underwhelming. That John Lennox was promoted as a star attraction at this year's conference leads me to conclude that it was more of the same — a notion reinforced by the inclusion of someone from the Alpha course.

The conference itself may have been inspiring and invigorating for its participants, but I imagine the vast majority of them were believers — and if they want to spend a day in the company of like-minded people and listen to Christian apologetics that's fine by me, but judging by last year's DVDs I'm not sure what influence the talks will have outside the conference and the circles of its attendees.

For the present, I tend to agree with former Unbelievable? (and recent Skepticule Extra) guest James Croft, when he says, "Apologetics is a waste of time."

Wednesday 6 June 2012

ID proponents still pretending to do "science"

On the 17th of November last year Stephen C. Meyer delivered a lecture at the Royal Horseguards Hotel in London, at an event sponsored by the Centre for Intelligent Design. The lecture, hosted by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, was titled "Is there a Signature in the Cell?" — presumably based on Meyer's similarly titled book, Signature in the Cell. The three Pauls talked about the lecture on our Skepticule Extra podcast, but I thought it might be useful to put my own thoughts on it in writing (though much of this will be a repeat of what I said on on the podcast).

The event was shrouded in a certain amount of spurious secrecy, as can be seen from this extract from the C4ID website:
The audience of some 90 invited guests included leading scientists, philosophers, Parliamentarians, educationalists, theologians, lawyers, and representatives of the media and business sectors.  Given the controversial nature of the subject and the desire not to inhibit discussion, C4ID requested that the identity of the participants remain protected.  The attendance of so many significant figures signals real interest in the topic, but, as Lord Mackay stressed in his introduction, their presence was not taken as an indication of support for the position of Intelligent Design (ID)
Also in the audience was Justin Brierley, host of Premier's Unbelievable? radio programme, who posted this on Facebook:
I have a confession... I'm coming off the fence over ID, well certainly at least with the origin of DNA. This lecture which I attended recently and the shows I have done convince me that when it comes to biogenesis, ID makes sense.

I've been criticised by theistic evolutionists for featuring ID on the show. But when it comes down to it, I don't see the difference. If TE says that the process that kick started evolution was in some sense goal oriented by divine guidance - then isn't that the same as saying that the assembly of the first self replication molecule was not down to blind forces and chance? Which is essentially what Stephen Meyer argues.

Some Christian don't like the theological implications of God "tinkering" but if we believe God intervenes in all kinds of other ways in miracles, the resurrecion etc. why shoudn't the moment of life's creation fall under this? And if the problem is that it doesn't look good theologically, then aren't the TEs doing what they critices YECs for - allowing their theological presuppositions to dictate what is allowed in the scientific realm.

I dont have a theological axe to grind when it comes to ID, I just think that given what we know now, and because I can't see good reason why deisgn isn't a viable explanation, it is the best explanation.

Just my musings, feel free to tear them apart!
Some months after the lecture a video of it was made available on YouTube, so I decided to watch it. What follows are some thoughts triggered as I watched.


Meyer begins with some sensible localisation, stating that in the United States Intelligent Design is perceived as connected to Young Earth Creationism. This is not so in the United Kingdom — because in the UK we never had the equivalent of the Scopes trial. This is presumably because in the UK we don't have separation of Church and State (even though we might be viewed as a more secular society than the US).

Meyer goes on to make a number of general points, beginning with the main point of ID, the Question of Design — is there a mind behind biological complexity? He mentions Richard Dawkins, oddly suggesting that he's not regarded as seriously as he used to be, due to his media involvement. This might be wishful thinking on Meyer's part, but nevertheless Meyer says he likes Dawkins' directness.

Meyer then claims that "today there is a very spirited discussion going on about the adequacy of natural selection and random mutation to produce not the minor variations … but the fundamental innovations in the history of life." He doesn't cite any sources for these spirited discussions, which makes me think this is merely sowing the seeds of doubt, as he's clearly doing when he claims that many evolutionary biologists are now saying that neo-Darwinian mechanics of mutation and selection are insufficient to produce large scale innovations. Again no direct sources — how many is 'many'? And the introduction of "large scale innovations" hints that he's favouring "micro-evolution" over "macro-evolution".

The origin of life — of the first cell — is not explained by Darwinian evolution, Meyer says, which appears to be an effort on his part to bias the story. He's asking how can Darwin be said to have refuted the design argument if he was unable to explain the "design" of the first cell. As far as I'm aware that's not what happened; Darwin showed that a designer was not necessary for evolution, but admitted ignorance of the origin of life. ID proponents such as Meyer are spinning this as a disingenuous claim by evolutionists, when it's nothing of the kind.

Meyer says the acceptance of ignorance about the origin of the first cell is due to a prevailing view that life was simple — a globule of plasm — and the intellectual leap to evolving life wasn't that great. Then we're on to some particular buzzwords beloved by the ID crowd, beginning with "sequence specificity". Something is "sequence specific" if the sequence determines the form (and therefore the function). Meyer shows an animation to illustrate how proteins are synthesized — starting with the sequence of genes along the spine of a DNA molecule. It all looks very complicated, but presumably illustrates how present-day cells work. It's likely, it seems to me, that the very first self-replicating cells were far simpler.

The "DNA Enigma", Meyer claims, concerns the origin of information, and he explains that there are two* types of information: Shannon information — the reduction of uncertainty, by which the more improbable an event, the more information is conveyed by the outcome of that event (in a strictly mathematical sense), but this cannot account for 'specified' complexity. He seems to be saying that specified complexity is present if you recognize what a given sequence represents. That, it seems to me, is post hoc rationalisation, as if "specified complexity" refers to complexity that contains information that has no apparent correlation to the function it produces — suspiciously like an argument from ignorance — and yet can only be recognised after the fact. As usual with ID proponents, this claim to be able to identify design isn't elaborated before we're on to something else — in this case a quotation from Jacques Monod: "A striking appearance of design." Monod apparently attributes this striking appearance to chance or necessity, or a combination of the two, in explaining natural processes.

Meyer says chance can produce the "appearance of design", but it's only good for short sequences. But what about selection? Meyer claims that applying natural selection to the origin of life is begging the question — invoking replication and 'life' in order to explain life's origin. I think, however, that he may be too restrictive in his ordering — natural selection doesn't have to kick in only after DNA, it can presumably operate on the simplest self-replicating molecules — the very first precursors to DNA/RNA etc.

Meyer goes on to mention the RNA world (which approximates to what I suggested above). He says the RNA world is problematic and he's happy to speak about it in the Q&A and that he covers it in his book. This, to me, seems like a cop-out.

Monod's third option is self-organisation. But chemistry alone, Meyer says, cannot determine the sequence of bases in DNA. So we don't know what determines the base sequence — once again we're back to an argument from ignorance. He says it's not the physics and chemistry that determines the sequence — when what he probably means is that he can't think of any mechanism by which physics and chemistry could determine the sequence.

Meyer then invokes an "inference to the best explanation", but unfortunately what he proposes isn't actually an explanation. It offers nothing extra, over and above what "I don't know" offers. The reason why we can make inferences to the best explanation in other areas — why we can speculate about possible causes for events or phenomena, is we understand how those causes work. It's no good proposing a cause when we don't know how that cause works, because that doesn't have any explanatory power. "It was designed" doesn't explain anything unless we can say how it was designed. This is my fundamental objection to ID.

By way of example of such an inference Meyer uses the presence of geological layers of volcanic ash. That's a valid example, because we know how volcanoes produce layers of volcanic ash. It's not valid for inferring a design to first life.

Meyer concludes with a lame graphic to illustrate the argument he uses in his book, Signature in the Cell. He has four options to explain the appearance of design: 1) Chance; 2) Necessity; 3) Chance plus Necessity; 4) ID — and then he eliminates all but ID. But he's not established that these are the only options, and they could all be wrong.

The video then jumps to the Q&A session, but apparently only the final question. The screen indicates Meyer might have been discussing the accusation that ID is an argument from ignorance, but from what's actually on the screen I don't think he could have done it very well, as the graphics seemed to reinforce the idea that ID is indeed an argument from ignorance.

The final question was "What is Science?" Meyer says it's a method, and mentions that this is relevant to whether ID is or is not science. But he says he's not interested in whether ID is science, only in whether it's true (or more likely to be true). He claims that the accusation that ID is not science is a ploy to avoid discussing it scientifically. I could just as easily say that his lack of concern about whether ID is science is a ploy to avoid applying the scientific method to it. He claims throughout his lecture, however, that he's using the kind of science employed by Charles Darwin.

A URL at the end of the video invites people to download a free digital companion to the book. I did this, even though I had to register with the Discovery Institute in order to get the PDF, though I've not yet read it. It appears to be a response to various criticisms of Signature in the Cell.

Most apparent from this lecture is that despite a resurgence of interest in the UK (manifested by the formation of C4ID in Scotland), ID has nothing new to offer on the question of life's origins, and remains hidebound in a tacit endorsement of scriptural infallibility. ID is an explanation of sorts, if you have fairly low expectations of what an "explanation" is supposed to tell you, but isn't in any sense a scientific explanation.

As far as I recall, Meyer didn't elucidate the second type.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

James Croft on Skepticule Extra

James Croft was our guest on the latest episode of Skepticule Extra. Hear about humanist communities and the recent Reason Rally:


Well worth 75 minutes of anyone's time...

Oh look, a blogpost! Burnee links for a diamond jubilee Tuesday

The “objective morality” gotcha | Pharyngula
"Objective" but not "absolute".

How Christian fundamentalists plan to teach genocide to schoolchildren | Katherine Stewart | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
Why, as an atheist, do I spend so much of my time opposing religion? This article is but one example of why.

Does Religious Liberty Equal Freedom to Discriminate? - Lawrence M. Krauss - RichardDawkins.net - RichardDawkins.net
Lawrence Krauss ponders the progress of secular liberty.

Why do normal people believe ridiculous things?
Clarity from Jonathan Pearce.

Nobel laureate joins anti-vaccination crowd at Autism One - Forbes
...and other quack wackos likely to do real harm.

Debunking Christianity: Articulett Responds To The Question of the Origins of the Universe
A fun but snarky read.