Some time ago, PBS aired an episode of Nova entitled ‘Judgement Day’. It was, in my estimation, an excellent discussion of what went on in the town of Dover when creationists attempted to inject their inanity about how life came to be into a Science class. I highly recommend watching it, as it was an accurate depiction of what went on in the subsequent lawsuit. And, yes, I have read both the trial transcripts and the judge’s decision, so I am in a position to make such a judgement call.
The program re-enacted a number of highlights from the trial. Michael Behe, the only member of the Discovery Institute of those originally scheduled to appear, was supposed to be the defence’s star witness. It turned out he was an unwitting wringer for the prosecution. Behe is an example of one of the most interesting properties of creationists (or intelligent design) proponents: their inability to change their ideas in the face of overwhelming evidence. Behe has been repeatedly told why his concept of ‘irreducible complexity’ and the examples he gives for it are completely bogus, yet he has never changed his tune. And this was why he was totally demolished on the witness stand. Of course, Behe produced his pet example of irreducible complexity, the bacterial flagellum.
Bad move. According to his definition of IC, if you remove one of the parts of the motor it ceases to function. But it is this definition which clearly demonstrates Behe’s utter lack of understanding of evolutionary processes. Like his mousetrap example, he ignores that the various parts may (and do) have other functions. For some reason, Behe presumes that the flagellum motor is what nature strives for. But nature is blind and strives for nothing. The co-option of structures which have their own function prior to forming a new structure having a new function which is advantageous to survival is a theme common in evolution. Perhaps Behe knows this, but this says even worse about him. He’s either ignorant or a liar – take your pick. For the flagellum, much of the motor is comprised of the type III secretory system found in other related bacteria. For the mousetrap, the base, spring and clapper makes a perfectly good (if less than fashionable) tie clasp.
But Behe’s problems were about to get worse, and he had only himself to blame. He put his own head on the chopping block and released the guillotine himself. First, he quotes a paper written by an expert on the bacteria flagellum which makes it sound as if the author believed that the flagellum was designed. But as soon as you talk to the author about it (and Nova did), he will (and did) quickly set the record straight: he meant no such thing. This is commonly known as ‘quote mining’, where a quote with one meaning is taken out of context and when viewed in a vacuum seems to mean something else. This is a favorite tactic of creationists (as many of us well know), and it is totally deceitful. But when Behe did it using the scientific literature as a source, he screwed up. The prosecution witnesses (who, as we shall see) are far more familiar with the relevant literature and knew the intended meaning of what was said and emasculated Behe for it.
It gets worse. Behe made a statement to the effect that there is nothing in the scientific literature which shows how the flagellum could come about through evolutionary processes. Ooopsie. At this point, the prosecution lawyer piles papers and books in front of Behe on that very topic selected by their experts. The defense tried to pass it off as just a cheap lawyer’s trick. Indeed, and a great one. This ‘cheap lawyer’s trick’ clearly demonstrated Behe’s lack of preparation and the complete laziness in never bothering to find out whether there had been any work on the evolution of the flagellum before making such a statement. Had Behe actually read the material he could have avoided being embarrassed (I’m not sure he was, but he should have been) and scored a point for the defense. Instead, this ‘cheap lawyer’s trick’ elegantly underscored an important point – that Behe is full of crap. Had he tried to publish a paper with such a statement in the discussion, I doubt he would still be teaching at Lehigh. The point is, to say something like that, you have to be up on all of the relevant literature, not just some of it. And Behe hadn’t bothered to read any of it. One can only presume that Behe has no interest in the truth and serves as a dishonest broker. His mission in life is to lie to you for Jesus.
Other highlights include the so-called ‘Wedge Document’ fathered by Phillip Johnson. This outlines the incidious plan (he claims it is not nefarious, but that claim falls on deaf ears here) to inject creationism first into schools, then into Science in general under the guise of so-called ‘intelligent design’. But, as Kevin Padian said, intelligent design makes people stupid. As I will talk about in the next blog on this subject, Phillip Johnson is on record for his desire to bring Christ into all scientific theories. So, who is Phillip Johnson? Is he some emminent biochemist like (insert sarcasm here) Behe? A Nobel Laureate in physics? Hardly. He’s a LAWYER! I’m all for free speech and all, but c’mon. Everyone has a right to say what they think on a subject, but in the absence of any training in Science, Johnson should have absolutely no expectation that anyone will listen to him, at least not without laughing at him. Yet he curiously does seem to have this expectation. I’ve got to admire his tenacity, but I have no intention of allowing him or his ilk (like relative newcomer Ben Stein) to accomplish what would be the death of Science.
Behe was also forced to admit on the stand that for ID to be viewed as Science, the very definition of Science would need to be changed in a way that would include astrology and other nonsense. Once the supernatural is included as valid science, why do science at all? Chalk it up to a deity and let’s go for a beer! Hey, if it wasn’t so contemptably lazy and idiotic, I’d be up for that. In a similar vein, another defence witness had to admit on the stand that no experimental research is being done in ID. In other words, these people don’t want to verify their ‘theory’ (which of course doesn’t even exist). What are they afraid of? That they will be wrong? Speaking as a scientist, we have no problem with the overturning of what can be shown by experiment and observation to be falsified hypotheses! What this says to me is that these people know that ID is a bad idea and are just trying to snow their listeners with a lot of technically sounding jargon devoid of any substance.
But the best gaff was contained in the textbook over which this whole bruhaha came from, ‘Of Pandas and People’. This book was being written at around the time a similar trial was happening in 1987. When the creationists lost that case, this creationist textbook changed the term ‘creationists’ to ‘design proponents’ and simply made a one-for-one substitution in order to circumvent the court’s ruling. This lead to the ‘transitional fossil’ found in one of the drafts, ‘cdesign proponentsists’. The judge said it best- the breathtaking inanity.
After the program was aired, PBS opened up a discussion board on their website. You should have seen the wailing and gnashing of teeth! ‘Unfair!’ ‘Unbalanced!’ Was it? This program was about the trial and what transpired. Both evolution and intelligent design were explained, even though this wasn’t really about either (except insofar as the trial was concerned). Was Behe an idiot on the stand? You bet. The trial transcripts actually made him out to be worse than he was portrayed in the program! That Behe refused to be interviewed for the program was Behe’s call. This alone was an interesting topic of discussion. What would you have done if you were Behe? Aside from such a switch drastically dropping your IQ, of course.
‘Judgement Day’ was indeed an accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the actions of the school board, the truly brave stance taken by the Science class teachers, trial testimony, the terrible treatment of those opposing the introduction of thinly-veiled creationism into a Science class by so-called Christians (including death threats), the perjury by defence witnesses and the subsequent removal of those on the school board which tried to introduce this crap into the classroom. Did all of this happen? Yes, indeed it did. Were the trial re-enactments accurate? Not having been in the courtroom I can’t state that the mannerisms of the actors was accurate, but having read the transcript I can tell you that what was said by the actors was indeed accurate. That the defence made themselves look stupid was not the fault of Nova. Did Judge Jones, also interviewed in the program, find that ID is not Science, and that the school board acted illegally? Read the judge’s decision. He slammed these people, and rightly so. Nova’s job in this was simply to give an accurate depiction of what occurred. Not easy in a two-hour program, but extremely well done. So, this hue and cry I’ve been talking about really amounts to sour grapes. Intelligent design was deemed to not be Science. To make these people happy would require that the producers of the program lie and say it was. Now THAT would be unfair and unbalanced
Why did Judge Jones, a conservative Christian judge, come to the conclusion that ID is not Science? It’s pretty simple, really. Science is involved in explaining the way nature works. Evolution is Science because it explains the fossil record, how features common to different organisms, like why we have hands and why they are so similar to reptile feet, which are similar to amphibian feet, which are similar to lobe-finned fish fins, etc., etc. It explains anomolies, lilke why Antarctic ice fish have no red blood cells yet still have the gene encoding hemoglobin, or why our laryngeal nerve loops around the aorta before coming back up to our throats, why primates have a gene encoding the enzyme catalyzing the synthesis of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) which doesn’t work, why the inactivated NANOGP8 pseudogene exists only in chimpanzees and humans with identically placed Alu retroelements in exactly the same spots, and so many other oddities that no sane ‘intelligent agent’ (okay, c’mon- you mean ‘Jehovah’ and everybody knows it, so who do you creationists think you’re fooling?) would ever include in the designs.
Having answered that, why is intelligent design NOT Science? It has no evidential support. None. Aside from disingenuously knocking a straw man version of evolution, it has nothing in support of itself. Every time I ask for evidence in favor of design, the response usually begins with ‘well, evolution can’t explain…’ At this point, it’s ‘talk to the hand’. Even if I grant that what follows is a valid problem unexplainable by evolutionary processes (and I have yet to see such), it is not evidence for design. Get it straight, folks. The false dichotomy is old, very boring and only demonstrates ignorance.
And what is the mechanism by which organisms were ‘designed’, anyway? Every time I asked that question on the PBS discussion boards I was met with the chirping of crickets. ID has no explanatory power whatsoever. If you can’t explain the ‘how’ of design, you can’t make testable predictions. If you can’t make testable predictions, you have no theory. If you have no theory, only hand waving words like ‘design’, it ain’t Science. And I’ve already given a number of examples of obviously bad design which is well explained by evolution and give ‘cdesign proponentsists’ headaches, or would if they bothered to look.
Evolution only has to be as good as to allow organisms to reproduce. The frogfish’s lure looks more like a piece of used toilet paper, yet is still good enough to catch its next meal. (I love frogfish, by the way. They are as cool as they are ugly.) This makes sense, since evolution can only act on what’s available- a kind of stopgap measure, if you will.
Is Science being unfair? Should ID be given equal time? Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: To place ID on an equal footing with Natural Selection would grossly overstate the evidence for the former and ludicrously understate that for the latter. If we scientists spend all of our time listening to every crackpot idea that comes along that has no evidence in its support, makes no testable predictions, isn’t falsifiable, etc., we’d never get anything done. Those ideas that don’t make the grade are unceremoniously turfed, made to do the lawn limbo, relegated to pushing up daisies. We gave ‘intelligent design’ a good deal of consideration long ago and discarded it on its merits (actually, its lack thereof). It’s like a Christmas present, all wrapped in shiny paper and ribbon. Open it up, however, and you find the box is empty. ID was an idea that was never alive – It was stillborn.