Jerry Coyne

A Victory for Critical Thinking in TN

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An academic freedom law has just been passed in Tennessee that allows for dissenting views to be presented for controversial issues in science:

Nashville – Today Tennessee became the latest state to enact an academic freedom bill that protects teachers when they promote critical thinking and objective discussion about controversial science issues such as biological evolution, climate change and human cloning. At least ten states now have statewide science standards or laws that protect or encourage teachers to discuss the scientific evidence for and against Darwinian evolution.

Teachers in Tennessee are still required to teach according to state and local science standards. But under the law, teachers are allowed to objectively present additional scientific evidence, analysis, and critiques regarding topics already in the approved curriculum.

Critics claimed that this bill would promote religion instead of science, but this is simply not true.

“First, the bill expressly states that it ‘shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine,'” explained Luskin. “Second, in places like Texas and Louisiana that have similar legislation or science standards there has been no negative economic impact at all. Contrary to critics, no lawsuits have materialized in other states or districts with such policies in place.”

The point of the law is to allow debate, the kind that goes on in the scientific world but rarely surfaces to the public eye. I won’t get into the thick of the debate (because I truly don’t have time to be completely educated beyond a superficial level about the debate), but there is a debate among evolutionary scientists about the plausibility of Neo-Darwinism. Here Jerry Coyne criticizes James Shapiro, both professors of biology at the University of Chicago, both atheists, both at odds about the reliability of Neo-Darwinism. I also read a few weeks ago this article from Nature on Postmodern Evolution. Modern evolutionists apparently loathe these ideas (Evo-Devo), but some scientists are meeting and discussing how to address problems with the modern evolutionary synthesis has never been able to answer.

The point: there is debate in the scientific community concerning the strengths and weakness of theories . That debate should extend down through our educational system if we hope to have any real critical thinking development in students.

I won’t get into the lack of critical thinking developed in our educational system, in general, but a great book to read is Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto, voted NYC teacher of the year twice and NY state teacher of the year once. Upon receiving his last award, he resigned and gave a speech informing those present that he had to break all the school rules in order to achieve that distinction of “teacher of the year.”

Ok, it seems I am getting into it: for instance, he wanted to teach Moby Dick, so he ordered the official school curriculum. He received and saw that it had so much commentary that it was rendered useless. Why? It did not allow the student to read the original text, think about it, discuss it, regurgitate it, argue about, write their own words about it. That is critical thinking. Instead, the curriculum told them what to think about Moby Dick, just as students are told what to think about evolution.

So, read that book (a must-read), and thank God that teachers (now in 10 states) can have the freedom to discuss both the strengths and weakness of a topic with our future citizens.

ID mischaracterized as Ignorance

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I was directed to this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson from a post on Jerry Coyne’s blog (which I read from time to time), and was curious… Would I learn anything? Is it just an atheist rant? Time is very precious to me, so I debated on whether I should spend (or waste) the 39 minutes on this guy. The obvious implication from Coyne’s quote below is that the more advanced and educated a scientist becomes, the more silly religion would become. All the serious scientists should be atheists.

“The “strident” part starts at 10:30, when Tyson contrasts the pervasive religiosity of the American public with the pervasive atheism of scientists, showing that more than 90% of the former believe in God but that just 15% of members of the National Academy of Sciences accept the notion of a personal God (actually, I think the figure is closer to 2%).  Referring to the latter figure, though, Tyson says that everyone missed the big story about this disparity: why isn’t the percentage of scientist-believers zero(He mentions this later in the talk, too.) Tyson clearly thinks that science promotes unbelief.”

So, I decided to watch it, and I learn quite a bit—about Tyson and straw men, anyway.

Newton Made of Straw

Tyson uses the examples of Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, and Huygens as superb scientists who, at some point reached their capacity discover, basically threw up their hands and invoked God (intelligent design). Tyson emphasizes that these were all brilliant men, especially with Newton, and so their use of (or invocation of) intelligent design cannot be just “swept under the rug.” This fact, he says, needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. But the problem is, Tyson mischaracterized them and builds them into straw men.

He portrays them as essentially irreligious during their scientific discoveries, but when it comes to confronting the unknown, then, and seemingly only then, do they give up to “only God knows.” Based on this false presentation, Tyson makes the claim, “Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.”

This is simply not true. As Nancy Pearcey clearly shows in her book The Soul of Science, the flowering of modern science depended upon the Judeo-Christian worldview. Their belief in God drove their discovery, not hindered it. These men may have spoken of the miracle of God concerning the unknown, but that does not mean that their belief in God’s order and design was not interwoven throughout their life of discovery.

For Newton, intelligent design drove him, not hindered him. He was constantly trying to fit God into the universe he observed. For instance, Newton’s discovery and characterization of gravity was described by the Cartesians as being “an occult concept.” To Newton, he had “discovered a new active principle through which God acts through his creation.” Even Wikipedia admits he was highly religious and wrote more on religion than he did on science and mathematics. Sometimes we was wrong—like thinking God needed to tinker with the universe to stabilize it. That certainly does not imply because he “had God on the brain” he couldn’t figure out the stability of the solar system (which Laplace later did). Every person does have their intellectual limit (even Newton) and should not be faulted for it.

But wait, you said religion was a bad thing…

A very interesting example Tyson used was the period of Islam between 800-1100 AD. This was a period of high learning, and Baghdad was its center. I am not very familiar with this period, quite frankly, but according to Tyson it was Imam Hamid al-Ghazali who destroyed it. He taught that math was from the devil–scholarship faltered, declined, and the region never recovered it’s excellence to this day.

Perhaps I missed the point on this one. Isn’t Tyson making a case against religion? How exactly did this period occur within the confines of the religion of Islam? And if we extrapolate to the modern age, is he saying the intelligent design movement is saying math (or science or evolutionary biology) is of the devil? Or just those scoundrel Republicans are saying it? Newton’s theory of gravity was described as of the devil…did science come to a screeching halt then?

Tyson is trying to connect intelligent design to intellectual resignation and the destruction of science itself. If I researched this period in Islam, would I find that the Muslims did not believe God created the universe? Would I really? I just don’t think I would. Was Imam Hamid al-Ghazali an ID advocate? No, he wasn’t. He was a religious zealot.

So, if anything, religious fanaticism is a “show stopper,” not intelligent design.

Stupid Design (a Fast Tirade)

To drive the hammer home and in rapid fire mode, Tyson mocks intelligent design, or I should say the Designer. He goes on and on about how imperfect the universe is, the inefficiency of star formation, etc. He references intelligent design’s insistence that the universe is set up for life (is that just ID or do non-religious people observe that as well?).

No, Tyson says, it set up to kill you (chuckle, chuckle).

Yes, the universe is inhospitable–that’s what is so amazing about the earth. That’s the point. Yep, you got it. (Chuckle, chuckle). In an inhospitable universe, the universal constants, the earth, it is all set up in balance (here on earth) for life.

Tyson also presents a list of imperfections of the earth and human life: extinctions, 3.5 billion years to make multi-cellular life, diseases, birth defects (paused slide for effect), eating/breathing from the same hole (guaranteeing a certain percentage of people will choke to death), etc, etc.

This similar to the claim by Francisco Ayala, insisting to Stephen Meyer that Christians shouldn’t claim intelligent design because we are attributing all this observed imperfection to a perfect God. So, did God screw up? It is a legitimate, hard question.

A patient with multiple sclerosis recently visited my workplace to give a talk, and one of the things that struck me about her was how reflective she was. She did not claim any religion at all, but it was obvious that she preferred Eastern philosophy and yoga. She said, throughout the course of dealing with the disease, she had a lot of dark nights and had to “talk herself off the ledge” at times/ Having MS has helped her to slow down her Type A Go-Go-Go lifestyle and let go of many of her personal milestones. The disease has made her more reflective, gotten her in touch with life, true life, more and more. She said it has brought her to humility and compassion.

So the hard question (for me) is this: can we be spiritual in a perfect world? If we had everything, would we learn anything? Without imperfection, would we understand love and compassion? I am not saying I like adversity or disease or death, or want more of it, or delight in it, but I am saying I believe we need it for our spirits to grow. For the Christian, this life is just temporary and our hope is set on God’s preparations for our eternal home. These questions, I think, fall outside of an atheistic mindset.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

Watch that last step…

Tyson concludes his presentation saying he doesn’t want someone in the lab who believes in intelligent design, because they will give up on trying to find cures for disease like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Here he extrapolated his “philosophy of ignorance” into a realm of absolute fantasy. There is not a Christian alive who believes this or practices it, who would throw up their hands and give up. That is complete hogwash and Tyson should be ashamed of himself for even stating it.

By the way…

Intelligent design is not a god of the gaps theory…this is from Bonhoeffer:

“…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.”

Intelligent design proponents look at the evidence. DNA is code-like. Evolution provides not mechanism for the generation of this code (let alone the actual assemblage of it sans information). The only known cause for codes or information is intelligence. Therefore, an intelligence agent produced the DNA code. It is a way to interpret the evidence. No one is throwing up their hands and embracing ignorance. You may disagree with intelligent design, but you cannot say it is a god of the gaps theory.

Signature of Controversy, part 1

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Ok, it is a bit frustrating to get into a conversation that has been going on for years. Intelligent design for me is now less about learning what the theory is, but rather what everyone thinks about it. I’m going to try and reserve opinion and judgement, in general. I think I will just try and chronicle the dialogue as I see it detailed in Signature of Controversy. (And I still need to summarize the notes I took on Signature in the Cell (SitC) and write a post!)

First, there is Franciso Ayala (“one of Biology’s living legends”) who supposedly reviewed SitC. I agree with Meyer and Klinghoffer; it doesn’t appear that Ayala actually read the book. Dr. Darrel Falk had asked Ayala to review the book (Falk’s review is found here). Meyer does respond to both Falk and to Ayala, but Meyer’s response to Ayala is prefaced by Falk, who says Ayala was responding to Falk’s essay, not SitC. But the review by Ayala clearly states that BioLogos sent him a copy of SitC . Huh. And Falk said he asked Meyer to respond only to Ayala’s philosophical and theological concerns. (“We will now take a moment to refrain from the whole purpose of BioLogos… Your handcuffs, sir.”) Double huh. Klinghoffer points out that Ayala opens his salvo on Meyer by claiming his main premise is an argument against chance…which it isn’t…and isn’t mentioned by Falk…whose essay he was supposedly responding to. Triple huh. Jay Richards also agrees that Ayala could not have read Meyer’s book. There was apparently a commentary from Falk on Ayala’s review, but it has been  (perhaps wisely) brought down. Quadruple…oh never mind.

Secondly, there is Jerry Coyne. I have seen his name and his book Why Evolution Is True, and he has a blog where he has written posts attacking Meyer’s book. I would like to peruse his site and see what he writes and stands for. From what I have seen though, just briefly, he is an opinionated militant atheist. From Signature of Controversy, Klinghoffer cites that in one particular post, Coyne accuses Meyer of lying. That particular post has been deleted, though.  Klinghoffer points out some of the things Coyne has gotten wrong about Meyer, yet Meyer is a “lying liar.” Huh.

Next, there was a back and forth attack by Stephen Fletcher against Thomas Nagel for selecting SitC as one of the Times Supplement Books of the Year. Fletcher’s argument is based on evidence data in favor of the RNA world theory of life’s origins. (This is a theory I would like to know more details about.) His claim (and the claim made by Falk, essentially) is that scientific developments have “overtaken Meyer’s book.” 

From one study Flether cites experiments leading to the synthesis of a pyrimidine ribonucleotide (an RNA molecule). Meyer’s criticism of this experiment is the same he has made in his book: it is only a letter and does not explain the origin of the “words” and “sentences” in DNA; and the molecule was synthesized in steps, selecting only R-isomers, purifying intermediates from impurities and cross reactions. Scientists had to intervene, adding “active intelligence” to the “unguided” process. This is the problem I am learning about experiments concerning our origins. A scientist always intervenes, and it doesn’t explain the origin of the code.

David Berlinski also responds to Fletcher.

If experiments conducted in the here and now are to shed light on the there and then, they must meet two conditions: They must demonstrate in the first place the existence of a detailed chemical pathway between RNA precursors and a form of self-replicating RNA; and they must provide in the second place a demonstration that the spontaneous appearance of this pathway is plausible under pre-biotic conditions….

Questions of pre-biotic plausibility remain. Can the results of Powner et al. be reproduced without Powner et al.? It is a question that Powner raises himself: “My ultimate goal,” he has remarked, “is to get a living system (RNA) emerging from a one-pot experiment.”

Let us by all means have that pot, and then we shall see further.