My Sundance screenplay, All of Creation, featured among its themes the importance of science to understanding our world and finding meaning in it. In fact, the slot I took at the Sundance lab (talked about in this post) was created by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which advances science and science understanding in the popular media. I’ve always loved science, but only recently realized that it is under systematic attack by religious fundamentalists posing as scientific thinkers. I still remember watching Inherit the Wind as a kid in the late 1980’s, thinking what a great movie it was and how lucky the world was to have outgrown such astounding stupidity as Creationism. It’s still one of my favorite films—and favorite plays—but it’s since come to my attention that the rabble-rousing inanity has resurged under the laughable sheen of Intelligent Design, or ID for short.
These IDiots, like the obscenely rich coiffed televangelists of our nation, leverage the great wealth they’ve accumulated from hoodwinked believers and spend it on very professional public-relations efforts to garner public sympathy for opinions which get laughed out of courtrooms and scientific journals because they are so effortlessly demonstrably false.
I’ve had some success with my screenplay about science, and have begun writing another and have already applied for one grant on its behalf (as documented in this post), so I think I have a certain responsibility to counter this tent-revival of infectious ignorance. I’m going to write about the new farce of a film, Expelled, and to do so I wanted to do a little groundwork to provide one small example of the kind of IDiocy I’ll be referring to therein. So here goes my first crack at the debate, in the form of a rebuttal to an excerpt of a piece of ID propaganda:
How to Lie With Distinction
I’m going to post and comment on an excerpt from a critique published by the Discovery Institute, whose stated purpose is to be a “nonpartisan public policy think tank conducting research on technology, science and culture, economics and foreign affairs,” and whose actual purpose is to spread ignorance of science (particularly evolution), then exploit this newly-created ignorance to gradually replace science with fundamentalist Christian Creationism. They do so under the guise of what they now call Intelligent Design.
None of them are actually contributing scientists in any relevant field—there is no such thing as ID science. It isn’t being done and has never been done; it doesn’t exist. The P.R. campaign, however, very much exists. One of the directors of this organization has a Ph.D. in history and philosophy of science (the last I checked, no historian or philosopher was doing research into reverse transcriptase inhibitors), one in Government with a B.A. in Communications (perfect for lobbying vulnerable politicians and disguising their mellifluous deceptions to a generous-minded public). Others may be economists or have literary or divinity doctorates, calling themselves “doctors” and thereby benefitting from a kind of umbrella of legitimacy they do not have.
If you seek more on this topic, watch the NOVA special on the Dover Intelligent Design trial or Ken Miller on Intelligent Design.
This critique (the full text of which you may find here, if you want to see just how beautiful, how complex and dread, has become the art of Creationist casuistry) is of a book by Francis Collins called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. One would think religious people should support this book since it argues in favor of the existence of God, but the Discovery Institute is not merely religious, but also specifically Creationist. They lambast the book because it also dares to make the argument that religious belief is compatible with evolution, an argument to which Creationists have a violent intellectual allergy. Anyway, on to the excerpt:
What Collins doesn’t mention is that the DNA data often lead to conflicting phylogenies. For example, his evolutionary tree in The Language of God shows flying lemurs related to tree shrews, and rabbits and monkeys on more distant branches. But a phylogeny published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in 2002 shows flying lemurs related to monkeys and tree shrews related to rabbits. Conflicts among different DNA-based trees are a major headache for evolutionary biologists, some of whom spend their entire careers attempting to resolve them.Not only can phylogenies constructed with DNA conflict with each other, but they can also conflict with phylogenies based on morphology. Take whales, for example – fossils of which Collins asserts are “consistent with the concept of a tree of life of related organisms.” On morphological grounds, evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen proposed in the 1960s that modern whales are descended from an extinct group of hyena-like animals. Then, in the 1990s, molecular comparisons suggested that whales are more closely related to hippopotamuses. In 2001, however, evolutionary biologist Kenneth D. Rose reported that “substantial discrepancies remain” between the morphological and molecular evidence. And in 2007, J. G. M. Thewissen and his colleagues pointed out that since whales appear in the fossil record 35 million years before hippopotamuses “it is unlikely that the two groups are closely related.” Thewissen and his colleagues concluded from morphological comparisons that whales are descended from a raccoon-like animal instead. The conflict between morphological and molecular phylogenies continues, and the problem is bigger than whales. In 2007, British scientists analyzed 181 molecular and 49 morphological trees and observed that “molecular and morphological phylogenies often seem to be at odds with each other.” Clearly, as a general statement, Collins’s claim that DNA trees are strikingly similar to trees drawn from comparative anatomy is false.
Take the first of the the two most absurd implications they make in just this one small excerpt: “Conflicts among different DNA-based trees are a major headache for evolutionary biologists, some of whom spend their entire careers attempting to resolve them.” This, to them, is evidence of failure on the part of science. Which is the same as saying that a Rolls-Royce is a failure as an automobile because its engineers spend their entire careers attempting to improve it! In fact, let us obey this logic and now declare that all Olympic athletes are failures, since world records are such a major headache they spend their entire careers attempting to break.
This is the “logic” of dogma: the answer raises new questions, therefore the answer is wrong. (see: logical fallacy Argument from Ignorance)
This is the “logic” of dogma: the answer raises new questions, therefore the answer is wrong.
The second most absurd implication is that evolution is false because “‘substantial discrepancies remain’ between the morphological and molecular evidence.” They list highlights from a long debate about the evolutionary history of whales, one of many subjects which have been the beneficiaries of vibrant argumentation in the scientific community. The ridiculous notion that this is bad results from at least three gross errors:
- Cherry-picking one outlying case which they can best exploit to illustrate their point, ignoring the vast majority of cases which contradict it,
- Equating dissent with falsity, claiming that the lack of consensus in the scientific community on a particular point disproves it: see: logical fallacy Appeal to Popularity. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the same people from making exactly the opposite argument when it comes to global warming, where they say that the overwhelming scientific consensus about it doesn’t prove anything!)
- Willfully misrepresenting the purpose and process of scientific discovery, where peer review, public debate, and competition of theories are strengths, not weaknesses (see: logical fallacy Straw Man).
Uncertainty is the exhilarating fuel of scientific advancement. Vigorous, long-lasting debates between proponents of competing theories are proof of its thorough commitment to discovery and—like competition in the marketplace—propel constant research, advancement, and improvement. The difference is that competing scientists—unlike competing fundamentalist religions—will gladly assist one another, because they understand this principle and seek the triumph of truth, even if it turns out to be revealed by a competing theory. Through compelling objections and competing theories, scientists profoundly strengthen any position which ultimately prevails. It took decades for germ theory to take root, but when it did, it was incontrovertible and saved millions of lives.
As Richard Dawkins phrased it in this editorial:
Mystery — that which we don’t yet know; that which we don’t yet understand — is the mother lode that scientists seek out. Mystics exult in mystery and want it to stay mysterious. Scientists exult in mystery for a very different reason: it gives them something to do. Admissions of ignorance and mystification are vital to good science. It is therefore galling, to say the least, when enemies of science turn those constructive admissions around and abuse them for political advantage. Worse, it threatens the enterprise of science itself. This is exactly the effect that creationism or “intelligent design theory” (ID) is having, especially because its propagandists are slick, superficially plausible and, above all, well financed. ID, by the way, is not a new form of creationism. It simply is creationism disguised, for political reasons, under a new name.
IDiots take this great strength and portray it as a weakness. Any example of the wonderful dissent and uncertainty in the scientific community they claim as proof that science is wrong. “They must be wrong!” the IDiots claim, “they can’t even agree among themselves!”
I am proud to present this one small example this kind of ID dishonesty, pulled from an article on their front page clicked on at random. There was quite a lot to say about just those three paragraphs, and it’s only the barest of beginnings. The full article is very long, and there are a great many more of them.