Expelled from expelled

The latest tactic by US creationists is to cry academic discrimination, and they’ve produced a documentary, ‘Expelled!’, claiming that anybody who criticises evolution is being forced out by evil Darwinian scientists. The makers interviewed biologist P.Z. Myers under false pretences, and yesterday he tried to get into a local showing:

I went to attend a screening of the creationist propaganda movie, Expelled, a few minutes ago. Well, I tried … but I was Expelled! It was kind of weird — I was standing in line, hadn’t even gotten to the point where I had to sign in and show ID, and a policeman pulled me out of line and told me I could not go in. I asked why, of course, and he said that a producer of the film had specifically instructed him that I was not to be allowed to attend. The officer also told me that if I tried to go in, I would be arrested. I assured him that I wasn’t going to cause any trouble.

This isn’t all that surprising, but I haven’t included the best bit. Head over to Pharyngula to see what happened next…Via L.

Michael Behe on Point of Inquiry

The Point of Inquiry podcast interviewed Michael Behe this week. Prof. Behe is a leading advocate of the ‘intelligent design’ movement, and Point of Inquiry really really isn’t. It’s great fun, and perfect for playing Spot the Logical Fallacy. Behe comes out with straw men, ad hominem attacks and false premises, as well as poisoning the well, saying things I believe to be demonstrably untrue and continually crying conspiracy. Interviewer D.J. Grothe doesn’t pull any punches, although is of course polite throughout, and calls Behe on his evasions when necessary.

A particularly interesting moment comes when D.J. Grothe asks how ID-ers can criticise evolution for not providing a full and complete explanation, yet offer no mechanisms of their own. Behe’s response is that everybody is trying to explain the appearance of design, so saying ‘it looks designed’ isn’t something that needs to be backed up. This is slippery.

As I see it, the point of evolutionary theory isn’t to explain why things look designed, it’s to explain how they arose. That they appear designed is a side-effect, as it were, and related to the way our brains look at things (also interesting from an evolutionary standpoint). Books like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ explain evolution from a basis of ‘how come things look designed’ as a) a response to creationists, who use this argument all the time, and b) it’s a useful way of structuring an explanation. But evolution isn’t there to explain the appearance of design any more than round-earth ‘theory’ is there to explain the appearance of a flat planet – that’s just something that arises from the theory.

D.J. Grothe also asks him the obvious: isn’t intelligent design just ‘god of the gaps’? Behe denies this, saying ID uses what we know rather than what we don’t know. But this misses the point: ‘what we know’ in this case is entirely based upon what they claim evolution can’t explain – in other words, gaps. He doesn’t address the question.

The final question is also particularly telling. Behe’s latest book apparently claims malaria cannot have evolved and must have been designed. Why, he is asked, would a designer create something that kills so many innocent people? Unlike his scientific evasions, which sometimes took me a few minutes to unravel, the answer is obvious: god has a secret plan.

It’s worth a listen, although it probably helps if you have a passing familiarity with intelligent design and its recent history – particularly the recent US court case in which ID had its ass handed to it by a conservative judge. Understanding the position of people you’re arguing against is always a good idea, and it’s cool that both sides agreed to the interview.

If truth doesn’t exist, something can’t be true. I win.

I like this1:

I’m a faithful Catholic. I’ve often thought: what if Darwinism were true? I don’t mean all of the philosophical materialism that Darwinists drag along with the science. Materialism is nonsense, because if matter and energy are all that exist, then truth doesn’t exist (it’s neither matter nor energy). If truth doesn’t exist, then materialism can’t be true.

I wonder if that final sentence will ever stop being entertaining. As EvolutionBlog points out, materialism doesn’t say that matter and energy are all that exist, it says ‘everything that exists comes about as the result of interactions of matter and energy’. Which is different. See the original link for more fun with words.

  1. I’m loathe to link to the original page, so am using a takedown instead []

Intelligent design in RE

‘Intelligent design’ is to be taught in RE classes:

In a move that is likely to spark controversy, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has for the first time recommended that pupils be taught about atheism and creationism in RE classes.

Sounds like a reasonable idea. RE lessons are where you’re supposed to discuss this kind of thing, after all. Having said that, the only two RE teachers I ever had were both devout Christians, and it was far from an unbiased education. I don’t think either was deliberately trying to evangelise, but (with one particularly) there was little doubt that Christianity was the ‘proper’ religion. I remember being told that I should wake up on Christmas morning and shout ‘Happy Birthday Jesus’. Didn’t do it. I don’t remember any mention of non-belief other than the time we were split into believers, agnostics and atheists. I got away lightly after putting myself into the agnostics (I remember telling my friend Ben that “a god wouldn’t have to experience time in the same way as us” – *cringes*) but I’d like to know what memories the atheists have of the experience.

A Warm Home

Back to the non-Christmassy theme, then. Looks boring, doesn’t it? I’ll have to try and spice it up a little.

I’m back at home now after nine days at my parents’ house. It occurred to me in the middle of last week that nobody has any contact details for me, so the flat could have been hit by a custard ICBM and I’d have been clueless. Given that something has gone wrong the last few times I’ve been away I was a little nervous about returning, and when I opened the door to hear voices I was somewhat startled. Thankfully I can pretty much survey the entire flat from the front door, so I confirmed I was alone before the automatic ninja defence moves kicked in. A power cut had turned on the freeview box and speakers, so goodness knows how long they’d been chatting away to themselves. I later discovered that the main radiator’s thermometer has devolved to the binary settings of ‘hotter than the sun’ or ‘off’. It took me a while to realise as I was cooking and tidying up, and the flat was rather warm for a while.

My head’s still spinning from the heat of said radiator and I’m concerned I’m not making sense, so here are a few posts I’ve enjoyed recently:

  • Bad Astronomy on the real meaning of ‘day’ and ‘year’ – I didn’t know about ‘tropical years’.
  • Tom Hamilton on the Daily Mail and the BNP.
  • The Partially Clips webcomic, via Pootergeek.
  • A discussion of what constitutes the Worst Argument Ever, which inevitably quotes Intelligent Design advocates, including the brain-busting:

    Secondly, even if your thesis were accurate at least it is verifiable. When one dies, he returns to dirt. I have yet to hear of one dieing and returning to a monkey.

  • Via Mur (who now has a posse), The Evil Monkey Guide to Creative Writing:

    For all of these reasons and more, writing is perilous work. It is more deadly than special ops. It is more boring than selling insurance. It is more exhilarating than jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. You may die from writing, but more probably you will be disappointed. That is okay, too. Disappointment, as we all know, builds character.

Right. Washing up or Torchwood? Torchwood, obviously. Oh, all right then.

Teaching the controversy in the UK

Some guy has managed to get onto BBC News with the standard evangelical gambit of ‘teach the controversy‘:

He says the GCSE syllabus requires children to appreciate how science works and understand the nature of scientific controversy.

“The government wants children to be exposed to scientific debate at the age of 14 or 15.

“All the Truth in Science stuff does is put forward stuff that says here’s a controversy. This is exactly the kind of thing that young people should be exposed to,” Mr Cowan added.

You can’t just make up scientific controversy. If I flooded schools with leaflets saying the Earth was flat, and as evidence quoted misunderstandings of round-earth-theory, this wouldn’t constitute a scientific controversy. What would? Hard to say, but if scientific literature was full of discussion of the topic that’d be a start. But, it’s not. Global warming is a good example of scientific controversy, but Intelligent Design is as scientifically controversial as Bigfoot. The article sums it up with:

Advocates of intelligent design say there are things that cannot be explained by evolution and so argue for the existence of a supernatural intelligence behind the creation of the universe.

Which is accurate, but not very informative. Intelligent Design does do this, but doesn’t actually provide any reason to go from one to the other. The approach is “evolution is wrong, therefore god”, which doesn’t follow logically. And, of course, the arguments against evolution don’t hold water.

He told the BBC: “Darwin has for many people become a sacred cow.

“There’s a sense that if you criticise Darwin you must be some kind of religious nut case.

“We might has well have said Einstein shouldn’t have said what he did because it criticised Newton.”

Talk about missing the point. Einstein didn’t criticise Newton, he put forward a theory that refined Newton’s work and, crucially, made predictions that could be used to test the veracity of the claims. The predictions were tested, and found to be true. Intelligent Design makes no predictions and provides no evidence for an alternative to evolution. It’s completely useless.

Mr Cowan is identified in the article as an ex chemistry teacher. There’s no mention of his being a young-earth creationist who thinks the reason there’s no evidence of dinosaurs and humans living simultaneously is that “they didn’t live near each other”.

Happily, it looks like the government isn’t paying any attention to this kind of nonsense, at least for the general curriculum. It’s possible they’re turning a blind eye elsewhere, as evidenced by Tony Blair’s odd recent comments (via TLH).

Debating the virtue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

This evening I had a 90-minute IM debate over the Flying Spaghetti Monster. My friend is neither a creationist nor particularly religious, but after finding the FSM link on this site said that it seemed patronising. I’m not going to continue my argument in a one-sided blog post – that would be remarkably unfair – but I’ll try to articulate her point.

Bit of background: the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a deity created in response to the Kansas school board’s hearings on whether to include ‘Intelligent Design’ in US science classes. ‘Intelligent Design’ says that the world has clear elements of design, and that standard evolutionary theory is demonstrably false. It’s creationism in a hat. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is worshipped by many, and His followers believe that if ‘Intelligent Design’ has a place in science classrooms, so does the FSM. After all: He created the universe and everything in it, this much is clear. The standard scientific methods of evidence are insufficient because:

what our scientist does not realize is that every time he makes a measurement, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is there changing the results with His Noodly Appendage. We have numerous texts that describe in detail how this can be possible and the reasons why He does this. He is of course invisible and can pass through normal matter with ease.

Oh, and:

[I]t is disrespectful to teach our beliefs without wearing His chosen outfit, which of course is full pirate regalia.

The FSM analogy works well, I think, because it results in creationists arguing against themselves. Every argument against the clearly insane FSM theory of creation applies equally to ‘Intelligent Design’.

So what’s the problem?

  • My friend said that the nature of the FSM is childish and patronising. I disagreed, saying that the point is that it makes no sense and is clearly ridiculous.
  • She said that the impression from the FSM is that we think creationists are idiots. I replied that I, and all Pastafarians, do not think (or, at least, recognise that such thoughts are not part of any valid argument) that creationists are idiots, just that their theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ is moronic – it’s fine to attack ideas, but not people.
  • She said that they will react as if we’ve treated them like idiots, because of the initial impression the FSM gives. I conceded that this may sometimes be the case, even though it’s not the point of the argument. I said that the ‘teach all sides’ argument is compelling to many people and the FSM is a fast, clear analogy that does not directly criticise their religion, and causes them to argue against themselves. People should not be offended when they see the point.
  • She said that she can see how the FSM works as an effective tool, but that it is nevertheless patronising because we should talk to them like adults: there are better ways to articulate the point without parodying creation myths and drawing cartoons.

And that was where we left it. It’s not a bad point, on the face of it. Even though the underlying message of the FSM is sound, it is vaguely conceivable that there could be somebody intelligent and logically-minded for whom it could be patronising, although I suspect this may be a straw-man creationist. I’m also not sure that they’re the intended target. This is the point I’m struggling with (although it’s 0130 and I’m not terribly awake :-)). While you could argue that when serious debate is needed it’s easily provided, and that the FSM has generated large amounts of useful publicity, could it actually cause resentment in otherwise rational people? Are there circumstances in which it’s reasonable to see the FSM as patronising?

Creationists turn their sights to Physics

Not content with attacking evolution, creationists are now turning their attention to astronomy. Bad Astronomy has an excellent write-up, but I’ll paraphrase here.

The New York Times reports that a NASA public affairs official, appointed directly by the Bush administration, wrote the following:

In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.”

It’s the same old nonsense about the definition of ‘theory’. And this is likely to cause uproar, because this is a religious agenda directly interfering with a scientific body. And, again, the main aim is to alter education.

The Big Bang1 is also most definitely not “opinion”. There’s a very large body of evidence supporting it, and no other reasonable explanation. The only other contender, steady-state theory, has fallen by the wayside because predictions from BBT have been shown to be accurate.2

I suspect that creationists will have more of a struggle attacking astronomy, and that’s why it’s remained unmolested for so long. 1% of the static on an untuned television is directly caused by the afterglow of the Big Bang – the microwave background radiation originally attributed to pigeon droppings. The presence of this radiation was predicted thirty years before its discovery, and it’s the kind of accessible fact that newspapers love to print. Creationists may have a hard time getting around that with ‘god did it’. But then I continually underestimate their skill at manipulating language, so what do I know 🙂

  1. or, as the more enlightened know it, the Horrendous Space Kablooie []
  2. sentence edited as it didn’t make sense 🙂 []


From Canada’s The Star, via Pharyngula:

There is a third possibility that comes to mind. ID could stand for Incomplete Design. What if the Designer is just beta-testing us to identify the bugs before rolling out Homo sapiens 2.0? Sure, we have lives that are nasty, brutish and short, but the designer doesn’t really care and we have to muddle through so He can come up with something better for the next roll-out. And we’re powerless to complain, because the Designer has a monopoly. I call this the “God as Microsoft” option.

Unfortunately, all the other deities are already being snarky about Life 2.0.

Evolution in the UK

How come nobody ever asks me these questions?

More than half the British population does not accept the theory of evolution, according to a survey.

Furthermore, more than 40% of those questioned believe that creationism or intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons.

As a Pastafarian, this distresses me. Why should the Teachings of Our Noodly Master be excluded? They’re ignoring the evidence, I tell you!

The survey was done for an episode of BBC2’s Horizon. The editor responded with this:

“This really says something about the role of science education in this country and begs us to question how we are teaching evolutionary theory.”

That is indeed the problem, because, as far as I’m aware, schools aren’t teaching evolutionary theory. In five years of science classes, I were given a rough outline of evolution toward the end of the biology syllabus. It took maybe half an hour and the only point was to provide us with the example of the camel and the polar bear, which was all exam papers ever asked about. It wasn’t until I read popular science books after school that I started to understand what it was really all about.

In hindsight I don’t see the logic behind the way we were taught. As I see it, biology only really makes any sense when based on the foundation of evolutionary theory. Why are animal and plant cells different from each other? The answer wasn’t quite so bad as ‘who cares, just learn the labelled diagrams’, but it’s impossible to answer the question without a fair bit of background, so it never happened. Biology became a fact-learning exercise which, to be honest, I found dull and uninteresting, in complete contrast to my opinions now. The sheer wonder is somehow extracted from the system. It’s really odd.

The sad thing is that I know my science teachers were enthusiastic about science is a topic. On our final days at school one teacher even bought popular science books, including The Selfish Gene, an excellent introduction to evolutionary theory, for some of the top pupils in the class (not including me, sadly.) Is that even officially permitted under school rules?

Is it the fault of the syllabus? The exam system? I don’t know. I can’t find recent figures, but there used to be a scarily high percentage of the population that think the sun orbits the earth.

The findings prompted surprise from the scientific community. Lord Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, said: “It is surprising that many should still be sceptical of Darwinian evolution. Darwin proposed his theory nearly 150 years ago, and it is now supported by an immense weight of evidence.

“We are, however, fortunate compared to the US in that no major segment of UK religious or cultural life opposes the inclusion of evolution in the school science curriculum.”

For now, maybe. I personally see no reason why US-style evangelist groups shouldn’t gain a foothold over here – Christian Voice already get coverage for their every press release. A savvy PR-operative could probably work wonders, and based on the above figures it might not be too difficult. Hell, the first mention of pedophilia and logic goes out of the window, so why not something else?

Cynical cynical cynical. Sorry. It just worries me.