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Monday, June 16, 2008

Lawyer, Liar, or Lunatic?

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Last week when I was on Milton Rosenberg's radio show, he played me a six-minute clip of an address by Phillip Johnson, known as the father of "intelligent design." Johnson's comments, delivered with eloquence and evident glee, were quite disturbing and make it easy for me to see why so many people, after interacting with the personalities in the ID movement, are so angry.
Johnson was defending his credentials as a lawyer speaking about evolution and basically said: "Since all biologists are just specialists in some narrow field, they are like me when they speak about evolution—outside their field. Therefore, there is no more reason to listen to them than listen to me."
Johnson's broadside argued that people like Stephen Jay Gould and Francis Collins, with expertise in paleontology and genetics respectively, were no better than laypeople from outside science when they pronounced on evolution. That Johnson would make such a comment—and that this has been one of his defenses against the charge that a lawyer doesn't know enough biology to speak competently about evolution—reveals something important about both Johnson and the ID movement.
There are a host of reasons why, for example, a typical geneticist would be more competent to make generalizations about evolution than a lawyer:

1. Geneticists take a wide range of biology courses before they specialize. A typical geneticist would have taken courses in paleontology, comparative anatomy, ecology, and developmental biology before they specialized. And even in grad school, where they develop a narrow area of expertise, they continue to take courses outside that specialty.
2. A geneticist, especially one who writes about evolution, is most likely to be employed as an academic in a department with other knowledgeable experts who are readily available. Even though I am a mere physicist at a tiny college, my close friends include biologists, and it is very easy for me to find out what the best thinking is in any area.
3. A typical geneticist will know how to handle the scientific literature, and thus be able to separate speculation and popularization from established research.
4. But the main reason, of course, is that the field of genetics contains overwhelming evidence for common ancestry—one of the most important parts of the theory of evolution. The evidence is so strong that even Michael Behe accepts it. The field of law brings no evidence at all to the question of evolution.

Johnson should know these things. I can think of only three reasons, all of them negative, why he would speak as if he thinks they are not true. Let paraphrase C.S. Lewis' famous remark that Jesus was either "lord, liar, or lunatic" and suggest that Phillip Johnson is "lawyer, liar, or lunatic":

1. Johnson might be a lunatic. He might actualy think that geneticists take only genetics courses in college and grad school, and thus know nothing about anything else. I don't see how he could say this, however. He went to college and law school, and surely had some associates in other departments. He could also, for example, simply look up on any college Web site what is required to get a degree in biology.
2. Johnson might be a liar. He might know the actual case and, since that case undermines his, he simply says something else that he knows is false.
3. Johnson might be a lawyer. Lawyers are supposed to win cases. If I understand the basic paradigm of our legal system, the belief is that if both sides of a case are argued effectively, then the truth is likely to emerge—not from either side, but from the adversarial process itself. I suspect there is a kernel of truth in the philosophy espoused by angst-ridden lawyers on television who defend clients widely believed to be guilty: that the system is supposed to find the truth, not them.

Johnson, of course, actually is a lawyer and, I understand, a very good one. So perhaps we can understand why his strategy for undermining evolution seems like that of a lawyer rather than a scientist. In fast, if you start looking at his strategy as if it were a legal strategy, lots of things make perfect sense:

1. Including young-earth creationists in the ID movement. Any "scientific" coalition welcoming proponents of the idea that the earth is 10,000 years old cannot expect for one second to be take seriously by science. But, if you are building a coalition to fight evolution rather than find the best theory of origins, you want as many allies as you can get.
2. Vilifying theistic evolutionists. Since theistic evolutionists represent a genuine alternative for Christians—an opportunity to embrace science in the context of faith—they must be discredited somehow. So genuine Christians, with vital and public faith positions, like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, must be smeared and undermined in whatever way possible.
3. Keeping the focus exclusively on the problems of evolution rather than the entirety of the evidence. ID is notorious for pretending that evolution has only problematic evidence and nothing genuinely compelling or even suggestive to support it.

My new book, Saving Darwin, is not diplomatic on this issue. I am sick and tired of seeing genuine Christians smeared by creationists and ID people. When I spoke at Wheaton College last week, it was noted by Ken Ham on his blog, and he proceeded to blast the college for having abandoned true Christianity. Bill Dembski is blasting theistic evolutionists on his blog now. And on it goes. Is it any wonder that Christianity grows less attractive to our culture? We can't even get along with ourselves, much less welcome those outside our faith. Shame on all of us for how this conversation is conducted.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

The ID leaders are mostly liars. They are too smart not to understand the sophist nature of their supposed science. The followers are too stupid to know the difference, hence their reliance on religion in general. Am I to infer you are one of the religious crowd who supports Darwin?

Enjoy.

Karl W. said...

Yes. I an one of the "religious crowd". I struggle with the motives of the ID leaders. I think, at root, they really believe that evolution is bad and, like racism, should be opposed. But they put on scientific hats and posture as scientists and want desperately to be seen as credible scholars engaged in real dialog on important questions.

I know most of the ID people personally--Johnson, Dembski, Nelson, Meyer, etc--and I like them. But they are caught up in this great culture war and, as the leaders of that war, they have an army of fans. They travel around lecturing to adoring crowds and I suspect that makes it hard for them to get a clear sense of how they are coming across to everyone else.

I really don't think they are simply "lying", at least not in a deliberate way.

crevo said...

"Any "scientific" coalition welcoming proponents of the idea that the earth is 10,000 years old cannot expect for one second to be take seriously by science."

So the sequencing of the rice genome should not be taken seriously by science? How about Wiley's "Encyclopedia of Molecular Cell Biology and Molecular Medicine"?

These both uncritically allowed contributions from YECs - should they be considered unscientific? Or are they only unscientific when they disagree with your positions?

Interestingly, Stephen Jay Gould knowingly awarded a YEC with a PhD in paleontology.

Have you read Johnson's books? Here is what he usually says about his own work:

(1) as a lawyer, he has unique insight into how arguments themselves work, and whether or not the claims that someone is making is an appropriate argument from the data, or if they are making inappropriate extrapolations

(2) People such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins write books for the public, with the assumption that evolution is easy enough for the public to understand and agree with the rationalization if it is properly presented. Philip Johnson positions himself as representative of the readership of such books, and says "your case did not add up."

As for non-specialization, I don't know what dark magic you think that non-specialists have regarding a particular field. There is a difference between working in a field and simply reading about it. Thus, those who are non-specialists in a field have the same basic access to the data as do non-biologists. Anyone can attend lectures, read textbooks, etc. The only unique experiences come from actually working within a field.

Do you think that Johnson, as an academic in Berkeley, did not have the same access to professors as other academics in Berkeley?

"But the main reason, of course, is that the field of genetics contains overwhelming evidence for common ancestry—one of the most important parts of the theory of evolution."

Other geneticists disagree.

"The evidence is so strong that even Michael Behe accepts it."

What do you mean by "even Michael Behe"? Why do you think he should be predisposed to not believe it?

What's interesting about Behe - and I quite agree with him - is that he argues that the _only thing_ which saves common ancestry is intelligent design. He argues that all of the criticisms about common ancestry are true, but that, on the basis of intelligent design, they can be overcome through planned, rather than haphazard, mutations.

So actually, it is _because_ of Behe's belief in Intelligent Design that he agrees with common ancestry, not despite it.

"Vilifying theistic evolutionists....Ken Miller"

Ken Miller is not a theistic evolutionist. He himself rejects the title explicitly.

"Keeping the focus exclusively on the problems of evolution rather than the entirety of the evidence. ID is notorious for pretending that evolution has only problematic evidence and nothing genuinely compelling or even suggestive to support it"

I think you misunderstand the argument. The argument is not that evolution has no corroborating evidence, it is that the evidence for it is flimsy compared to the evidence against it, and is based mostly on presumption and improper extrapolation.

Smokey said...

crevo wrote:
"Other geneticists disagree [that the field of genetics contains overwhelming evidence for common ancestry]."

Then you should have no problem naming two such geneticists.

Karl W. said...

A lawyer in a law school, surrounded by other professors of law and students studying law, is not remotely comparable to a biologist whose office will be next door to other biologists. And, while it is true that lawyers study arguments, the study of argumentation is introductory logic, which is hardly a specialized skill. Scientists also study arguments and almost all logic books have a section on probability, and often one on the scientific method.

it would be really hard to make a case that Phillip Johnson is more capable of evaluating a genetics argument than Francis Collins.

crevo said...

John Sanford and Andre Eggen

Smokey said...

So, crevo, I don't see any evidence that either of them claim that there's not overwhelming genetic evidence for common ancestry.

crevo said...

John Sanford wrote a whole book on it.

Anonymous said...

"The difference between the Broad Churchman and the Catholic Church is not that the former thinks Evolution true and the latter thinks it false. It is that the former thinks Evolution an explanation and the latter knows it is not an explanation. Hence the former thinks it all important; and the latter thinks it rather unimportant."
--G. K. Chesterton, "The Thing."

If you think Chesterton's quote is a trifle harsh, then I invite you to consider Gauguin's "big three" questions: "Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Go We?"

By its very nature, evolutionary theory is materialistic and non-teleological. That means that it does not even try to answer Gauguin's third question. The second is answered in purely physical terms: every thought in your "mind" is an emergent property of your brain - including your thought that maybe it isn't. The evolutionary answer to the first question is basically this: a combination of chance (random variation) and necessity (natural selection) brought you into being. You are the bastard child of two pitiless parents: Fate and Chance. Love, as far as science can tell, had nothing to do with it.

If you wish to talk about "God" or "spirit" or a "reason for your existence" then you are most emphatically NOT talking as an evolutionist. Evolutionists eschew such talk as unscientific. That does not make evolutionary theory false, but it does mean that even if evolution is completely true as a theory, the questions it answers are not the ones that really matter.

Christian leaders who like to imagine Darwin kissing Jesus are thus sadly deluded. Evolution is no more a meaningful philosophy of life than accounting is.

Smokey said...

crevo wrote:
"John Sanford wrote a whole book on it."

Does the book discuss or ignore the relevant evidence?

And doesn't the fact that he chose to write a book--instead of doing and publishing experiments that test the predictions of his hypothesis--constitute a tacit admission that the evidence for common descent clearly is overwhelming?

Smokey said...

Oh, and as for Eggen, he's assumed and tested predictions of common descent:

Mamm Genome. 2006 Nov;17(11):1130-9.
Cloning of the bovine prion-like Shadoo (SPRN) gene by comparative analysis of the predicted genomic locus.

Uboldi C, Paulis M, Guidi E, Bertoni A, Meo GP, Perucatti A, Iannuzzi L, Raimondi E, Brunner RM, Eggen A, Ferretti L.

SPRN is a new prion-like gene coding for Sho, a protein with significant similarity to PrP. SPRN was initially described in zebrafish; however, the strong evolutionary conservation led to the hypothesis that SPRN might be the ancestral, prion-like gene. We mapped SPRN in Bos taurus by comparative analysis of the locus and of the predicted flanking genes.

What a liar!

crevo said...

"And doesn't the fact that he chose to write a book--instead of doing and publishing experiments that test the predictions of his hypothesis--constitute a tacit admission that the evidence for common descent clearly is overwhelming?"

This is a common misconception about the question of ID/Evolution. ID believes that the evidence -- as it exists right now! -- confirms ID. There's no need for extra experiments, extra formulas, etc., the evidence as it stands today confirms ID. We already can calculate the cost of natural selection. We can already examine mutation rates and their effects. We can already do all of these things! And, the reason for the surge of interest in ID is that all of these experiments have been pointing towards the need for planning in order to create organization, and the inability for haphazard mutations to create them.

Likewise, the homologies being detected in beings which have little phylogenetic relationships indicate that what is at work is a common plan, not common descent. These are all things that are already known! We also know that homologous structures often times use nonhomologous genes to accomplish function. Yet again, evidence of the common factor being a common plan, rather than common descent.

This is starting to be admitted even among the non-IDists for the lower forms of life. Even in the journal Science there is talk about how one cannot evolve a Eukaryote from a Prokaryote, because the differences are systematic.

Likewise, the non-descent-related homologies keep on appearing, and they are evident for everyone!

It is actually unscientific to presume that you have to be the one to discover data in order to interpret it. The whole point of science is that the data is available for all to see whether or not the conclusions follow from the data.

The fact is that the data, as it stands today, is evidence of ID.

Now, that isn't to say that ID'ers don't experiment - they do. In fact, Scott Minnich tested Behe's notion of the flagellum being irreducibly complex. As per Behe's definition, Minnich found (using knock-out experiments) that, in fact, it was irreducibly complex (the people who say it isn't do so only by altering Behe's definition). Likewise, Douglas Axe has performed experiments on the functional sensitivity of enzymes. Loennig has done experimental work with genomes and transposable elements, and has used this as the basis for his ID concept of dynamical genomes. John Sanford has done and published work on simulations of mutation load and the cost of natural selection in populations. Dean Kenyon did a lifetime of research under the idea of evolution, only to reverse his opinion after looking at the data intensely.

But, as I said, the question is, where does the data point to? The answer is, the _current_ data, points to intelligent design, and new experiments are not even necessary to make the case.

The case for evolution or ID is not a single experiment, but the wealth of data gathered by multiple experimenters no matter what their paradigm is. ID or evolution rises or falls based on the data that is uncovered by everyone, not just the proponents of the individual theories.

"We mapped SPRN in Bos taurus by comparative analysis of the locus and of the predicted flanking genes."

You are confusing common descent with comparative anatomy. Comparative anatomy is just as relevant in inspecting designs from a common designer (perhaps moreso) as in detecting the results of evolution. In fact, comparative anatomy operated completely without evolutionary theory for a very long time.

Let's take a look at PrPs (the subject of the paper you mentioned). PrPs are everywhere from fish to mammals! Not only that, their sequence similarities are grouped, not independent. That is, within a class, the sequence similarities are strong, but between classes, have strong divergences (Rivera-Milla etc al 2005 - see figure 2C). This is evidence of a common design pattern, not evolution. Evolution would give us gradations, not large independent leaps. Large independent leaps are instead evidence of a design pattern that was adapted as needed.

As I said, the evidence already exists. The problem isn't where the evidence points, it's that the working assumption (i.e. evolution) needs to be re-examined.

Smokey said...

crevo wrote:
"This is a common misconception about the question of ID/Evolution. ID believes that the evidence -- as it exists right now! -- confirms ID."

ID can't believe anything. People believe things.

"There's no need for extra experiments, extra formulas, etc., the evidence as it stands today confirms ID. "

Then you are rejecting the scientific method itself, and lying if you claim that ID is scientific. In science, every conclusion is provisional, and in science, the predictions of hypotheses are tested.

The reality is that ID proponents have so little faith in their hypothesis that not a single one of them has the courage to test an ID hypothesis.

They, and you, are liars.

"Likewise, the homologies being detected in beings which have little phylogenetic relationships indicate that what is at work is a common plan, not common descent."

This is a lie. You are dishonestly avoiding the fact that the homologies converge on a single nested hierarchy, which is not a characteristic of any set of designed objects.

Heck, even when humans deliberately set out to design a nested hierarchy, they always carve out exceptions. Nature, OTOH, is severely constrained and those predictions are tested every day.

I'll close by address your most blatant lies:

"In fact, Scott Minnich tested Behe's notion of the flagellum being irreducibly complex. As per Behe's definition, Minnich found (using knock-out experiments) that, in fact, it was irreducibly complex (the people who say it isn't do so only by altering Behe's definition).

This is a lie, because the flagellar proteins FlgA, FlgH, FlgI, FlgM, FlhDC, FlhE, FliB, FliH, FliL, FliS, FliT, and FliZ are all dispensable, either on the basis of their absence in some species or the fact that null mutant alleles for the genes encoding them are still motile.

"Likewise, Douglas Axe has performed experiments on the functional sensitivity of enzymes."

And Axe concluded that his results were compatible with the neutral theory.

Incidentally, crevo, I've done experiments (mutating single residues in the active sites of enzymes) that constitute a far more direct test of the central assumption made by Dembski et al., and their assumption (which they lack both the courage and integrity to test) is false.

Anonymous said...

And so the Darwinist tantrums continue. They had no good answers to the challenges raised by Johnson 17 years ago, by Behe 12 years ago, and still don't. Same old, same old: special pleading, tarring of anyone that doesn't bow to Darwin as a disingenuous liar or incompetent fool, assertion of the genetic fallacy, assertion of sole right of interpretation for all extant scientific data, etc, etc, ad nauseum. I've been hoping for more than a decade to see a real debate on the merits. I'm still waiting.

And smokey, the tiresome habit of calling all of those you disagree with liars is a tactic fit only for intellectual toddlers.