Notes and Comment Blog

Insipid Design

Jan 3rd, 2006 2:31 am | By

Well, yes. It’s an obvious thought, isn’t it. One of the first that occurs to us, in fact. If the Designer is so damn intelligent, why aren’t we better? Why isn’t everything? I mean, is this supposed to be optimal? You’re kidding, right?

Far be it from me to kick an idea when it’s down, but I do wonder whether proponents of ID have really thought this through…Because if we were designed by God, it wasn’t on one of His better days.

Yeah you could say that.

Why would an intelligent designer equip each of us with an appendix — an organ whose sole purpose is to become infected and periodically explode? If this was Intelligent Design, then it implies the designer hates us the way many interior designers hate the people who actually live in their creations.

Right so the appendix is kind of like a cook or server spitting in your soup. That and one or two other glitches I can think of. Backs, colons, cholesterol, knees. And if we asked giraffes or hummingbirds or snakes or worms, they might have a few items to throw into the pot too. Maybe snakes and worms would actually like to have arms and legs, you know? Ever thought of that? No, neither did the oh so clever designer, either, apparently. Unless it did, and witheld them to be mean.

Remember, if we are the products of an Intelligent Design, there’s no excuse for such design flaws. It would be like buying a new car and finding out someone had forgotten to include brakes. I wouldn’t call that Intelligent Design.

Well, exactly. I wrote an essay for TPM Online a couple of years ago that says much the same thing.

It’s all such a ramshackly arrangement, really. Who set this up? A little more imagination wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Some bigger thinking. Quite a lot more generosity, scope, long-term planning wouldn’t have come amiss. Following things through, realizing implications, seeing where all these pathetic contrivances were going to lead – you’d think that would be part of the job, quite frankly. To be brutally honest, one wonders if whoever did this even had an engineering degree. Degree, hell, one wonders if the poor bungler ever even took a single class. Maybe it was an eight o’clock, is that it? Sleep too attractive, so the result is we have to put up with these ridiculous bodies that break so easily, that get stiff and slow and then stop altogether, that ooze and drip all sorts of foul smelly liquids, that have to be fueled every few hours and turned completely off for nearly a third of every day, that get too cold or too hot, tired or sick, frightened or sad, angry or deranged? That come with throats that get sore, lungs that fill with fluid, guts that malfunction, teeth that rot and crack? And of course there’s no warranty. In short, one or two design flaws, wouldn’t you say? Rather obvious design flaws? I mean, what were they doing? Working with their eyes shut? Did they not test the product? Did they just slap something together and then ship without even checking it, or what? It’s not as if these things are subtle, or hard to detect. It’s not as if they don’t show up right away, is it.

I even mentioned the car without brakes. (Well it is an obvious example, isn’t it, so that’s not surprising.)

It is hard not to get exasperated. It’s all so obvious. A child could have noticed. (Maybe it is a child?) It’s not just the bodies, though they’re bad enough, it’s so many other things too. This place we’re given to live, for instance –

I mean, it has such potential. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I realize that, I’m not stupid, I’m not blind, I know about the good bits. I’ve stood and marveled at the oceans with the best of them. Sunsets, stars, mountains, waterfalls, flowers, fruit – all lovely, yes, I know. I admire it all as much as anyone. But so what? Does that mean the not-so-good parts are not a problem? Do we usually think about things that way? ‘Well this shirt is a lovely colour so I really don’t mind that it’s full of holes. This car has excellent tires so it’s okay that the brakes don’t work.’ No I don’t think so, I think we want all the parts to work, thank you very much, not just some of them. Is that so much to ask?

And why can’t we fly? And live forever, but hibernate for awhile when we get bored? And make some kind of electric ray shoot out of our heads so that all the cell phones within a quarter of a mile would stop working? And if we wanted not to have hair on some particular part of our bodies where there was hair, just decide not to have it there and be done with it? And go deaf whenever we wanted to, and stop being deaf whenever we wanted to do that? And have a filter so that we would hear what we wanted to hear and not hear what we didn’t want to hear? And live underwater if we feel like it? And see in the dark? And be invisible? And have our own climate control dial built into the backs of our hands?

Intelligent designer ha. Just ha. Inattentive designer. Inept designer. Inclined to do sloppy work designer. In for a nasty shock if it expects me to give it a round of applause designer.

Black Swans and Ivory Bills

Jan 1st, 2006 11:11 pm | By

Did you listen to Gene Sparling telling the story of seeing the Ivory Bill? Do, if you haven’t – it’s a real treat. Apart from anything else he’s funny as hell, in a marvelously relaxed leisurely drawling way. I first heard it by accident, I turned the radio on at random and in the middle, so didn’t know what it was at first, some guy talking about being out in the woods and what a remarkable place it was, I wasn’t paying much attention until he started talking about a bird – and then when he said ‘I thought “that’s the biggest pileated woodpecker I’ve ever seen”‘ I was galvanized and began paying very close attention indeed.

And it’s not just a good story, it’s also interesting epistemologically. It’s kind of a black swan story, kind of a story about falsification, and the difficulty or impossibility of being sure of a negative. It’s about the fact we’ve talked about here more than once: the fact that not having found X does not necessarily mean there is no X to find. It could mean that, but it could just mean you haven’t found it. And it can be very very difficult to know which.

Because Sparling wouldn’t let himself think he’d seen what he suspected he’d seen, at first – in fact for quite awhile. Why? Because he didn’t want to be ridiculed as a loony, a Big foot finder, an alien abduction believer. And he thought he couldn’t have seen what he thought he’d seen. But actually, on consideration, the possibility that it was what he thought it might be except that it couldn’t be (because Ivory bills are extinct, he said solemnly, they’ve been extinct my whole life) is really not nearly as far-fetched as either Big foot or alien abductions. And Big foot, in turn, is not as far-fetched as alien abductions. So there’s a scale of far-fetchedness here: 1, 2, 3.

Here’s why the Ivory Bill possibility is not in Big foot territory, at least in my view. 1) It was last seen in the ’40s, which is only six decades ago – not a very long time. 2) There are some swampy hard-to-navigate places in its old range where people wouldn’t have seen it if it had been there. Those two things are enough, really. Not to make it likely that it wasn’t extinct after all, but to make it not absurd. As Sparling was persuaded. The only mention he made of the bird he saw at first was a posting to a message board of his canoe club, where it was his custom to post notes on trips. He said he’d seen a very odd pileated woodpecker, which was very large, and had the black and white colouring on his wings reversed. People in the know would know what that meant – but he didn’t say it in so many words. And that’s all he said and all he intended to say – but another canoe club person emailed him and said ‘Gene, you have to do some research on this, you have a responsibility.’ So he did. And what’s interesting is that the research told him what he hadn’t known: that the bird’s known range included Arkansas, where Sparling had seen his bird; he had thought it didn’t, that the range was in Texas but not Arkansas. Once he learned that, the possibility seemed less outlandish – so he went ahead and risked being seen as a wacko.

But there it is, you see. No one had seen an Ivory Bill since the ’40s – but there were Ivory Bills there, all the same. No one knew there were, but there were nevertheless. That’s how it is.

One Shrug Too Many

Jan 1st, 2006 10:00 pm | By

Yes, truth does matter, but it can be a hard slog sometimes convincing people of that. An American studies teacher offers some illustrations.

O’Brien violates old novelistic standards; his book is both fictional and autobiographical, with the lines between the two left deliberately blurred. My students adored the book and looked at me as if they had just seen a Model-T Ford when I mentioned that a few critics felt that the book was dishonest because it did not distinguish fact from imagination. “It says right on the cover ‘a work of fiction’” noted one student. When I countered that we ourselves we using it to discuss the actual Vietnam War, several students immediately defended the superiority of metaphorical truth because it “makes you think more.” I then asked students who had seen the film The Deer Hunter whether the famed Russian roulette scene was troubling, given that there was no recorded incident of such events taking place in Vietnam. None of them were bothered by this.

Well I’m bothered by the fact that none of them were bothered. I’m not surprised, but I’m bothered. It’s funny, too, because we’re always being told how ‘media-savvy’ the current generation is (we’ve been being told that for several generations now, I think), and how good they are at seeing through the ploys of hidden persuaders. I’ve never believed a word of it, and Weir’s account hints at why. I’ve talked to too many people who are serenely unbothered by falsehoods in historical movies, who say cheerily that movies are movies, they’re not supposed to tell the truth, that’s not their job, their job is to entertain, if a rewriting of history makes the movie more entertaining, then that’s what the moviemakers have to do. Everybody knows it’s just a movie, is usually the clincher. But that’s bullshit, of course. Just because everybody ‘knows it’s just a movie’ doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t also ingest some (or all) of the falisfications and believe them ever after.

If all these tv generations are so media savvy, why have they apparently never heard of propaganda? The Triumph of the Will is just a movie too; so what? People tell lies during wars and the lead-up to wars; lies about what the North Vietnamese did or did not do mattered a great deal in the real world; Weir’s students should have been bothered.

I mentioned John Sayles’ use of composite characters in the film Matewan. They had no problem with that, though none could tell me what actually happened during the bloody coal strikes that convulsed West Virginia in the early 1920s. When I probed whether writers or film makers have any responsibility to tell the truth, not a single student felt they did.

Matewan is a good example. There’s a very good book about this whole subject, called Past Imperfect, in which a number of historians and other scholars (Steve Gould for instance) discuss the veracity or lack of it in a number of movies. John Sayles and Eric Foner talk about Matewan – and much as I like Sayles, I think he’s wrong about this and Foner is right. I think movie makers do have a responsibility to tell the truth – partly because movies are so very powerful, and have such searching and longlasting effects on our mental furniture.

My O’Brien class came through when I taught the concept of simulacra, showed them a clip from the film Wag the Dog and then asked them to contemplate why some see disguised fiction as dangerous. (Some made connections to the current war in Iraq, but that’s another story!)

Anybody who doesn’t see disguised fiction as dangerous is mad as a hatter, if you ask me.

Squaring the Circle

Jan 1st, 2006 12:05 am | By

La lutte continue, as the saying goes – the struggle continues. Education can be a slow process, and as we’ve seen in the US lately, it can turn around and march smartly backwards. People can make resolute, determined efforts to become more ignorant than their parents, and to make their children more ignorant than they are themselves. People can also make resolute efforts to have it both ways – to live on technology and the safety and comfort it brings, while at the same time scorning the rational ways of thinking that technology depends on. There’s something a little contemptible about that – but so it goes.

James Colbert has been on the frontline of America’s culture wars for 20 years but his hoped-for final victory of reason over faith is not yet in sight. Now an associate biology professor at Iowa State University, he has found since he started teaching that about a third of the students beginning his introductory course are creationists, in many cases with no knowledge of evolution at all.

That’s students at university level, in a country which has laws about mandatory education for all children through the age of sixteen – yet a lot of them manage to slip through with no knowledge of evolution at all. Because education can go backwards.

While trying to tread softly to avoid offending their sensibilities, he has increasingly had to defend his faculty and scholarship against what he sees as a far greater threat – the incursion into science faculties of backers of “intelligent design”, the belief that evolution is so complex that some higher force must be behind it.

That’s a threat? Science faculties being infiltrated by ‘backers’ of unscience? Of nonscience, of antiscience? Gosh, how could that be a threat?

Prof Colbert says most scientists ignored such arguments as coming from a lunatic fringe until August when President George W Bush backed teaching i.d. alongside evolution. Alarmed at what he saw as the growing influence of some i.d. supporters in the science faculty, Prof Colbert drafted a petition condemning “attempts to represent intelligent design as a scientific endeavour”. In response more than 40 Christian faculty and staff members signed a statement calling on the university to uphold their basic freedoms and to allow them to discuss intelligent design.

‘Calling on the university to uphold their basic freedoms’ – meaning what? Their basic freedom to teach nonsense? Is that a basic freedom, and is it a basic freedom that they have? Does a French teacher have a basic freedom to teach a mixture of Farsi, Tagalog and gibberish and call it ‘French’? Does a history teacher have a basic freedom to teach that Hitler fought the battle of Trafalgar in 1217 and thereby won the freedom of Papua New Guinea? Does an engineering teacher have a basic freedom to teach that precision really isn’t all that important when it comes to bridge building, lighten up a little? Do teachers have a basic freedom to teach any old balderdash to their captive students? I would have thought they didn’t. And then, there is surely a difference between ‘discussing’ intelligent design and claiming that it is a scientific endeavour, and there is also a difference between condemning something and forcibly removing someone’s freedom to do it. In short, the Christian faculty and staff members seem to be resorting to the much too familiar tactic of claiming to be oppressed and repressed and unfairly treated.

But – we keep endlessly circling back to this – education is education. It’s not education if it traffics in falsehoods, it’s something else. Educators don’t have a ‘basic freedom’ to teach any old fool thing they feel like teaching. They have academic freedom, yes, but it’s not infinite or absolute – it doesn’t cover outright raving. Once a teacher starts dribbling and talking to phantoms, the issue of freedom is overtaken by the issue of competence. Or at least it should be.


Dec 31st, 2005 2:34 am | By

There’s an intense discussion going on at Panda’s Thumb, on a thread of PZ’s that links to the comments by Dawkins and Dennett here – and now a new comment by Paul Kurtz. It’s that ‘should we shut up about religion or not?’ question. No we certainly should not, is my view, you will be calmly unamazed to hear. I tried to say it there only to be told I wasn’t allowed to comment. Because – what? I’ve been banned? I don’t think so, I think it must be a kink of some sort. Anyway I thought I wouldn’t waste my comment, so I’ll put it here. (At least I’m allowed to, here. It’s my Monopoly game and I can put ten hotels on Boardwalk if I want to.)

Well, another way of adding up the score is to point out how much deference to religion and religious beliefs there has been in US public discourse in the past few decades, and then noticing where that has gotten us. The expression ‘give them an inch and they’ll take a mile’ leaps to mind. The more atheists and rationalists and defenders of the Enlightenment defer and bow and keep silent about religion, the more aggressive and truculent and self-pitying religious believers seem to get. Why is that? Could it be, say, a sense of entitlement? If so, could it be time to give up on that approach and get real?

That seems to me to be how it is. We’re always hearing that forthright atheism will frighten a lot of people off, and maybe it will, but what has the opposite done? It seems to me it’s given a hell of a lot of people the idea that there is just no such thing as enough respect for and deference to ‘faith’. If no deference is ever enough (short of actual conversion and joining the godpesterers, and I won’t do it, I won’t I won’t I won’t) then why not give it up and tell what we take to be the truth? At least that way, we get to tell the truth, instead of doing all this creepy smirking tiptoeing around and apologizing for not believing fairy tales.

So good luck to PZ. I’d stand shoulder to shoulder with you, but silly old PT won’t let me.


Dec 30th, 2005 8:00 pm | By

It’s time this kind of story got more attention than putative alienated [male] yoofs.

…a quiet revolution spreading among young European Muslim women, a generation that claims the same rights as its Western counterparts, without renouncing Islamic values. For many, the key difference is education, an option often denied their poor, immigrant mothers and grandmothers. These young women are studying law, medicine and anthropology…In the crowded immigrant suburbs ringing Paris, the scene of recent riots mostly led by young Muslim men, high school teachers say girls are the most motivated students because they have the most to gain.

Which is probably part of why they’re not the ones out setting fire to buses with people on them. Another part may be that many of the aggrieved yoofs setting the fires are the very people the studious girls want to escape.

In interviews in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, young women repeated this belief like a mantra: studying offers an escape from the oppressive housing projects, from controlling young Muslim radicals and from strict social codes enforced by fathers and brothers.

Escape from controlling male relatives, basically.

At the Islamic University of Rotterdam, a small group of theology students, most of them speaking Dutch but all tightly veiled, chatted after classes about the need to end the social segregation of men and women. “In class, we sit anywhere we choose,” said a student who gave her name only as Aisha. “In the mosques, we don’t want to sit in separate or hidden spaces.”

And maybe eventually they’ll also be able to escape that tight veiling – which is, of course, simply a portable social segregation of men and women, a portable separate and hidden space.

As educated Muslim women assert themselves, they appear to be forging a strand of Euro-Islam, a hybrid that attempts to reconcile the principles laid out in the Koran with life in a secular, democratic Europe.

Best of all would be not to have to worry about reconciling the principles laid out in the Koran, but a hybrid Euro-Islam is much better than a non-hybrid.

Women are also often at the forefront of liberal tendencies among Muslims, publishing critiques and studies about the obstacles and abuses women face. In Germany, Seyran Ates, a Turkish-born German lawyer, and Necla Kelek, a Turkish-born sociologist, have recently published books that have been read widely on the oppression of Muslim girls by their own families…As Muslim women take advantage of democracy and civil liberties in Europe, the question remains whether the impact of an educated minority will be continually blunted by the arrival of often poorly educated young brides from North Africa, Pakistan, Turkey and the Middle East. And as Europe rethinks its faltering integration policies, the place of Muslim women is a new target of scrutiny. Critics, including immigrants themselves, argue that in the name of respecting other cultures, Europeans have allowed the oppression of Muslim women in their midst.

Just so. That ice floe is beginning to break up, but slowly.

Rev Bob

Dec 30th, 2005 6:57 pm | By

There’s a stupid new meme kicking around. I saw it a few days ago – last week sometime, I think – in some newspaper ramble about poor persecuted religion. I nearly mentioned it then, but it was a small point, and I didn’t end up getting to it. But it needs to be stamped out – because it is so stupid and back to front and deceitful. And typical in that. It’s one of the favourite tactics of religious whiners, turning things upside down so that they get to accuse rationalists of the faults and flaws and feeblenesses that really belong to religionists. Like the deadeningly familiar ‘[insert non-religious idea here] is just another religion’ ploy. The new one turns up in yesterday’s Letters to the Times. A police chaplain, Reverend Bob Green (there’s something risible in that – Reverend Bob – thoughts of Blackadder are hard to suppress), is the whiner this time.

While only 10 per cent attend church in the UK, 70 per cent consider themselves Christians, according to the 2001 census. It could be said that the former are spiritual Christians and the latter cultural Christians, but both categories, I hope, would want to confront the secularists’ agenda of dumbing down faith in whatever shape or form it manifests itself.

There it is. The idea that criticism of and resistance to ‘faith’ is an agenda of ‘dumbing down’. Okay – how do you ‘dumb down’ ‘faith’? That’s a serious question. It seems to me to be a complete, brazen oxymoron. ‘Faith’ is already dumbed down, of its nature. ‘Faith’ – in the sense meant here, in the sense the Rev is using, which is a euphemism for religion – is simply another word for dumbing down – for believing something in the absence of good evidence. Now…that’s not always a bad thing, as the fans of both ‘faith’ and religion love to point out. Having faith in people, for instance, even in the absence of good evidence that the people deserve it, can be a very good thing, sometimes the best thing. (Other times not. It all depends.) Having faith in people in general, in the world, in the future, in hope, in progress, and the like, all can be good things (or not – it depends). But in the particular sense in which the Rev means it, it entails belief in the truth-claims of religion in the absence of good evidence. Those truth-claims are mostly quite preposterous – Jesus didn’t really die, he was resurrected, he is God and also God’s son, God is omnipotent and omniscient and benevolent – you know the preposterous bits I mean. So it is absurd, and deceptive, and less than honest, to call the ‘secularists’ agenda’ ‘dumbing down’. Down from where? Where is there to go down from? What is the lofty point of intellectual mountaineering that ‘faith’ has established and secularists want to descend from? What can Rev Bob possibly mean by ‘dumbing down’? Anything? Anything at all? Even so much as a shred of anything? I have to wonder.

In the Mail

Dec 29th, 2005 1:57 am | By

Well, there was a surprise. I opened the mailbox this afternoon and what was sitting on top but the Continuum catalogue. Continuum Philosophy 2006, it says. Ooooh, thought I, all excited. Jeremy mentioned a few weeks ago that he’d got one in the post, but I thought I wasn’t going to get one. But now here it was. I was excited because JS told me our book was featured. I liked that idea.

So, after a suitable interval, after doing various things and going up and down various flights of stairs and getting everything just so, I found a pair of scissors under a pile of books and papers (piles of books and papers are a permanent feature around here, like Norway and the fjords) and cut open the plastic wrapping and pulled out the catalogue. Then I turned to the first page, then I turned to the next page (page 3, that is), and that page is called ‘Highlights,’ and there, you’ll be startled to hear, is Why Truth Matters. Right there, on the page called Highlights. Page 3. Not page 64, which has the Works of George Berkeley, but page 3. Fancy. Then I turned to page 5, where the book also is, along with a couple of books by JS and Julian. Then I felt pleased. Then I went back to page 1 and read the ‘Dear Reader’ thing from the editor – and found that she mentioned the book there too. It and another book ‘explore controversial topics in a way that will inspire and stimulate.’ Oh, does it? I thought. How nice. Then I closed the catalogue – and blinked. I hadn’t noticed before, and JS hadn’t mentioned it so perhaps he never did notice, but the picture on the front of the catalogue is from the cover of our book, and not anyone else’s. No title or names, but it’s our cover art. It’s a very beautiful picture, too. They sent it for approval months ago, and we both liked it a lot. It looks lovely on the cover of the catalogue.

Oh, I’ve just noticed – it’s on the inside back cover, too – the book is. God, it’s everywhere. Very good, that. Especially with such a beautiful cover. Yes I know you can’t judge by that, but I always do anyway.

I suppose the people at Continuum must think it’s not too horrendously bad, if they’ve done all this featuring. That’s surprising, isn’t it. But there it is.

But What’s at the Top?

Dec 28th, 2005 6:54 pm | By

And another thing. That idea that Dennett mentioned in the Spiegel interview.

…the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

That’s the idea that ‘Intelligent Design’ is all about, of course. The argument from incredulity – we just can’t believe that something as complex as a cell could have turned up without being designed. The argument from nonexplanation – natural selection just can’t explain how something as complex as a cell, and birds and flowers and humans, could have turned up without being designed. But what’s odd about that, along with the regress problem, is the way it goes backwards. It goes farther and farther and farther away from explanation, rather than getting closer and closer and closer to it. Which means surely that it’s not all that credible or explanatory itself – in fact it’s less so.

What needs explaining is all this apparent design. The human mind, cells, eyes, all that. Find a watch, must be a watchmaker, all that. Okay so what kind of designer would that be? Quite a proficient one. Right? Quite skilled. To design all this, it has to be quite a lot more skilled than anyone we’ve ever met or seen or heard of. And to be that much more skilled, it has to be quite a lot more complex. In fact – you could say that it’s simply incredible that it could be for instance made of the same basic constituent parts that we are made of, and yet be able to design us and everything else. It has to be so immensely skilled and complex that we can’t even really imagine its skill and complexity – we can only fling vague superlatives in its direction.

Well, okay, so you see the problem. If it’s that complex, then how do we explain it? We explain our complexity by pointing to it, and then we explain its complexity x [vast number of your choice] – how? If the problem is, if the source of incredulity is, that a complex thing needs explanation other than brute natural processes, then whatever made the complex thing that needs explaining, needs explaining a trillion or so times more than the complex thing at the first level. Oh dear. And the problem doesn’t stop there, because the next thing up will be more complex again, and so on with every level we go up. It’s not just a regress, it’s a regress that gets astronomically more insoluble with each step. If you need a big fancy smart thing to make this world, what kind of big fancy smart thing must you need to make that big fancy smart thing? Very big fancy smart indeed. So big fancy smart that you might as well give up, since otherwise the process just keeps on going forever, and makes no kind of sense. Of course we’re all at liberty to think that’s exactly how it is, if we want to – that there is an infinite series of infinitely big fancy smart things that have designed each other all the way down. But as for calling it an explanation – I don’t think so.


Dec 28th, 2005 5:01 pm | By

Well great. Just great. Wonderful. Brilliant. Meera’s in India right now, and she was going to be presenting a paper at a science conference. Well, I hope to hell it wasn’t this one!

A gunman has burst into a science conference in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, opening fire and injuring at least five people, police said. The gunman escaped after firing his automatic rifle at the Indian Institute of Science…The victims were said to be scientists and laboratory technicians attending the conference.

Good move. Well done, gunman – that’s the ticket. Don’t want any pesky scientists cluttering up the place in India, do we. No – what possible use could scientists and lab technicians be in India?!

God damn it. I hope all the injuries are superficial. I hope millions of Indian schoolchildren, outraged by this assault on the hope of a better life, are fired with determination to become scientists themselves, and proceed to do exactly that – thus thwarting the plans of obscurantist thugs everywhere.

God Has to Re-train

Dec 27th, 2005 8:32 pm | By

Well isn’t B&W up to date. Yes, it is. No sooner do I find Daniel Dennett’s comment on the Kitzmiller decision in my email and rush to post it, than I find a Spiegel interview with Daniel Dennett on evolution and ID.

Spiegel asks why evolution is so particularly troubling to religious people, compared with other scientific theories.

It counters one of the oldest ideas we have, maybe older even than our species…It’s the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You’ll never see a spear making a spear maker. You’ll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You’ll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

And then pesky Darwin gummed up the works.

And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators — very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people’s sense that life has meaning…We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.

Spiegel asks about Michael Ruse…

Michael is just trying to put the implications of Darwin’s insights into soft focus and to reassure people that there is not as much conflict between the perspective of evolutionary biology and their traditional ways of thinking.

Then they get on to the implications for religion and the deity.

One has to understand that God’s role has been diminished over the eons…When God is the master of ceremonies and doesn’t actually play any role any more in the universe, he’s sort of diminished and no longer intervenes in any way.

Spiegel offers the usual bit of boilerplate. ‘Natural science talks about life whereas religion deals with the meaning of life.’

Yes but does it? (I would have said had I been there, elbowing Dennett aside in my impatience to talk.) Does it really deal with the meaning of life? If so, how? If none of its truth claims are true, then what does it bring to the discussion of the meaning of life, or the dealing with it, that non-religious ideas can’t bring? That’s what no one who offers that bromide ever really seems to explain. At least not that I see.

So then Spiegel says the thing about moral standards – the other bit of boilerplate.

If that’s what religion does, then I don’t think it is such a silly idea. But it doesn’t. Religions at their best serve as excellent social organizers. They make moral teamwork a much more effective force than it otherwise would be. This, however, is a two-edged sword. Because moral teamwork depends to a very large degree on ceding your own moral judgment to the authority of the group. And that can be extremely dangerous, as we know.

Indeed we do.

At B&W he put the matter this way:

Gods have been given many job descriptions over the centuries, and science has conflicted with many of them. Astronomy conflicts with the idea of a god, the sun, driving a fiery chariot pulled by winged horses – a divine charioteer. Geology conflicts with the idea of a god who sculpted the Earth a few thousand years ago – a divine planet-former. Biology conflicts with the idea of a god who designed and built the different living species and all their working parts – a divine creator. We don’t ban astronomy and geology from science classes because they conflict with those backward religious doctrines, and we should also acknowledge that evolutionary biology does conflict with the idea of a divine creator and nevertheless belongs in science classes because it is good science.

The deity is just going to have to find other work. If steelworkers and blacksmiths have to, why shouldn’t the deity?

I think that what the expert scientists may have meant was that the theory of evolution by natural selection in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine . . . prayer-hearer, or master of ceremonies, or figurehead. That is true. For people who need them, there are still plenty of job descriptions for God that are entirely outside the scope of evolutionary biology.

There’s also the thing about turning up on cinnamon rolls and old pieces of cheese on toast. That’s good honest work, and the deity is just the right person to do it.


Dec 26th, 2005 5:55 pm | By

This again. I seem to have this argument every ten days or so. The issues are just never framed properly – instead they’re framed evasively and euphemistically, and how can anything be discussed properly when the air is clouded by evasion and euphemism? I ask you.

What argument? The free speech one. The one that swirls around the thought that free speech is not about the easy cases but about the hard ones. One version of that is the discussion of hypocrisy and double standards, as in Mark Steyn’s inaccurate whinge about Hampstead big guns who ‘lined up’ to defend Rushdie but wouldn’t (according to Steyn) line up to defend Lynette Burrows, and as in this one about Orhan Pamuk and David Irving. Why are people making free speech noises about Pamuk and not about Irving?

Two European writers have recently fallen foul of European governments for expressing their views about genocide. Both are threatened with trial and imprisonment for something they said or wrote. Yet one is supported by EU politicians and the international literati – who have rallied around to defend him from censorship and to champion the right of writers to speak freely – while the other has been ignored, or even told that he got what he deserved.

Yes. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It leaves a great deal out. It oversimplifies – drastically. The two writers didn’t say or write the same thing, about the same subject, in discussing the same genocide, with the same implications. That paragraph tries to make it look as if they did, but they didn’t. Just saying ‘for expressing their views about genocide’ and ‘for something they said or wrote’ is not good enough. You might as well say both Martin Luther King and Timothy McVeigh went to jail for protesting against the government. You might as well say that both Osama bin Laden and Irshad Manji are controversial. Both are true statements, but incomplete – to put it mildly.

This is bad news, because when it comes to free speech it’s all or nothing: we either have it or we don’t. And if we were to have free speech for one writer but not for another, then we wouldn’t have free speech at all.

Is that true? It seems to me to be quite untrue. It seems to me to be a rather stupid oversimplification, and unargued besides. Why is free speech all or nothing? Why do we either have it or not? Why can’t we have it in some things and not in others? As in fact we already do – for good or ill, or both. And why do we not have free speech at all if we have it for one writer but not another? What if one writer’s entire output consists of exhortations to murder certain groups of people? If that writer does not have free speech, does it follow that none of us do? I don’t offhand see why.

Brendan O’Neill does finally get around to saying that the two writers ‘could not be more different’. But then –

Yet their cases are the same: both could be incarcerated, not for physically harming another person or for damaging property, but for the words they spoke; both could have their liberty removed because they expressed views that the authorities – in Turkey and Austria – decree to be distasteful.

But that is not the point. That just evades the real point, which is much less easy to deal with. And that’s what is so irritating – free speech absolutists are so predictably apt to do that: to evade the real difficulties in their position by resorting to adjectives like ‘distasteful’ – or controversial, offensive, shocking, objectionable, or the like. As if the only issue were emotional reactions. But that is not the only issue, and it’s very dishonest to shove the real issue behind the sofa and hope no one will notice. Austria doesn’t make Holocaust denial illegal merely because it is ‘distasteful’ but because, rightly or wrongly, they think it is dangerous. Obviously there is plenty of room for argument on that: it’s an empirical question as well as a question of principle, and there’s a lot to say. But that is the issue, not anything so silly and trivial as distaste.

Seven Up

Dec 24th, 2005 7:05 pm | By

A tag by Norm. Sevens.

Seven things to do before I die:

1) Go to Italy. 2) Write a book. 3) Participate in electing a rational, non-corrupt, thoughtful, educated, articulate, disciplined adult as president of the US. 4) Refrain from running a marathon. 5) Convert the pope to atheism. 6) Read all those books I should have read by now and haven’t. 7) See women achieve full and ineradicable human rights and equality everywhere on the planet.

Seven things I cannot do:

1) Play the cello. 2) Rock-climb. 3) Let it go. 4) Chinese calligraphy. 5) Help it. 6) Fly. 7) Keep things tidy.

Seven things that attract me to blogging:

1) It’s like writing in a notebook except that people read it. 2) The rate of injury is lower than in rock-climbing. 3) It’s international. 4) It’s much less fatiguing than running a marathon. 5) It’s a way to get attention for things I think should get attention. 6) Blogging is a form of essay-writing, and I think essays are an undervalued medium. 7) It’s a good way to irritate people who hate blogs.

Seven things I say often:

1) You just can’t get it right, can you Basil. 2) She only does it to annoy, because she knows it teases. 3) Well they would, wouldn’t they. 4) Ice cream, Mandrake? Children’s ice cream? 5) That’s not what I said. 6) Hang up. 7) No.

Seven books (or series) that I love:

1) Hamlet 2) Lucky Jim 3) King Lear 4) Emma 5) Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass 6) Memories of a Catholic Girlhood 7) Wuthering Heights

Seven movies I watch over and over again:

Actually I don’t, but I can come up with a few that I would if I did, I think…1) Dr Strangelove. 2) The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner. 3) Bringing Up Baby. 4) Lone Star. 5) Little Dorritt. That’s about it – and I’m not sure I would watch them over and over; I think there’s a limit. I used to be able to do that but now I get bored quickly.

I’m skipping the last one, because I’m too shy.

Our Minds Are Our Own – Except in Wales

Dec 23rd, 2005 8:11 pm | By

What was that we were saying about theocracy?

More than half the secondary schools in Wales inspected in the past four years break the law by failing to pray every day, a BBC survey has revealed. All state schools should hold an act of worship each day, either for all pupils in assembly or as a class-based prayer…The 1944 Education Act promised lessons for children up to the age of 15, created grammar, technical and secondary modern schools – and also placed worship at the heart of school life. The 1988 Education Reform Act strengthened the legislation, further defining worship in schools as wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.

Well there’s liberty of thought for you. There’s being treated like potential future rational autonomous beings. There’s education. There’s respect for reason and science and probabilities.

There’s an odd illustration on the page – of a looming crucifix with light from church windows flooding in on it. It’s no doubt meant to look inspiring, or something, but in the context it looks far more threatening than inspiring. It looks like a bloody great bludgeon, is what it looks like.

But Archbishop of Wales Barry Morgan said instead of changing the law, schools should have more support to enable them to provide worship.

Provide. Provide. Do you mark that. Man I get tired of religious tyrants resorting to pious sanctimonious self-flattering euphemisms for what they’re doing. They’re not providing worship, they’re forcing it on people. Say what you mean, you archepiscopal bastard. Since it’s not optional, ‘provide’ is the wrong word. Tying someone down and stuffing cheeseburgers down her throat is not ‘providing’ lunch, is it.

It’s not just the hard religious sell in acts of worship, it’s asking questions about the meaning of life. It’s asking questions about what it means to live in a society where you respect others. Now all those, it seems to me, are religious virtues – tolerance, forgiveness, compassion.

Oh really – those are religious virtues, are they. Living in a society where you respect others, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion. Why? Why does it ‘seem to you’ that those are ‘religious virtues’? What reason can you possibly offer for such a stupid idea? Do you seriously think that atheists universally have no truck with such virtues? Or that all religious people are saturated with them? (Talk to the ‘Rapture’ crowd and then explain to us how full of forgiveness, compassion, tolerance and respect for others they are. I can’t wait.)

It would be idiotic to leave out faith in God in a school when that’s part of our society and when it’s part of the Christian foundation of this country

No it wouldn’t. For one thing, lots of things are part of your society that are left out in school. Same for things that are ‘part of the Christian foundation of this country’. And for another thing, ‘faith in God’ can be part of your society and part of the Christian foundation of your country and still be entirely mistaken. School is primarily for education, and it’s not educational to force people to ‘worship’ an entity that there is no evidence for. It’s no more educational to force people to ‘worship’ a deity than it would be to force them to ‘worship’ Cinderella or Elmer Fudd or Zeus.

In a statement on Friday, Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson, said she expected “all schools to meet their obligations under the law”. She added: “All registered pupils attending a maintained school should take part in collective worship and it is the head teacher’s duty to secure this. The systems are in place to identify any shortcomings and to ensure that the appropriate action is taken.”

And that’s that.


Dec 22nd, 2005 8:50 pm | By

Some more Pharyngula.

He’s exactly right about one thing: all the people on his little enemies list say terrible things about religion. Speaking for just myself, I don’t like it at all—I think it’s a bad idea to afflict a society with an institution dedicated to opposing critical thinking, the acceptance of dogma, and belief in unsupported and frankly, ludicrous claims. I’m going to express my detestation often and without reservation here, as the others in that list have done in their own venues. So? Is this an opinion we are not allowed to have? Does it make us unfit to speak on science or philosophy? Is it more offensive than the frequently stated and rarely questioned Christian opinion that we unbelievers are damned to spend all of eternity suffering in agonizing torment?

Well, yes, of course this is an opinion we’re not allowed to have. We know that. We also know that it’s less legitimately offensive than the opinion that we’re all going to fry, and that that’s just too damn bad, because it’s Be Kind To Theists century. Get used to it, as the saying goes.

I was talking yesterday in ‘Abdication not the Way to Go’ about this asymmetry between religion and non-religion. It’s a real problem, you know, because it handicaps one side and gives a boost to the other. Quite unreasonably. The inhibition or taboo on challenging religion – ‘other people’s cherished beliefs,’ you know – doesn’t operate at all in the other direction. No one ever has the smallest hesitation in challenging rational, secular, non-theist beliefs on grounds of tolerance or sensitivity or kindness or respect or diversity. The presumed touchiness and ‘sensitivity’ of believers is not matched by presumed anything of non-believers. (And nor should it be. Who wants to be such a delicate flower that she can’t stand to hear her ideas or beliefs challenged? Yet apparently believers are perfectly happy to be thought of that way – in fact they get very indignant and outraged if you don’t think of them that way. Odd.) This means that one side has an immense advantage and the other side has an immense handicap. One side is awarded a large shield or wall, and the other side has its weapons taken away.

And the joke is that this is precisely backward, in the sense that the first party has the weaker case – that is, the worse case, qualitatively. It’s not that it’s disabled or handicapped, injured or damaged, so that we ought to give it an advantage out of fairness – it’s that it has no standing, no warrant, no evidence, no good argument. It ought not to be given extra compensatory help – but it is. This second problem is rooted in the first, which is nonsensical. It amounts to: because the ‘faith’ team has no evidence and no good arguments, it feels stupid when challenged, therefore the reason team is required not to challenge it – so the faith team gets to make its unwarranted assertions unimpeded.

Do a thought experiment: put that in other contexts, and see how ridiculous it is. X declares that aliens from another galaxy are living among us and that the income tax and national health are alien inventions, and that we should execute all the aliens immediately to save ourselves. The rest of us are strongly discouraged from challenging this assertion, because X has no evidence, these are X’s personal subjective opinions.

If it doesn’t fly in normal everyday contexts – in courtrooms, laboratories, newsrooms, police stations – why does it fly anywhere? Especially given the fact that these supposedly personal subjective beliefs and opinions are allowed to influence, shape, determine public policy and law? Why are religious beliefs exempt from challenge? What is the justification?

The Big Fluffy

Dec 21st, 2005 8:22 pm | By

Another item from Pharyngula. About the fact that scientists talking about the details of a scientific subject can quickly bore an audience.

It’s true: we aren’t trained to be showmen. We are very good at talking to other scientists – I’m sure Wesley’s talk would have been a pleasure for me to listen to, and I would have learned much and been appreciative of the substance – but most of it would have whooshed over the heads of a lay audience. I wrestle with this in my public talks, too. There’s always this stuff that I am very excited about and that I know my peers think is really nifty and that gets right down to the heart of the joy and wonder of biology, but it’s so far from the perspective of the audience that it is well nigh impossible to communicate. And I know that when I try, I usually fail.

And the important thing to notice there is that we’re the ones who are missing out. Necessarily; we can’t know everything, and we’re all always going to have subjects we don’t know enough about to follow detailed discussions with interest, let alone excitement and joy – but I think it’s really important to keep always in mind that that means we are missing out. There’s something there, and it’s joy and excitement to people who understand it. This is kind of basic to the running argument I’m always having with ‘anti-elitists’. With people who accuse me of 1) thinking I know a lot (which is a joke; I know damn well I don’t know a lot; I know damn well I wouldn’t be able to get the joy and excitement in PZ’s public talks) and 2) thinking that means I’m Special. But that’s not it. That’s completely point-missing. No, what I think is that there is joy and excitement to be had in many kinds of knowledge and intellectual exploration, and that the more ‘anti-elitists’ insist that easy obvious poppy stuff is every bit as good as more challenging subjects, the more they encourage people never ever in the whole of their lives to find that out. ‘Anti-elitism’ pretends to be somehow sticking up for ‘ordinary people’ or some such amorphous group, but what it’s really doing is just encouraging them to remain permanently shut out from intellectual excitement. With friends like that who needs enemies, kind of thing.

The two creationists in the series, on the other hand, are simple and clear (and the young earth creationist has the advantage of being entertainingly insane). They don’t have any complex data to explain, so they aren’t tempted to try, and they put everything in terms everyone can follow. An absence of evidence can be an advantage in a talk, because then everything rests on well-honed rhetoric; the scientist’s reliance on actual information means we often skimp on the presentation. I’ve heard Johnson speak, and he’s smooth and confident, and slyly appeals to his audience’s prejudices. Of course, he also lies like a [censored] . It simplifies lecture preparation if you can simply make up glib lies to fill in the holes, another strategy to which scientists will not resort.

And that’s another important thing to keep in mind. Part of the appeal of the religious side is that it’s easy. It’s easy. Never forget that. In fact it ought to play a much bigger part in the rhetorical toolkit. Religion is for lazy thinkers, because there is literally nothing to do. No evidence-finding, no argument-improving, no illogic-detecting. It’s easy. Easy, easy, easy. It’s like lying back in a soft chair watching tv while the cat gently spoons chocolates into your mouth. Got that? Easy. Couch-potato thinking, lazy thinking, easy easy easy. Not impressive. Not buffed. Not butch. Easy.

They won’t like that!

Abdication not the Way to Go

Dec 21st, 2005 7:41 pm | By

I was surprised to read this about Panda’s Thumb at Pharyngula yesterday. I didn’t know any of it. I don’t read Panda’s very often, whereas I do read Pharyngula almost daily, because I love PZ’s steady flow of irascible atheism. I now realize that the absence of irascible atheism is not absence of mind but intentional. No wonder I’ve never formed a habit of reading it.

The Panda’s Thumb has done a terrible job of covering the Mirecki situation. F-. Total flop. Nosedive into the latrine pit…No names, no details, but let’s just say that there are a few people in the group who would be more comfortable with Michelle Malkin’s innuendo or John Altevogt’s slanders than with supporting an academic critic of fundamentalism…Another lesson I’ve learned, that might be reassuring to some, is that the group as a whole is far more religion-friendly than you might think from reading creationist sites. Criticizing “fundies” is a bad, bad thing, and will cost you the support of many of the Panda’s Thumb gang. Mirecki should be grateful that he isn’t an atheist; I definitely got the feeling that there’d have been anti-Mirecki diatribes publicly washing our hands of him if that had been the case. At least, I don’t feel particularly welcome there, and definitely perceive that I’m a third-class citizen in the hierarchy (heck, I didn’t even know there was a hierarchy until recently). I don’t feel bad enough about it to start going to church to win the prize of being a valued theistic evolutionist, though.

Oh. Oh dear. How unfortunate. See, I think criticizing fundies is one of the more urgent tasks out there right now. What else can we do? Just lie down and let them take over?

While I’m a flaming liberal atheist, most of the people there are not, and they’re actually a diverse bunch; it’s too bad there’s less interest in seeing that diversity expressed than in maintaining a bland front of tepid inoffensiveness. The Panda’s Thumb is a great resource for science and focused critiques of creationism, and everyone should keep reading it, but we should also be clear on what it is not. It is not ever going to address the root causes of creationism in our country: the virulent, pathological brands of fundamentalism that are growing in our midst. That would be…rude.

That’s just it – the root causes problem. They have to be addressed, because the alternative is just submission.

One of the PT people commented on PZ’s post, and said something I find very strange and somewhat worrying.

As a biologist, I can claim some expertise in my area of study. I also have strong views on politics and religion. But no matter how strongly felt my views of religion and politics are, in these I’m just another citizen. As a biologist, I’ll happily tell you when your facts about science are wrong. As a citizen, I don’t believe I have the same warrant to make pronouncements about the personal, individual, subjectively held beliefs of whole classes of people.

But we’re all just other citizens in our views on religion and politics. Why would it follow that we don’t have warrant to make pronouncements about everyone else’s views – whether they belong to whole classes of people or not? That’s just a total abdication of argument, thought, and rational discussion, isn’t it? And if we do that – if we just throw up our hands and say we don’t have warrant to make pronouncements on people’s ‘beliefs’ then we just give the irrationalists a free hand. And that’s the worst thing we can do. The worst. We’re all citizens (if we’re lucky, if we don’t live in dictatorships), we live in democracies (those of us who do), and public matters are for public discussion. Public discussion rests on reasons rather than authority or revelation – it has to – those are the only alternatives. If you give up on reasons and reason, then authority and revelation is what takes over. So the idea that citizens should abstain from challenging one another’s beliefs merely because they are personal, individual, and subjectively held – is a dangerous idea, in my view. It’s just locking up the only tools we have, in the face of a determined, aggressive, hostile, totalitarian enemy. Why would we want to do that?

More Dover

Dec 20th, 2005 11:16 pm | By

It’s hard to tear oneself away from The Panda’s Thumb today. They are having one hell of a party over there. And writing one great post after another while they’re at it.

One on our friend Steve Fuller for example.

Professor of Sociology Steven Fuller may not know much about the history or content of science (see his recent confusion — just like Linus Pauling’s! — between protein and DNA at Micheal Berube’s blog) but he is good the kind of jargoneering that the Discovery Institute and its allies use to confuse the public about science…Fuller proved to be quite compliant generally, but Judge Jones seems not to to have heard his pleas to institute in Dover a kind of affirmative action program for ID. Instead, it was the repeated acknowledgement that Intelligent Design is, in fact, creationism, that Judge Jones took away as the salient point of Fuller’s testimony…What the TMLC failed to appreciate when they booked Fuller as a witness was that he doesn’t believe in any kind of science. In the pomo view, science is all about social relationships and power dynamics. Whatever privileged role science has in society is fraudulantly obtained. Scientific authority is a sham…Calling an expert witness who doesn’t believe in science to a trial about an idea’s scientific status was probably a mistake. Certainly, Steven Fuller wins second place (behind Michael Behe) in the race for the title of “Best Defense Witness for the Prosecution.”

Pretty funny! Also satisfying – especially after the display of condescension mixed with confusion he gave at Michael’s.

And Tim Sandefur does a great one on the judge’s reasoning, full of interesting stuff.

In summary, the disclaimer singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource, and instructs students to forego scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere. Furthermore…introducing ID necessarily invites religion into the science classroom as it sets up what will be perceived by students as a “God-friendly” science, the one that explicitly mentions an intelligent designer, and that the “other science,” evolution, takes no position on religion…. [A] false duality is produced: It “tells students…quite explicitly, choose God on the side of intelligent design or choose atheism on the side of science.” Introducing such a religious conflict into the classroom…forces students to “choose between God and science,” not a choice that schools should be forcing on them.

This could turn into something of an education in science and epistemology for a lot of people.

Avoiding magical explanations is “a ‘ground rule’ of science,” which some call “‘methodological naturalism,’ and is sometimes known as the scientific method.” (at 65). This approach is not arbitrary. It is based on the demands of epistemology as well as the proven superiority of this approach in producing usable results. “[O]nce you attribute a cause to an untestable supernatural force, a proposition that cannot be disproven, there is no reason to continue seeking natural explanations as we have our answer.” (at 66). ID proponents, Judge Jones notes, (and we might mention Beckwith by name here) are trying “to change the ground rules of science to allow supernatural causation of the natural world” to factor into the analysis. (at 67) But this approach would “embrace astrology,” (at 68), among other things. And, in any case, the fact that ID proponents seek “to ‘defeat scientific materialism,’” and “‘replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God,’” (at 68) demonstrates that ID at least cannot qualify as science, whatever “merit” it might have (at 65). Since the current “essential ground rules…limit science to testable, natural explanations,” only changing those rules would allow ID to qualify as science. But “[s]cience cannot be defined differently.” (at 70).

Oh why not. Please? Pleasepleaseplease? Can’t we define science differently just a little bit just for this one time just for awhile if I’m really really good? Can’t we just pretend a little tiny bit that an untestable supernatural force is a good answer can’t we please please?

The judge is a Republican. Which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. This has nothing (inherently) to do with left and right, it’s an epistemic issue. Making evidential questions into political ones is a mug’s game.

This Legal Maelstrom

Dec 20th, 2005 6:39 pm | By

None of this should have happened in the first place, but since it did, at least the judge said what’s what. At least he didn’t do a lot of grovelling and respecting and protected space-providing and beseeching and apologizing. At least he came right out and said that the creationist side lied – and lied repeatedly at that. And since he said it, we can repeat it. A judge said it, in a decision, so no one can accuse us of libel if we say what the judge said. So: they told lies! Repeatedly! And they got caught doing it! Nyah!

Said the judge: “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

It is, isn’t it. Very ironic. Not at all surprising, since we see the bizarrely truth-avoiding way they characterize atheists and atheism in whingeing article after whingeing article in newspapers and magazines – but very ironic. How satisfying it is for a change to see someone in a position to do something about it, point that out.

As P Z says at Panda’s Thumb, the judge’s decision is joyful reading for us on the side of science.

First, while encouraging students to keep an open mind and explore alternatives to evolution, it offers no scientific alternative; instead, the only alternative offered is an inherently religious one…Second, by directing students to their families to learn about the “Origins of Life,” the paragraph performs the exact same function as did the Freiler disclaimer: It “reminds school children that they can rightly maintain beliefs taught by their parents on the subject of the origin of life,” thereby stifling the critical thinking that the class’s study of evolutionary theory might otherwise prompt, to protect a religious view from what the Board considers to be a threat.

There it is, you see – that idea of protection again. Well, the only way to ‘protect’ ideas that have no evidence and no good arguments to back them up, is via various kinds of suppression and distortion, is via stifling critical thinking. That’s why it’s a bad idea to protect weak ideas. But those are just the ideas that a lot of well-meaning fools are keen to protect. But you can’t have the one without the other. You can’t have the bad idea-protection without the damage to the beneficiaries’ ability to think properly. That’s what protection means in this context. It means protection from critical thinking, which means protection from any kind of real thinking, as opposed to daydreaming. It means protection from having one’s ‘beliefs’ ‘attacked’ as the fatuous Guardian editor put it – ‘attacked’ meaning questioned, disputed, argued with, challenged. In other words protected from every process that enables people to learn how to think clearly. What a tragic, pathetic idea of protection.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions. The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

Yes, I do particularly like that bit. I do indeed.

…this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Utter waste? When they got to spend a whole day listening to Steve Fuller’s incoherent ravings? How can that be?

No, of course that’s a joke. Having to go to court to prevent nonsense from being taught in the science classrooms is indeed an utter waste of resources, just as it would be a waste to have to go to court in order not to have flat-earth cosmology taught in the science classrooms. If people want to protect their beliefs, they should swap their brains for small piles of cotton wool, and let it go at that.


Dec 19th, 2005 11:33 pm | By

Mush. Most people can’t seem to think or talk about this subject without resorting to mush. To inaccurate assumptions and woolly language and category mistakes and undefined terms that need defining. To mush.

Editing it today – 33 years later under the same title – is the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, Stephen Bates. He defends it enthusiastically. He said: “I am by no means averse to including humanist or secularist writers but I tell all would-be contributors that the column is intended, in my opinion, to be a space for non-polemical or philosophical reflection. This means not attacking the beliefs of others. In my experience, humanists and atheists find this very difficult…”

Well maybe that’s because they’re profoundly puzzled by the idea that philosophical ‘reflection’ ‘means’ not attacking the beliefs of others. Oh yeah? Ever talked to or read any philosophers has he? But that’s where the mush comes in. He probably has some special – i.e. mushy – meaning for ‘philosophical reflection’ in mind. That it means just kind of dozily dreamily driftily pondering this and that, with one’s eyes unfocused and mouth hanging open and a little bit of drool trailing down one’s chin. He also no doubt has a special meaning for the word ‘attack’ by which it means point out the great gaping holes in someone’s ‘reasoning’ or ‘argument’. And a special meaning for ‘beliefs’ by which it means that which must never be questioned unless of course it is the ‘beliefs’ of non-theists in which case of course anything at all may be said however dishonest.

Even more, the mushy idea throughout the piece is that religion and non-religion are the same sort of thing, in the same way that ginger ice cream and coffee ice cream are the same kind of thing. The truth of course is rather that religion is a set of badly-warranted ideas while non-religion is abstinence from that particular set of badly-warranted ideas, so that in fact they are opposites rather than two flavours of the same kind of thing. So all the way through there is this silly assumption that atheists have no business saying religion is epistemically feeble.

Who qualifies to speak from this small platform is, in the end, he points out, a matter for the editor. The editor, when I asked him about this, said he believed there was still a good argument for preserving Face to Faith as, to use his term, “a protected space”.

Right. A protected space. Protected from what? From the bad mean people who ask what all this is based on? From cruel heartless people who ask what the evidence is? From savage unfeeling people who ask who designed the designer then? Or just from the winds and turmoil of the everyday world? But either way, why is a ‘protected space’ considered necessary or useful or a good idea? Why should religion be protected? Why shouldn’t it be expected to take care of itself by this time? Why does it need Guardian editors bending over it and tucking it in and telling it not to fret? (Not to mention allowing it to talk unmitigated drivel week in and week out.)

Well, I don’t suppose the Guardian will answer those questions, but I would love to know.