Month: September 2011

Creating a Distorted View of the World

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The following is a reprint of my article in The Argus, the local paper for Brighton and Hove. It appeared on their regular page 8 comment slot. A lot of what I say is similar to that in my account of the BBC interviews reported in my last blog post.

The Local Argus Mast

One of my research interests is the creation-evolution controversy in schools. Is there a big problem? Are children routinely being taught creationism as a scientific fact in our schools? In truth we just don’t know for certain. A 2006 poll by Opinionpanel found that nearly 20% of UK students said they had been taught creationism as fact by their main school. If this poll is correct then it’s very worrying, but more work is needed to see how widespread the practice really is. Other research shows that 40% of science teachers have been challenged by pupils about creationism. For me, a very disturbing development has been the application for Free school status by an evangelical Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, founded on biblical literalism, that will teach evolution as ‘just a theory’, in science. I’m willing to predict that if the school opens, it will be very badly taught evolution theory, undermined at every possible point. I hope the application is firmly rejected.

I’ve come across a class set of anti-evolution  creationist books in a West Sussex school, apparently donated by parents. Organisations, such as Truth in Science, distribute intelligent design creationism DVDs and books UK schools. Lots of creationist material is aimed at young children, such as glossy, appealing dinosaur books and comics which distort and misrepresent scientific fact. They include madcap ideas such as dinosaurs co-existing with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a bizarre claim that a live pterosaur – a
flying reptile – may have been captured by cowboys in 19th Century and dragons were real, fire-breathing dinosaurs. You’d think such things are laughable, not dangerous. On one level, they are harmless as the majority of right-minded people dismiss such ideas as patent nonsense, but to a child such ideas are very appealing.

Creationism is getting more sophisticated. Intelligent design creationism, the idea that things are so complex they could only have been designed and that evolution cannot adequately explain, for example, how an eye could have evolved, is trying to force its way onto the school curriculum. Intelligent design creationism isn’t science. It looks like science, it pretends to be science, but it’s not. Science needs evidence to support its
theories. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena accepted by the scientific community and well evidenced. Theory can have more than one meaning – in everyday language a theory could be a speculative guess, but not in science. Intelligent design creationism is the opposite of science. It is built on the idea that if we cannot explain something, by default it must have been designed. Intelligent design creationism lacks any evidence.

Another key point of the campaign is the drive to include evolution in our primary curriculum. Under the last government, this was going to happen, but when the coalition came to power the revised primary curriculum was scrapped. Teaching the fundamentals of evolution early is necessary to prevent children gaining misconceived ideas about how life has developed and diversified. Children exposed to creationist books and comics can quite easily pick up misconceptions and once implanted, they’re difficult to change.

You may have jumped to certain conclusions by this point. Perhaps you think I‘m an atheist and I’m intent on removing religious teaching in all state schools. Both assumptions would be incorrect. I’d describe myself as an agnostic and I firmly support religious education in all schools. It‘s important children learn about all religious faiths and beliefs as well as understand atheism, agnosticism and humanism. Intolerance and discrimination is built on ignorance. Knowledge of what other faiths and ‘no faith’ is really about, taught by qualified religious education teachers, is preferable to children picking up prejudiced misinformation about various religions from the media or the playground.

By all means talk about creation myths and stories in religious education, but don’t present them as scientific fact. Evolution is a scientific fact – new species have been observed appearing in the wild. The evidence in the fossil record is overwhelming. The rich diversity of life we see today is interconnected and interrelated as evidenced by DNA. Some of the natural mechanisms that cause evolution we understand, such as natural selection, others are still a mystery. But scientists are working on explaining and understanding these complex processes, they haven’t given up and said, ‘well I can’t explain it so it must have been designed that way’.

Understanding evolution helps us develop better drugs to treat serious illness and realise why it’s not so simple to cure the common cold or how HIV and aids spreads and changes. If we allow creationist doctrines to gain equal status in our schools with the tried and tested scientific theory of evolution, why not allow astrology in place of astronomy, alchemy over chemistry and magic in place of physics.

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Intelligent Design Creationism is not Science

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I’m just back from the BBC studio in Brighton having done 9 regional interviews/debates on the issue of teaching intelligent design creationism as science in schools.

It is quite simple, intelligent design creationism is not science. It is not accepted as science by the scientific community and, as such, cannot be taught as science in schools.

The interviews also featured Dr Alastair Noble (former science teacher, science inspector for schools and lay preacher at the Cartsbridge Evangelical Church Glasgow). He is the director of the Centre for Intelligent Design based in Scotland. He is a firm (in some ways aggressive) supporter of intelligent design. In debates you know that things are going wrong for one side when it descends to name-calling, which is what Dr Noble did, certainly in the final interview this morning.

As the interviews carried on, from regional station to regional station, you could hear in his voice the frustration and it ended with name calling. It seems that I am an ‘intellectual fascist’ who does not understand the ‘science’ and who fails to explain the ‘information’ contained in DNA. I also, he says, don’t know the history of the intelligent design movement.

All these charges are false. Dr Noble consistently and aggressively misrepresented the call for the ban signed by myself and the other 29 leading scientists and educators, he’s claiming that we wish to ban all mention of creationism or ID. He ridiculed the signatories’ position saying that we would have to get the police in (I think he mentioned the ‘thought police’ once as well) to stop mentions of these ideas in classes. Despite patiently explaining to him that the call is that neither creationism nor Intelligent design should be presented AS SCIENCE  he continued with his ridiculous claims of intellectual fascism etc.

His claim that I did not understand or define intelligent design correctly was also similarly ludicrous. The definition I quoted came from the discovery institute website, so if it is wrong then it is the DI who have it wrong. I explained, patiently on several occasions the roots of the ID movement in the USA; the ruling that it was religious by the courts; the intent of the Wedge strategy and Philip Johnson’s calls to keep the religion out of the debate so that ID can be accepted and only then discuss the religion.  Dr Noble vehemently denied that Johnson’s goal was to get religion into schools. But this is simply not true. For example, in describing how they would get creationism and God into the science classroom Johnson wrote:

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

American Family Radio, Jan 10, 2003 broadcast, in which Johnson discusses his book: The Right Questions, encouraging Christians to actively debate issues of eternal value

Johnson has also said: “This isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science. It’s about religion and philosophy.” Witnesses for the prosecution

Dr Noble stated that he knows Philip Johnson and that my claims that this started as a religious movement and that the strategy is clear, get ID accepted then move on to the acceptance of the Christian God and the designer, is untrue.

Readers can judge for themselves who has the strongest argument here. Dr Noble and his denial or Philip Johnson and his recorded and reported admissions.

I suggested on air that he should read the wedge strategy and the book Creationism’s Trojan Horse. I explained that the call does not want a ban on talking about philosophical or religious viewpoints in RE lessons, or philosophy lessons etc. BUT and here is the nub of the argument they should be presented as faith and belief positions and NOT as science.

In one of the interviews he stated quite openly that he didn’t want intelligent design taught in science, so I don’t quite understand what his position really is. Nobody is stopping the discovery institute from doing what they do. If they can convince the academic community of scientists that their ideas are borne from science then fine, debate it and once it attains the status of science it can be brought into science teaching. But ID does NOT have a mandate to jump the queue, get injected into mainstream science teaching with no body of evidence and peer review behind it and certainly not while the community of scientists disagree with it.

Dr Noble kept challenging me to explain the ‘information ‘ in DNA and how it arose. It could ONLY have come from an intelligent mind, he kept repeating. I pointed out that Information scientists do not accept the ID definition of information. I cited Professor Jeffrey Shallit who has criticised Stephen Meyers’ definition of information as confused wrong. He says of Meyer’s book “Signature in the Cell”; “Two things struck me as I read it: first, its essential dishonesty, and second, Meyer’s significant misunderstandings of information theory”. He goes on to say that:

Creationist information, as discussed by Meyer, is an incoherent mess.” and “Intelligent design creationists love to call it “specified information” or “specified complexity” and imply that it is widely accepted by the scientific community, but this is not the case. There is no paper in the scientific literature that gives a rigorous and coherent definition of creationist information; nor is it used in scientific or mathematical investigations.

Meyer doesn’t define it rigorously either, but he rejects the well-established measures of Shannon and Kolmogorov, and wants to use a common-sense definition of information instead. Stephen Myers Bogus Information Theory

I asked Dr Noble to define information, in one interview, several times and he did not.

In another interview I challenged Dr Noble over some accepted science, the age of the earth and common descent, knowing that he probably does not accept this science (though he is very, very careful not to expose his own views on creation and Biblical literalism). He said that there was a ‘lot of evidence’ for these things ‘but do you accept the premises?’ I asked. I pressed him, more than once. He did eventually admit that he didn’t necessarily accept them. This, I think, is the closest he has come to admitting publically his own creationist beliefs (that said I have not heard all his public talks so he may have divulged his true beliefs elsewhere).

In many of the interviews I said that accepting ID as science would mean that other pseudosciences would also be entitled to acceptance in science such as crop circles and astrology, both claim to use scientific methods, both claim mathematical foundations. With crop circle science, for example, they have their own research (very small) institutes; have PhD qualified scientific staff; carry out lab based experiments and publish in peer-reviewed science journals. In some ways they are ahead of the ID movement. They characterise their science as dealing with:

  • Number, complexity, and placement
  • Changes to plants
  • Electromagnetic and radioactive effects
  • Physical side effects
  • Highly intricate mathematical design
  • Eyewitnesses and balls of light

Surely, I said in one interview, they would have more claim for crop circle science to be taught as science than ID?

I also mentioned astrology. This again, its supporters claim, uses scientific methods, makes observations, measurements has testable predictions – but we are not going to teach that as science in school either!

I kept coming back to the point that school science is not the place for these debates. Both Dr Noble and I referred to the latest ‘shocking’ science, that a particle could possibly travel faster than the speed of light. We will not, I said, go into schools tomorrow and teach that Einstein was wrong that our understanding about the speed of light barrier is wrong. We must wait for the scientific community to verify this new experimental data and down the line (possibly many years) we may have to revise our thinking or we may find that it was the result of experimental error. The classroom is not where such things should be decided. We will not present this to children and say ‘you decide’.

I stated, many times, that ID starts from the premise that design and a designer exists and they look for evidence to support this. In the one solo interview I had, I pointed out that while scientists now may do a lot of theory confirming experiments and tests on our understanding of evolution, the idea which became a theory did not start that way.

Darwin and Wallace both wondered about how new species arise. They observed they gathered data they went into the field they amassed evidence and then, only then did they move towards an explanation, a scientific theory. They were, in effect, theory building They conducted real science they did not begin with the idea that things have developed and diversified through a mechanism that they called natural selection. They did not go out to seek to find evidence to fit this idea.

Intelligent Design,  as the Discovery Institute admits, seeks to find evidence to support their assumption that some things are so complex they can only have been designed. I put it to Dr Noble that how they characterise ‘design’ is based on looking at the features of things that we know to be designed (that is that are man-made). If they feel that the universe and many natural things are ‘designed’, what is their frame of reference? How do they know what the features of an unintelligently or non-designed universe or cell look like? If your notion of design is simply referenced to designs by humans then the logical conclusion is that the designer is human: so God is human, a human is God (or substitute ‘the intelligent designer’ if you wish). Again Dr Noble said this was not what they were arguing. Yet according to my reading of the Discovery Institute definition of ID that is exactly what they are arguing.

This is the Discovery Institute definition, taken from their website, I was using for reference:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in  nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system’s components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design, or some combination thereof. Such research is conducted by observing the types of information produced when intelligent agents act. Scientists then seek to find objects which have those same types of informational properties which we commonly know come from intelligence. Intelligent design has applied these scientific methods to detect design in irreducibly complex biological structures, the complex and specified information content in DNA, the life-sustaining physical architecture of the universe, and the geologically rapid origin of biological diversity in the fossil record during the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago.
 Discovery Institute definition of Intelligent Design

From this very definition there are contradictions which were rejected by Dr Noble, as he claimed that I was not defining Intelligent Design properly!

They start with their ‘theory’ that there is a designer for things that are so complex we cannot conceive of how they could have evolved. So their work is not theory building (evolution theory as mentioned above started with evidence and built up to theory) but theory confirming they state that they are ‘seeking evidence’ so the clear implication is that they do not, as yet, have such a body of evidence. In science, particularly biology, the ‘theory’ comes from the evidence not the other way around!

The definition also confirms that their point of reference for deciding if something is ‘designed’ is by comparison to man-made objects that we know to be designed. The assumption here is that the ‘intelligent designer’ works to the same notions of design as humans, why? Why should they have to do that? Hence my comment that the logical end result is that the intelligent designer must therefore be human or that the intelligent designer is only capable of thinking and acting like a human.

I pointed out that ‘theory’ can have different meanings and that in the case of intelligent design ‘theory’ is being used in a speculative way, little to do with evidence, more a hunch or notion that the answer may be ‘designer’ and then you go and look for something to confirm what you already ‘know’. Theory in science, especially biology, means we have the data, the observations and the evidence and our explanations for the natural phenomenon take in what we know and have observed and serve to provide us with a means of making predictions. It is also accepted by the scientific community.

Many times Dr Noble kept banging on about randomness and blind chance. I pointed out that evolution is not about randomness and blind chance and that environmental conditions are the ‘directive force’ in evolution. He of course ignored this and kept on about randomness and blind chance. No doubt he will accuse me of ignoring his claims that ID did not come from religion and to all intents and purposes still is a religious position.

I was clear that this call does not want any mention of ID or creationism banned, that we are not going to call in the police (not even the thought police, as he hinted we might have to) to enforce it and that it was not the job of science teachers to remove religious views from the classroom or tell students that God does not exist. When ID or creationism comes up in science lessons the way to deal with it is, in my view, straightforward. Science is not about faith or belief, it is the acceptance of evidence. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming and just as we accept gravity and atoms, so too should we accept evolution. ID creationism and Biblical creationism are faith-based positions and, as such, require a belief in the supernatural. Science is about the natural world.

If someone wishes to believe in a creative force that instigated ‘the big bang’ fine. If you wish to call that force ‘God’ fine, but all the evidence for the diversity and development of life on Earth does not require the intervention of a designer. It is a product of natural processes.

I have no doubt that Dr Noble will be proclaiming a great defeat of me in his debates today. That I failed to address any of his challenges and that I am ignorant, clearly, of intelligent design.

I could also claim a great victory. Dr Noble clearly does not understand how school science teaches accepted, verifiable and reliable science and that the ‘controversies’ we do talk about are based on the application of science (technology, such as GM foods, mobile ‘phone radiation etc.) and as such  these are more social controversy than scientific controversy, though they have their origins in the science. I could also claim that he clearly does not know how ID is defined by his own peers at the Discovery Institute and that their ‘science’ is no more reliable than crop circle science or astrology. I can also claim that despite explaining very clearly what the call by the signatories is all about. He clearly did not read or understand what our position really is.

I could, but I won’t (well, OK, I admit that I just have). I’ll simply say that after two hours it was only one side that resorted to name calling (intellectual fascist) and that is the true sign that someone has lost an argument!

Lewes Skeptics in the Pub – James WIlliams – Eventbrite

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For any interested people, I’m giving a talk to the Skeptics on Insidious creationism. There are still tickets available apparently. Some of my colleagues have promised (threatened) to turn up and heckle… so it could be fun!

Lewes Skeptics in the Pub – James WIlliams – Eventbrite

Coalition teacher training reforms ‘too simplistic’ – Telegraph

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This article, written by me, is saying that the new ideas on teacher training reforms are not new at all – they are, in fact, simply reinventing the wheel!

See what I mean by visiting the article on the Telegraph Website.

Coalition teacher training reforms ‘too simplistic’ – Telegraph