Creationism’s Playbook and the Closing of America’s Scientific Mind

I wrote my first letter to a politician this week. dan
I wrote Dan Patrick, the leading candidate and likely winner in the run for Texas lieutenant governor. I told him that I want Texas to lead in science, medicine, and technology. (In Texas, the lieutenant governor is a legislative leader capable of powerful influence on policy, including public education law).

Here’s Mr. Patrick on science education in Texas public schools:

When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.

Mr. Patrick: how can Texas lead if our science classes discard the very basis of modern biology as well as modern physics and geology?

I’m still waiting for a reply.

Science is one of the few things in life unaffected by politics ( p. 167) – there is no such thing as a Democrat Krebs cycle or a Republican explanation of DNA replication.

Even when there are ethical or moral or political issues regarding how science should be applied, the underlying science is unchanged: those who want to ban stem cell research do not claim that stem cells do not exist; those opposed to nuclear weapons still accept atomic theory.

Social sciences, however, are a different story.

In his best-seller The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Allan Bloom scathingly critiqued American higher education. America’s most highly regarded virtue (according to Bloom) is openness.

Academia, specifically in the social sciences, has declared that all customs, all cultures, all philosophies, and all ideas are worthy of consideration. Evidence is not important; reason is not important. The greatest danger in social sciences is not error, but intolerance. If I make a judgment on the basis of evidence, I am not “open” to other ideas and interpretations. According to Bloom, the American mind is closed because it is (ironically) too open.

Here’s Bloom:

The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all (The Closing of the American Mind, p.26).

When Bloom published in 1986, he exempted the natural sciences from this trend. Bloom found natural scientists to be ruggedly devoted to empirical evidence, to their use of nature as the ultimate standard of proof:

It (natural science) is really self-sufficient, or almost so…. Natural science does not boast, it is not snobbish. It is genuine.

And I love this declaration:

Natural science simply does not care.

Natural science is the honey badger of academia.

honey badger don't care.

honey badger don’t care.

 

Enter: “The Wedge”

In 1998, the Discovery Institute (a creationist think tank), guided by University of California – Berkley law professor Phillip Johnson, outlined a strategy designed to overhaul the way science is “done”. To Johnson and the Discovery Institute, modern science was anti-religion. This strategy, essentially the “playbook” for Intelligent Design/ creationism, was called “The Wedge” by its creators. As the name implies, the intent of the strategy was to drive a wedge between science and its natural (materialistic) roots:

Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions (The Wedge).

The Wedge proposed a three-phase plan of action: (1) scientific research and writing, (2) publicity, and (3) cultural confrontation.

Phase 1 has not been successful. No research supporting the Intelligent Design model of creationism has ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Michael Behe, although one of the most prolific writers and proponents of Intelligent Design, testified to the lack of research at the historic trial in Dover, Pennsylvania:

There are no peer-reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred (Only a Theory, pp. 178-179).

Behe also testified that the darlings of Intelligent Design – the blood clotting cascade, the immune system, and the concept of “irreducible complexity” – had no peer-reviewed support.

And unless you count the Discovery Institute’s own research in its own journal, there is still no peer-reviewed evidence for Intelligent Design’s brand of creationism.

Anything Goes

The Wedge’s phases 2 and 3 (publicity and cultural confrontation), however, have been quite successful.
Multiple court cases in many states framed the teaching of evolution in public schools as a “culture-war” issue. A magazine cover time cover and a popular movie  expelledreinforced the believers-against-the-godless-evolutionists mantra.

 

 

 

 

The message was clear and found its way into education bills across the country: Teach the controversy. Present both sides. Don’t you want our children to be critical thinkers? It’s “only” a theory.

Ironically, Intelligent Design advocates adopted the strategy of left-leaning academics. With Intelligent Design/creationism, natural sciences are subject to the “open to everything” approach that Bloom said had closed the American mind. When scientific evidence no longer matters and when all comers get equal time, the American scientific mind has been closed.

Natural Explanations

Traditionally, scientists try to find natural explanations for natural events. In the world of Intelligent Design/creationism, non-naturalistic explanations get equal consideration.

Let’s follow this line of thinking beyond the topic of evolution….if you break out in a nasty rash, do you want your doctor to divide her diagnostic efforts between looking for a medical cause AND looking for a neighbor who might have cursed you with bad skin? If your house is sinking, do you call an engineer or a ghost-buster? ghostbustersmenAlthough most anti-evolutionists believe that God blesses the earth with rain, they have no problem with teaching the water cycle in public schools. Only in the case of evolution do we find people lobbying for the inclusion of non-natural explanations in science class.

That’s Why Science Works

Here is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview, talking about the nature of science:

Once science has been established, once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations, it is the way of the world. What I’m saying is, when different experiments give you the same result, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science: It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.

In my letter to Dan Patrick, I told him that I share his committed Christian faith and his high regard for scripture. I told him that there are a lot of us out here who see no conflict between science and faith. I offered to meet and discuss.

So far no invite.

 

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

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I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

electron cat

Intelligent Design: Creationism Redux

It was must-see TV. Live from the KERA studios in Dallas: the Texas Lieutenant Governor Primary Candidates Debate!

Oh… you missed it?

The four GOP candidates (the Democrat candidate is unopposed) squared off on important issues – term limits, guns, abortion, legalization of marijuana.

Toward the end of the debate, the four men vying for what is arguably the most powerful state office in Texas were asked to respond to these questions: lt gov debate

Does creationism belong in schools? Would you like to see creationism in textbooks?

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Here are the responses from the two candidates who will face each other in the May 27 runoff:

David Dewhurst (the incumbent): I am fine with teaching creationism, intelligent design, evolution. Let students, with advice and counsel, decide for themselves which one they believe in.

Dan Patrick (the frontrunner): When it comes to creationism, not only should it be taught, it should be triumphed, it should be heralded.

Gussied-up Creationism

For many people of faith, traditional young-earth creationism demands too high an intellectual price, primarily because it demands a 6,000 to 10,000 years old universe.  “Creationism” and “creation science” have been replaced in many circles with Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design model is infused with scientific vocabulary and complex concepts and has no objection to evidence from physics or geology.

Intelligent Design proponents contend that the theory of evolution is flawed because it cannot explain the complexity of living things. According to ID, an “intelligent designer” was required to step in and specially design (create) each organism, each aspect of life. Intelligent Design is creationism, just gussied-up and more science-y. Intelligent Design is old-earth creationism.

Intelligent Design proponents advocate for equal treatment with evolution theory in public schools.

The likely lieutenant governor of Texas agrees.  

 Teach the Controversy

teach_the_controversy_by_ex_leper-d2xgnkiSo what’s the harm, really? Don’t we want our students to be critical thinkers? Weigh strengths and weaknesses? Should we “teach the controversy” regarding evolution as many education bills are worded?

In other words, should Intelligent Design (old-earth creationism), by law, be given equal status with the theory of evolution in public schools?

Under the Microscope: Does ID Hold Up?

Advocates of Intelligent Design present ID as a valid, scientific approach to the study of biology. As such, ID should pass the tests required of any new science idea.

What happens to a newly introduced science concept?

TNBlog_Scientist

Ta-Daaah!!

Science is self-correcting. New ideas aren’t automatically accepted in the scientific community, no matter how big a splash they make. A couple of decades ago, cold fusion was all the rage. Scientists across the world jumped on board and began trying to replicate the process in their own laboratories, but no one was successful. It soon became apparent that the concept itself was flawed and cold fusion has since been relegated to “the scrap heap of junk science” (p. 45).

And – just a few weeks ago, a Japanese team published an important breakthrough in stem cell research. Almost immediately, scientists reported irregularities in the research and difficulties in replicating the results. The exciting new findings were discredited less than 40 days after their announcement.

If bad science is published in a peer-reviewed forum, it will not stand long. Science polices itself.

What happens when ID is put “under the scope” by the scientific community?

The basic principle of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”. Irreducible complexity means that living systems are so complex all of their parts must be present in order to be functional. According to ID, gradual development (evolution) could not possibly produce these systems – complex systems had to appear “all at once” or they would have been useless. The mousetrap is the go-to example of irreducible complexity: all parts must be present in the mousetrap in order to catch a mouse.

Reduce the trap by even one part, and the mousetrap is useless.

Dr. Kenneth Miller, in a true story from his childhood (pp. 53-55) deconstructed the mousetrap analogy. Using a broken mousetrap with several parts missing, a classmate built a perfectly functioning spitball catapult, capable of launching a juicy one from the gym floor to unsuspecting students in the balcony.

spit-ball-custom

The “reduced trap” was not useless.

The “reduced” mousetrap caught no mousies, but it was still functional: it was an ideal spitball launcher.

The concept of irreducible complexity fails when it comes to mousetraps, but a mousetrap is not a living, biological system.

What about the biological darlings of Intelligent Design – blood clotting, the flagellum, the eye?

Blood Clotting Cascade. Intelligent Design proponents regularly cite the blood clotting mechanism of vertebrates (animals with backbones) as an example of irreducible complexity. Even the tiniest break in a blood vessel triggers a cascade (or pathway) of events, eventually resulting in a blood clot that plugs the leak. Each step in the cascade triggers and amplifies the next step. So precise is this clotting pathway that the absence of just one component in the cascade has a devastating effect (uncontrolled bleeding).

Therefore, Intelligent Design says that the blood clotting cascade was put into place, “as is” and all at once. According to ID, evolution (a gradual process) could not have produced it.

But that is not what the evidence shows.

Simpler systems work. Some vertebrates are missing parts of the clotting pathway, yet the pathways are useful and are able to successfully form a blood clot.

Scientists have known for years that dolphins and whales are missing one of the clotting factors, and their blood clots just fine. In 2003, it was discovered that the puffer fish is missing three of the factors, yet it also has a working system.

In fact, many vertebrates have clotting systems simpler than the systems of mammals, yet they clot quite nicely. Dr. Russell F. Doolittle has extensively documented that the number of components in blood clotting systems increases and decreases as you move up and down the evolutionary scale from jawless fish to advanced mammals.

If a simpler clotting system is able to work, then blood clotting is not irreducibly complex.

Going back further. If we go back to even earlier ancestors, less complex than the vertebrates (animals with backbones), what would we find?

CionaSea Squirts do not have a backbone, so they are not vertebrates like us. Sea squirts do, however, have a nerve chord. Sea squirts are descended from organisms that split off from the line of animals that eventually lead to vertebrates (including us).

In 2002, the complete genetic code of the sea squirt was determined and the results were spectacular. No genes for vertebrate clotting factors were found, but scattered throughout the genetic code for the sea squirt were genes for all but two of the protein domains that build the vertebrate clotting factors. In other words, almost all of the nuts and bolts and spare parts needed to piece together the clotting factors were there, 400 million years ago (p. 66).

It appears that clotting systems evolved from a simple mechanism that could handle the low-pressure, low flow blood systems of less complex animals. Over long periods of time, more and more elements of the cascade were recruited, evolving into the complicated systems needed by mammals with high pressure cardio-vascular systems.

Yet Intelligent Design advocates assert that the blood clotting cascade was created from scratch, “as is”.

But if that were indeed the case, then why do we find the raw materials for clotting exactly where evolution tells us they should be, in the last group of organisms to split off from the vertebrates before clotting appeared? (p. 66).

The Bacterial Flagellum. Your body is host to billions of helpful bacteria that zip around your gut driven by their own little outboard motors – the flagella. Flagella are microscopic whip-like structures powered by a complicated chemical motor. As many as thirty components must be securely in their places in order for a flagellum to operate properly.

Intelligent Design says that the components should have no function whatsoever until all thirty are in place.

Most bacteria are harmless, even helpful. But the bad guys – the bacteria that cause disease – threaten living organisms in a variety of ways. Bacteria can pump poisons directly into a host cell using a protein pump known as a TTSS (type III secretory system).

Studies of proteins in the TTSS pump revealed a remarkable fact: the proteins in the TTSS are almost identical to the proteins in the base of the flagellum. About ten of the thirty proteins in the flagellum function perfectly well as a TTSS pump.

…the TTSS is just like my spitball catapult – a small part of a larger system that works just fine for an entirely different purpose (p.59).

In fact, nearly all of the proteins in the flagellum are like proteins found elsewhere in the bacterial cell.

The flagellum isn’t a made from scratch, all-at-once structure. Rather,

It’s much more like a collection of borrowed, copied, and jerry-rigged parts that have been cobbled together from the spare-parts bin of the cell. In short, it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from evolution (61-62).

Intelligent Design proponents also claim that evolution could not have produced the eye or the middle ear. According to ID, these too, are irreducibly complex. But – multiple lines of research have demonstrated that both the eye and the middle ear could have been generated in a step-by-step, gradual process. (If you’d like to read more about the evolution of the eye, the middle ear, the bacterial flagellum, and the blood clotting cascade, check out these BioLogos links).

Unfortunate Choice of Words

Many believers want a faith-affirming approach to science that is also intellectually honest. At first glance, Intelligent Design seems to offer what Creationism cannot. On the contrary, when we inspect the claims of ID we simply find an old-earth version of Creationism.

It is unfortunate that the “competitors” to evolution appropriate the terms creationism, intelligent, and design. When used with capital letters, the terms are loaded with suppositions about the universe and life that contradict all of modern science.

But using small letters, they become descriptors, not dogma. It is possible to acknowledge God as creator of all, source of all intelligence, and author of all physical laws – and still speak the truth about what his creation reveals to us.

This series is a chapter by chapter overview of Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory, with my discussion and commentary.

Previous posts in this series:

Big Tex, T-Rex, and the American Scientific Soul

Just a Theory

Design: The New Playbook

I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.

I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.

I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.

CatsDinosaurs