Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Cornell’s New IDEA Club

The Chicago Tribune has an article up about a new IDEA (Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness) club at Cornell University, where the president recently delivered a scathing critique of intelligent design in his annual address to the school. The article includes many misconceptions and falsehoods, beginning with the first premise uttered by the new chapter’s founder:

The national spotlight recently has focused on school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that are grappling with calls for including intelligent design, a concept critical of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, in science curricula. But a significant new front in this cultural conflict is opening in the halls of American higher education, spearheaded by science students skeptical of evolution and intrigued by intelligent design.

One of them is Hannah Maxson. A math and chemistry major at Cornell University, she founded an Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club here this fall.

“In my opinion, both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution are science. Both have philosophical implications. Intelligent design implies the universe is somewhat directed. Darwinian evolution implies a naturalistic worldview,” Maxson, 21, said.

Ms. Maxson gets it wrong from her first premise. Evolution does not imply a naturalistic worldview any more than the germ theory of disease or heliocentrism or any other scientific theory. All scientific theories are “naturalistic” in precisely the same sense, as a matter of methodology only. And that methodology is shared by all scientists, including those who are otherwise religiously inclined. This conflation of methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism has become the primary PR tactic of the ID movement – tie evolution to atheism and most people will reject it without having any understanding of it whatsoever. At the same time, of course, they pretend that ID is not at all a religious idea, yet their own behavior contradicts that. Interesting fact: one of the basic rules for setting up an IDEA club chapter such as the one at Cornell, and this is required in order to use the name “IDEA Club”, is that only Christians are allowed to be officers in such a club. I think that speaks volumes.

The other absurd statement in the article comes from the usually reasonable Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center:

That kind of tolerance is too rare, said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va.

“I think many of the scientific organizations have felt they had to demonize ID in order to win the argument. I think by ruling out ID in science journals and science discussions, they have given the impression that they are not willing to listen and really engage the other side,” Haynes said.

This is a straw man. No one has ruled out ID in science journals or science discussions. ID advocates are every bit as free as anyone else to develop their theories, propose ways to test them, and submit the results of their research to their fellow scientists through journals or at scientific conferences. They aren’t prevented from doing so, they just don’t do it, and the principle reason they don’t do it is because they don’t have an actual theory from which such tests and such research could be derived. Nearly 10 years after the infamous “Wedge document” appeared, whose 1st phase was “scientific research, writing and publication”, not a single bit of research has been produced to support ID, and by the admission of their own leading lights, there still is no ID theory to focus such research (Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute admitted that quite plainly last fall).

Of the other leading lights of the ID movement, Bill Dembski says that he has become “blase`” about submitting his work to scientific journals and doesn’t bother because he can get a faster turnaround and more public attention (and royalties) by writing popular books. And at the Dover trial a few weeks ago, when Michael Behe was asked on the stand if his ideas about irreducible complexity were testable, he replied yes. When asked if he had any intention of doing the research to perform those tests, he said it wasn’t his responsibility to do so but the responsibility of his opponents to disprove him. So the inescapable fact is that, rather than having ID “ruled out” of sience journals and science discussions, ID advocates have chosen not to go through the very same process by which every other idea in the history of science has gone through in order to be established as valid. After 10 years and a thousand excuses, one can be forgiven for believing that this is because they know, at least subconsciously, that their ideas won’t withstand the scrutiny of an educated public. Hence, the relentless focus on getting into public schools in front of students who are not capable of evaluating the veracity of their claims.


  1. #1 ivyprivy
    November 29, 2005

    I was unable to read the Chi Trib article due to not being a subscriber.

    I have met members of the Cornell IDEA Club and they inform me that they are not in compliance with the IDEA Center’s directives for club leaders

    4) We also require that club leaders be Christians as the IDEA Center Leadership believes, for religious reasons unrelated to intelligent design theory, that the identity of the designer is the God of the Bible.

  2. #2 ivyprivy
    November 29, 2005

    OK, I was able to read the article by going through Google News.

    Here’s the web site of the Cornell IDEA Club.

    The Cornell IDEA club set up a debate with the Cornell ACLU club. At the debate, I pointed out the distinction between Philosophical Naturalism and Methodological Naturalism, so Ms. Maxson has no excuse for not being aware of the distinction.
    That was on the same day that Hunter Rawlings used his State of the University address to condemn Intelligent Design creationism.

  3. #4 spyder
    November 29, 2005

    “In my opinion, both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution are science. Both have philosophical implications.”

    Is that the premise of her opinion on what constitutes science; that it has philosophical implications???? Maybe she can graduate and go teach in Kansas.

  4. #5 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2005


    You should know about Bugmenot. If you need a password to any newspaper site like that, go there and you’ll find one without having to sign up for it. There’s even an extension for Firefox that automates the process. Works like a charm.

  5. #6 ivyprivy
    November 29, 2005

    Thanks for the Bugmenot tip, I’ll try it out.

    Another interesting moment at the Cornell IDEA Club debate was when one of their representatives read the Santorum amendment (without identifying it as such) and tried to pass it off as an official congressional pronouncement.

  6. #7 fake ed brayton
    November 29, 2005

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so I just added a login for Dispatches From the Culture Wars. Now, after they use bugmenot to read the article, they can use bugmenot to comment.

    login: fakeedbrayton
    password: aoeu1234

  7. #8 drakvl
    November 29, 2005

    What is it with religious clubs requiring members belong to the religion. I mean, the local secularist club at LSU lets anyone in.

  8. #9 fake ed brayton
    November 29, 2005

    Dembski did say that Intelligent Design was just John’s Gospel written in mathematical jargon, so it’s appropriate to require them to be christian.

  9. #10 Ed Brayton
    November 29, 2005

    fakeedbrayton wrote:

    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so I just added a login for Dispatches From the Culture Wars. Now, after they use bugmenot to read the article, they can use bugmenot to comment.

    Cute, but completely pointless. The newspapers do it so they can sell your email address and send you spam emails. It’s reasonable to seek to avoid that by an entirely legal means. None of that is the case here. So there is no comparison between goose and gander in this case. Besides, the other comparison is that, just like those sites, I reserve every right to ban a particular login if I feel like it.

  10. #11 gascan
    November 29, 2005

    Someone needs to clue these IDEA people in. It’s not whether the universe *is* or *is not* “somewhat directed,” it’s whether we poor humans can *prove* that it’s directed or we have to accept or reject this direction on faith. Put that way, it is ID that stands in opposition to religion.

  11. #12 ivyprivy
    November 29, 2005

    Calling it an urgent matter “of great significance to Cornell and to the country as a whole,” Hunter Rawlings said, “The issue in question is the challenge to science posed by religiously based opposition to evolution, described, in its current form, as intelligent design.”

    He said bluntly, “ID is a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea.”

    Shocked by Rawlings’ speech, Maxson shot back with a news release posted on the IDEA Club’s Web site. She criticized Rawlings for his “blatant disregard for the facts concerning intelligent design” and for “blasting the emerging intelligent design theory as unscientific and religious in an unscrupulous, unknowledgeable manner.”

    The full text of Maxson’s press release are on the Cornell IDEA Club web site. Note that no examples of unscrupulousness or lack of knowledge are provided.

    Here is the text of Rawlings’ address. I challenge anyone to point out the unscrupulous or unknowledgable parts, or facts that are disregarded.

  12. #13 fake ed brayton
    November 29, 2005

    Ed: I accept that reasoning.

    gascan: Somebody needs to clue IDEA people in on a lot of things. I alternately hear creationists say: Evolution is science, but so is ID; Evolution is not science, but ID is; ID is religion, but so is Evolution. A letter writer to the N&O said that IDiots like herself accepted mutation, but not common descent, which Behe does. In general, when someone says they’re in IDer, they really just mean “I am some variety of creationist, and likely an idiot to boot”.

  13. #14 RPM
    November 29, 2005

    Maxson is a Math & Chem major. Math and chem majors are not required to take any biology courses at Cornell (I should know, as I had to take chem courses with the chem majors). I wonder how many member of the IDEA club are biology majors considering this course is required to get a degree in biology from Cornell. I so wish I was still up on the hill so I could knock around these retards.

  14. #15 Dean Morrison
    November 29, 2005

    I took up the opportunity to correspond with this group when I saw how weak and confused their arguments were on their website, in particular whether ID was testable – Hannah had the decency to give me a reply – which I hope she’ll forgive me for publishing here – first my question:

    “How can you say that intelligent design is testable?

    You say that ‘In general’ as your understanding grows more ‘information rich and irreducibly complex structures will be discovered. Is this your test? How can you prove a system is irreducibly complex – How many such systems have you proven to exist so far? If you don’t find any does this mean that Intelligent design will have failed this test?

    You say that Intelligent design makes a prediction that there are uses for “junk DNA”. So does evolutionary biology which in any case does not depend on non-functionality of DNA as a premise. Darwin after all was unaware of the existence of DNA ..let alone the junk sort. Not really a test at all then.

    Come on .. lets have a list of at least ten, clear testable claims (surely this isn’t too many for an overarching hypothesis such as Intelligent Design) – I’ll provide the bullet points for you:

    ? .. Dean Morrison”


    A half-respite for Thanksgiving holiday, so here’s an attempt at an answer. First let me say I do have to update our objection faq, which doesn’t really seem to be answering the question at hand. Maybe a project for the winter holiday. But for now…

    How is ID testable? How, indeed is any scientific theory testable? Generally, in two ways: it must be falsifiable, and it must make predictions which can be tested.

    Judging from the furor of evolutionary biologists here as they try to disprove it, it can hardly be doubted that intelligent design is falsifiable. ID theory simply states that there are certain features of the universe and living things which could not have come about by an undirected, chance based process such as Darwinian evolution, and are best explained by an intelligent cause. Michael Behe (biochemistry) calls these features “irreducible complexity”, William Dembski (mathematics) talks about “complex specified information” (CSI). So…if scientists can generate an irreducibly complex system from chance based, undirected processes, with no input of intelligence; if the CSI in a system can increase without any information input, than our claims are immediately falsified. Theoretical experiment– imagine completely destroying a living system so there is no information content left, and then in the lab watching it regenerate.

    What sort of predictions does it make? Many, and of a widely varied nature. For instance, that highly specified and complex machine-like structures will be found in biological organisms. That genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different organisms in a pattern unconstrained by common descent. That forms will be found in the fossil record that appear suddenly and without similar precursors. And that there will be little “junk” or non-useful DNA.

    Try for a moment to compare this with the falsifiability or testability of Darwinian evolution. Is Darwinian evolution falsifiable at all, for that manner?

    Let me know if this doesn’t answer your question, and thanks for your long patience—

    Hannah Maxson

    I haven’t got around to replying yet – I hardly knew where to start – the ‘junk DNA test’ is rather mind-blowing…Still hats off to her again for replying: although I can’t help thinking her time might be better spent studying some actual science; I genuinely feel sorry for her.

  15. #16 J-Dog
    November 29, 2005

    Dean – Why feel sorry for Hannah? She is in school to learn, you are about to teach her a well-deserved lesson… She *should* be paying you tuition, so IMHO, send her a bill. This type of REAL education is priceless.

  16. #17 JonF
    November 29, 2005

    “There’s even an extension for Firefox that automates the process.”

    And a button for Opera: http://nontroppo.org/wiki/CustomButtons near the end, under “Various other buttons”.

  17. #18 Hamilton
    November 30, 2005

    this comment was removed from http://www.uncommondescent.com/
    sometime after 24Nov2005
    so Dembski is proven to censor
    Proposed name change:
    Intelligent design (ID) becomes Miraculous Intervention(MI) – thats what that Behe & crew are proposing. Its still “God of the Gaps” but by now the gaps are very small. a few nanos wide.
    If the ‘design’ is implicit in the structure of the natural world, then we have Natural Science.
    If the ‘design’ is only at a few difficult points (Centrioles?) then we have “Miraculous Intervention”
    The thing about miracles is, they spoil Natural Science, because anywhere,anytime, big Nobodaddy might flip in a miracle, so research becomes impossible.

    Behe does seem to be saying that the IrredComplex points are few, so I assume he accepts, or pretends to accept, that natural selection copes with 99% of what we see, and Nobodaddy handles the other 1%, from time to time, ‘leaning in’ and Miraculously ‘appearing’ a new string of DNA in some organism, which then happens to code for a bunch of proteins all at once. Can someone tell me if this is actually the ID/MI position? Or do they want the other 99% later so that *every* mutation is the work of Nobodaddy/FlyingSpaghettiMonster? Or just the beneficial mutations? But Behe isnt just going for the mutations, that would be merely simply feel-good SituationalistHumanism. He is stating that some sets of proteins (Complement?) *must* appear simultaneously, so if one had a microscope focused at that time, one would see a largish chunk of DNA instantaneously appear and insert itself in the genome. Reminds me a bit of Hoyles continuous creation, except that Nobodaddy is Intelligent. At least smart enough to get mentioned in Kansas.
    Personally I dont care if no biology is taught to high school students , they can pick it up later.

  18. #19 Reed A. Cartwright
    November 30, 2005

    Let’s see if we can do some committee responding to Ms. Maxson.

    ID theory simply states that there are certain features of the universe and living things which could not have come about by an undirected, chance based process such as Darwinian evolution, and are best explained by an intelligent cause.

    Such a generic statement is not falsifiable. Which “certain features” out of the infinite possibilities is this statement referring to?

    So…if scientists can generate an irreducibly complex system from chance based, undirected processes, with no input of intelligence;

    How does Hannah propose that a scientific experiment can control for “input of intelligence”? By defination any supernatural intelligence that may exist may have the ability and may manipulate any experiment without leaving any evidence of its existence. Since ID refuses to place any constraints on the designer, any experimental outcome can and will be consistent with intelligent action.

    if the CSI in a system can increase without any information input, than our claims are immediately falsified.

    This doesn’t make any sense. Apparantly she has defined “information” as something that can only be the result of intelligence.

  19. #20 snaxalotl
    November 30, 2005

    ID propponents notoriously avoid basic but tricky questions. IDEA has a commitment to providing technical help to IDEA clubs, so it might be worthwhile to set up a sham IDEA club just so you can clarify basic concepts … “this evil atheist asked a tricky question we’re having trouble with…”

  20. #21 BC
    November 30, 2005

    Here’s my thoughts about Hannah’s response:

    > For instance, that highly specified and complex machine-like structures will be found in biological organisms.

    Evolution can create those, too.

    > That genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different organisms in a pattern unconstrained by common descent.

    Well, that’s true, but we haven’t found any cases of that happening. Further, even if we find NO cases of “functional parts will be re-used in different organisms in a pattern unconstrained by common descent” it certainly wouldn’t disprove Intelligent Design, would it?

    > That forms will be found in the fossil record that appear suddenly and without similar precursors.

    If there are no fossils that appear suddenly, would it disprove Intelligent Design? Of course not. God might’ve changed creatures a few DNA base pairs each generation.

    > And that there will be little “junk” or non-useful DNA.

    Depends on how God – I mean the “Intelligent Designer” – decided to design organisms. Some IDists would say that descent + mutation + modification would account for 99% of life’s diversity – the other 1% was God stepping in to add something important. If that was the case, there’s a definate possibility for Intelligent Design to be true and junk DNA to exist.

    All of her examples are things we MIGHT find if there was an intelligent designer, but if we don’t find them, the theory remains completely unscathed.

    > Try for a moment to compare this with the falsifiability or testability of Darwinian evolution. Is Darwinian evolution falsifiable at all, for that manner?

    Pretty revealing that she thinks evolution is nonfalsifiable. If she slightly changed one of her earlier statements, she could’ve easily shown one way that evolution could be falsified. One prediction of evolution is that “genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different organisms in a pattern CONSTRAINED by common descent”. If species had identical complex functional parts or genetics that were not inherited from a common ancestor, evolution would be falsified. (For example, if the platypus’ bill were actually like a duck’s bill on a genetic or physical level.)

  21. #22 Ginger Yellow
    November 30, 2005

    “So…if scientists can generate an irreducibly complex system from chance based, undirected processes, with no input of intelligence;”

    Dean, why don’t you send her a transcript of Behe’s Dover testimony about his “test” for ID, the one that backfired so spectacularly?

  22. #23 Antiquated Tory
    November 30, 2005

    Kind of funny that this is happening at Cornell. One of its founders was the author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, one of my favorite sources when bad theology is used to attack science.

  23. #24 fake ed brayton
    November 30, 2005

    I wholly support Hannah Maxson. No, I’m not kidding. I want her IDEA club to spread far and wide. I want IDEA to become synonymous with ID. I want this because the founders of IDEA, in their vast stupidity, require IDEA officers to be christian. This makes it child’s play to argue that ID is religious.

  24. #25 fake ed brayton
    November 30, 2005

    But Dean, if you absolutely must argue against this dolt, don’t bother composing long replies. Send her a link to talkorigins.org/indexcc, where every criticism of evolution she’s ever heard is addressed and destroyed.

  25. #26 ivyprivy
    November 30, 2005

    During the above-mentioned debate, an IDEA Club representative, Rachel Staver, repeatedly insisted that IDC has publications in peer-reviewed scientific papers.

    The only one she specifically mentioned was Behe & Snoke, (2004) Protein Science 13:2651-2664, in which the authors attempt to establish the improbability of a gene duplication followed by simultaneous point mutations. Note that this is a population genetics question, so the choice of journal is inappropriate. That is probably one of the reasons why the editors didn’t see through it, but it is also a reason they should have turned it down outright. Behe is a biochemist, and Snoke an astronomer, so you might wonder about their expertise in population genetics.

    Anyway, Michael Lynch, who does have a reputation in such matters, published a response article in Protein Science (2005) 14:2217-2225. I will quote two sentences.

    It will be shown that the contrarian interpretations of Behe and Snoke are entirely an artifact of incorrect biological assumptions and unjustified mathematical oversimplification.

    Although the authors claim to be evaluating whether Darwinian processes are capable of yielding new multi-residue functions, the model that they present is non-Darwinian


    I had both the Behe & Snoke paper and the Lynch paper with me at the time, but due to the constraints of the debate format I did not raise this rebuttal.

    Staver did not mention Stephen Meyer’s “Hopeless Monster” paper in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, but I mentioned it later, along with the disclaimer from the journal’s editorial council, when the other IDEA Club representative, Michael Dill, insisted that ID proponents play by the rules. Ironically, Dill is also the individual who tried to pass off the Santorum amendment, as related above.

    Looking over the Cornell IDEA Club web site, they mention such design proponents as Copernicus, Boyle, Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein, none of whom have published much lately. I also think they are wrong about Einstein.

  26. #27 Ed Brayton
    November 30, 2005


    The Behe and Snoke paper proved very useful during the Dover trial. Under cross examination, Behe admitted that the paper actually showed that complex biochemical systems requiring multiple, unpreserved intermediate stages – i.e. irreducible complexity, by Behe’s definition – could arise in a relatively short period of time even when you’ve set every possible parameter of the test to be strongly biased against it (by ruling out several types of mutations, skewing the population numbers way down, assuming no possible cooption, etc).

  27. #28 Dean Morrison
    November 30, 2005

    Thanks for the comments guys – I’ll send Hannah a link to make sure she sees them all.
    I think she’s confused myself and I will try to keep my reply short and to the point – I don’t think I have to throw Behe’s testimony at her to make her think again; and frankly I’m sure that she has better things to read than his silly ramblings. She needs to learn more to understand the argument in the first place.
    I don’t think the Discovery Institute is doing Christians any favours by getting to identify with the Intelligent Designer nonsense. They are uneccesarily putting their faith on the line for something that is patent nonsense.
    When the sane amongst them see the ID proposal for the sham that it is – where will that leave their faith in god?
    They will have the choice of trying to believe something that they know isn’t true; or fundamentally questioning all their beliefs, including their faith in god.
    And Dembski has the cheek to accuse us of ‘Cognitive dissonnance’?
    I’d like to think that Hannah is a sincere college student ( though this is a simple act of faith on my account) – I don’t think it’s right to treat her too harshly: as for those plonkers over at the Discovery Institute – that’s a different story.

  28. #29 Crusher
    December 1, 2005

    I think Hannah might benefit from looking at some of the genetic algorithm literature. THis is an essay I’ve often used on talk.origins.

    I’ve written brief bits about this subject before. The use of stochastic hill climbing problems in solving systems of equations in a more efficeint manner than traditional methods is fast becomming commonplace in the sciences and engineering.

    Stochastic hill climbing methods are a class of mathematical methods which harness randomness to find solutions to equations. It’s called hill climbing in an analogy with Sewall Wrights concept of fitness landscapes. Such landscapes have peaks, where organisms have much greater fitness than organisms in the plains and valleys below. The trick is getting up the peak. Darwin discovered the first such algorithm. Its called Natural Selection or descent via modification. As Dan Dennett distilled it, its quite simple, move up the hill when you can, don’t move back down it. THe simplest method is the Monte Carlo method. In the monte carlo method (5pts for anyone who can figure out why its called that, -25 pts for anyone who can’t) solutions are chosen at random, inserted into the equations and we compute a “cost”; a measure of how well it satisfies the equations. You keep trying randomly derived solutions (guesses) until you have a population of solutions that satisfies your criteria for goodness of fit. Usually this is a value of the cost which is chosen as a threshold. Below such a value you keep the solutions, above you reject. Once you have a population of *good* solutions you can then perform other sorts of statistical analyses to learn more about the properties that the hypothetical *ideal* solution has.

    Genetic algorithms are more complex than the Monte-Carlo method. Indeed, they are quite analogous to NS. You have a population of solutions (sans organisms), you breed a new generation via x-fertilization and then see how well these new solutions actually satisy the equations. THose solutions which exceed your cost criteria are *killed* off. With each generation you can lower your cost threshold. This is quite like *selection*. Indeed these terms, pepper the stochastic hill climbing method literature.

    In February’s Scientific American (2003), there is an article written by engineers and computer scientists who used GA’s to create novel electronic circuit deisgns. They were able to duplicate or better 15 previously patented designs using GA’s.

    In the case of the most complicated task, designing a “cubic signal generator”, the GA evolved a design which out perfoms a recently patented design that performs the same task. GA’s don’t think. They have no cognitive ability. Yet this GA *designed* such a good circuit. Its even more interesting than that. TO quote the authors, “The evolved circuit performs with better accuracy than the designed one, but how it functions is not understood. The evolved circuit is clearly more complicated, but also contains redundant parts, such as the purple transistor that contrbutes nothing to the functioning.” (You’ll have to see the article). (Page 58, Feb 2003 issue of Sci-Am)

    So here is a mindless computer algorithm besting intelligent designers with designs that contain sub-optimal or unneeded parts. How scary is that?

    How will the creationists and ID *theorists* respond?

    1. Well the algorithm was designed by humans, therefore by the transitive property of whatever, anything resulting from a GA is also designed by humans.

    Of course the fact that the authors still have no idea how the circuit works will not deter creationists from using the above. How one designs something while not knowing how it works, even after it is *designed* is a contradiction that will not bother creationists or ID theorists.

    2. Well so what if the circuit has an unneeded part. Perhaps in the future they will find it does have a function.

    While not stated in the article, it would be a simple matter for them to remove that transistor and verify that the cost value and the performance of the circuit remains unchanged.

    3. Perhaps the SOL or some dieletric constants will change in the future, at which point, unneeded parts will have a function.

    LOL. But no doubt Bill Dembski and others will take that route.

    4. Well its not irreducibly complex.

    Sorry, Dr. Behe, you remove something besides the unneeded transistor, and you no longer have a cubic signal generator. Of course, it is likely that transitor was used in a past generation, and is fixed in the *design* as a result of an historical contingency (RIP, SJG).

    5. The circuit was originally perfect, but it was ruined after the Fall.

    Umm.. not unless the fall occurred a few months ago.

    6. This project was rooted in naturalist assumptions. Therefore its not valid. Neener-Neener

    No Comment.

    7. All of the above.

    Stuart W.

  29. #30 Greg Peterson
    December 1, 2005

    You know who these people need to talk to? The lead singer of legendary punk band, Bad Religion, Greg Graffin. He’s a PhD in evolutionary biology from Cornell, and more can be found here: http://www.cornellevolutionproject.org/

  30. #31 Frank
    December 2, 2005

    Regarding Hannah Maxson letter:
    Hannah is confused about the testing procedure. Making predictions which can be tested (and which fail the test) are how one falsifies an hypothesis. Thus there is only one way to test a scientific theory.

    We evolutionary biologists are not trying to disprove ID. We know it can’t be disproved. We claim that because it can’t be tested it is not scientific.

    All of Hannah’s tests are tests of Darwinism! Dembski (http://www.arn.org/docs/dembski/wd_isidtestable.htm) makes the same argument. Confirming Darwinism would falsify ID. But confirming Darwinism cannot be logically equated with a falsification of ID. Also saying that Darwinism is not falsifiable (testable) negates this procedure. Furthermore, Dembski admits that ID does not predict and does not explain, making the direct falsification of ID impossible. Finally Dembski asserts that ID can accomodate all the results of Darwinism, making the confirmation of Darwinism irrelevant to the falsification of ID. Hannah needs to get on the same page with ID’s leading theorist!

  31. #32 ivyprivy
    December 2, 2005

    Repeating soon at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, NY, USA:
    An Educator’s Guide to Teaching Evolution and Creationism

    with Dr. Warren Allmon
    Dec. 15, 5-6 PM in the Museum Classroom
    An introductory class that is part of the ongoing Museum Docent training program and was featured in the New York Times on September 9, 2005.
    It is open to the public and there are no prequisites for attending!
    Please RSVP to reynolds@museumoftheearth.org or 607-273-6623 ex.13

  32. #33 Dean Morrison
    December 3, 2005

    My reply to Hannah Maxton (she was a bit surprised by the attention her club had attracted):

    Hi Hannah,

    … glad you weren’t offended. As far as attention is concerned – well if you are going to front up a topical political cause, this is really what you can expect (don’t let this distract you from your studies, at your age I got heavily involved in green politics in the UK to the detriment of mine).

    From my point of view there is a much clearer connection between the Intelligent Designer and God; than an Intelligent Designer and the origin and development of life on earth. Why else would the Discovery Institute require that officers of groups like yours be Christians? The Discovery Institute is funded by pretty radical Christians. The ‘Intelligent Designer’ idea has only come about as a way of getting around the constitutional restrictions you have in the US on teaching creation in schools. This is why there is a furore as you call it, in your county. Scientists are concerned that a religously motivated pressure group is trying to manipulate the public to promote its religious beliefs. In doing so the ID proponents show no concern for the truth, and in effect are acting dishonestly. This is what makes people angry.

    Willaim Dembski comes in for particular ire, as he promotes himself as an intellectual; yet is unwilling to engage in any proper debate with scientists. He runs a blog, which invites comments, yet any which challenge his ideas are ruthlessley censored. Compare this with the Panda’s thumb (the main pro-evolution site) where serious science and new discoveries are discussed, and pro- I.D. supporters are not censored and indeed have minor celebrity status.

    In fact I learned of your club through that site; as well as the remarkable fact that you invite queries, which is more than the Discovery Institute does.

    That alone puts you in a different class for me Hannah, and I am prepared to consider you as an honest ‘seeker after the truth’. As such of course I’m prepared to stick up for you. I would warn you though that many people on my side of the argument consider that people like Dembski are motivated by financial gain or personal vanity, and don’t give them the same respect, to put it mildly. People from my country, including commited Christians are horrified by the way that individuals in the US use religion to amass personal fortunes.

    There is no ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ by the way. No paper has ever been published (unless you cite the Bible). This despite a whole institute to promote the idea, and get it taught in elementary school. So I am unable to ask a practicing scientist what this theory is, and what testable predictions it makes; this is why I am asking you.

    So here goes with my response to your reply:

    Judging from the furor of evolutionary biologists here as they try to disprove it, it can hardly be doubted that intelligent design is falsifiable.

    I would have thought you could see through the flaws in this statement yourself. The furore is a political one, entirely divorced from science. Since there is no furore in the UK, does that mean that Intelligent Design is falsifiable in the USA, but not my country?

    ID theory simply states that there are certain features of the universe and living things which could not have come about by an undirected, chance based process such as Darwinian evolution, and are best explained by an intelligent cause.

    As I pointed out before there is no “Intelligent Design Theory”. How is what you have just said any different to this:
    “In other words Darwin got it wrong and God and (Elohim, Yaweh, Allah, Intelligent Designer, or whatever you choose to call him) created the universe.”
    -fine as an article of faith, but not a testable theory. Where are the falsifiable predictions from either statement?

    Michael Behe (biochemistry) calls these features “irreducible complexity”, William Dembski (mathematics) talks about “complex specified information” (CSI). So…if scientists can generate an irreducibly complex system from chance based, undirected processes, with no input of intelligence; if the CSI in a system can increase without any information input, than our claims are immediately falsified.

    Creationists used to talk about the eye as an ‘irreducably complex’ organ that could not possibly have evolved. This is what you could call ‘what use is half an eye’ argument. This has been so thoroughly rebutted through the study of living organisms and the fossil record that it has been effectively been dropped by all but the most simple – minded creationists. In simple terms any way of telling which direction light is coming from is incredibly useful to any organism, and any slight improvement in this ability would give that organism tremendous advantages. If this advantage was passed on to descendants, they would have a competitive advantage over other similar organisms, and in time would come to predominate in the population.
    Think of this yourself – if you were blind, on a sunny day you could orientate yourself by the sensations on your skin. If everyone was blind those that had the ability to uses this sense more effectively, perhaps because they had more light sensitive skin might have an advantage which would result in them having more children. There are no theoretical limits to this process, so after a few million years new organs could develop that were highly responsive to the direction and even frequency of light, and which we could reasonably call ‘eyes’.
    Thus using the raw material of chance (variation in individual sensitivity to light) and directed by the environment (the sun in this case) a complex system would have developed. The eye was once claimed to be irreducably complex, but as further investigation has taken place no-one but a few simple-minded extreme Christian die-hards would use this example any more.

    All Behe has done is pick another system at a different scale, and try to re-hash the same argument. For the creationist, chosing a biochemical process, or a microscopic organelle has two advantages. Firstly these things are not preserved in the fossil record, so there is no danger of evidence popping up on that front. Secondly by choosing something beyond the experience and understanding of the public, and by using obscure scientific terminolgy; there is a greater chance that this will be regarded as respectable science.

    The finding of an ‘irreducably complex’ system would not necessarily falsify evolution. An ‘ireducably complex ‘system is one where no component parts have any function whatsoever. In Behe’s argument therefore they would not be susceptible to natural selection, and therefore, could not be produced by evolution. However we know of structures such as the ‘arch’. This has all the appearances of being ‘irreducably complex’ – if you remove keystones the thing collapses. However we happen to know that they are formed by the construction of a ‘former’ which is later removed.

    However in the case of Behe’s examples resort to this line of reasoning is not required. Functioning components of the systems that he proposes ( in the flagellum and various biochemical systems) have been found in living organisms. This really blows these examples clean out of the water. As greater attention is given to the study of these systems, and we have a better undestanding of them, I am confident that we will have a better idea of how exactly they could have evolved. I won’t tire you with the biochemistry here, if you are really interested, take a look at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/behe.html

    Dembski also picks up on another old line of reasoning: “Organisms are too complex to have come about by chance”. Of course this purposefully misunderstands the driving force of of the evolution by natural selection argument. I doesn’t state that molecules randomly come together to create organisms. I won’t re-hash the ‘Origin of the Species’ here. Having set up this ‘Aunt Sally’ he then proceeds to knock it down by creating some reather obscure maths of his own, and at the end of it saying ‘I told you so’ – life is too complicated to exist. Again by hiding in the realm of an obscure subject he can appear to people outside his field to be somone to be taken seriously. Note he is a mathemetician, not a scientist. I would have thought that any non-mathemetician would see that no amount of calculation or equations could ‘prove’ an Intelligent Designer, or God.

    Neither of these men is putting forward a test for an ‘Intelligent Designer’ that can be falsified. They are merely attacking evolutionary theory, using old failed arguments dressed up in the language of obscure bichemistry or maths to make them look more respectable. Study the subject and their claims honestly, and I am sure you will see through them yourself.

    Theoretical experiment– imagine completely destroying a living system so there is no information content left, and then in the lab watching it regenerate.

    I’m sorry Hannah, this is just silly. The only thing with no ‘information content’ is presumably nothing. If you can set up a lab experiment where a living organism spontaneously generates out of nothing – then I’d be very impressed; firstly because this would indeed be evidence for God or an Intelligent Designer; and secondly because obviously it would show that you were very well connected. If you want to set this one up then I’m prepared to save up the money to fly to America and see if it works.

    What sort of predictions does it make? Many, and of a widely varied nature. For instance, that highly specified and complex machine-like structures will be found in biological organisms.

    Firstly define what do you mean by ‘highly specified’? How can you tell if something is highly specified compared something that is not? If you are using the word as a substitute for ‘complicated’ then you are just using it twice. As it is already quite clear that life is complicated, this is a prediction so weak as to be useless. Calling something is ‘machine-like’ is simply a matter of whether we choose to use the analogy that things we find in nature are a bit like things that people can make. Look a little deeper and you find a circular argument. We don’t in fact find anyting in nature that has an ‘intelligent designers’ fingerprints on it to the extent that it excludes any other explanation.

    That genes and other functional parts will be re-used in different organisms in a pattern unconstrained by common descent.

    A stronger ‘prediction’ perhaps – but still a test of evolution by natural selection rather than a test of an Intelligent Designer – presumably an intelligent designer would be free to arrange genes or functional parts in any way he saw fit. However the pattern we see in nature is of pattern entirely consistent with common descent and no other. As soon as DNA was identified, evolutionary theory suggested that organisms that we would consider to be closely related would share similarities in DNA. This is exactly what we find when we look. On your premise each ‘kind’ would be effectively custom made and we should see no patterns between the visible difference in organisms and their DNA. If this was a test of ‘Intelligent Design Theory’ then I’m afraid on the basis of current knowledge, it failed.

    That forms will be found in the fossil record that appear suddenly and without similar precursors.

    This is another ‘warmed-over’ creationist argument – the so called absence of the ‘missing link’. Whenever we find a fossil, we don’t at the same time find all the fossils of its parents, grandparents, great-grand-parents and so on. However we do find a whole range of ‘transitional forms’, between land animals and whales for example, and as new discoveries are made in paleontology the ‘gaps’ get filled in all the time. See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-transitional/part2a.html or http://www.talkorigins.org/features/whales/ for example, or for a simple visual representation: http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Publications/Bulletins/ED15/01_nature.html

    On your terms, this presupposes certain actions of an Intelligent Designer (popping new ‘forms’ in and out of the fossil record); is this your idea? or one from some unpublished ‘The Theory of Intelligent Design’ paper. If not this is another old criticism of evolution through natural selection (so old in fact that Darwin addressed it very well in the ‘Origin of Species’).

    And that there will be little “junk” or non-useful DNA.

    Really your strangest ‘test’ of all. The existance of ‘Junk’ DNA was never a prediction of Darwin’s of course, and even came as a bit of a surprise to modern evolutionary biologists, who tend to get used to the idea that non-functioning organs tend to become reduced and lost, as there is always some cost in producing them (though some still hang on of course, such as the appendix in humans, and pelvic girdles in whales and snakes). No doubt some of this so-called ‘junk DNA’ will be found to have some function after all, – we are still in the early days of trying to understand genomes. How much there is is no test of evolutionary theory.

    But why shouldn’t an Intelligent Designer include ‘junk DNA’ in his creations? Unless of course you presume a ‘perfect’ Intelligent Designer. If you established by some means that there was an intelligent designer after all (such as by getting him to spontaneously produce life in the lab as I mentioned before): then perhaps you could use the proportion of ‘Junk DNA’ as a measure of how ‘perfect’ the Intelligent Designer was. On your proposal you expect ‘little’ Junk DNA, therefore you expect to find that your proposed Intelligent Designer is only a ‘little’ imperfect. On the assumption that you believe God to be perfect, the Intelligent Designer is obviously not the same individual, which leaves you with another problem to sort out.

    Try for a moment to compare this with the falsifiability or testability of Darwinian evolution. Is Darwinian evolution falsifiable at all, for that manner?

    So far you have provided:
    • A flawed debating point
    • A reference to a hypothesis that has never been published as a theory.
    • A test that requires the Intelligent Designer to spontaneously create life out of nothing in the lab.
    • Various tests of evolution, not ‘Intelligent Design’; and all of which evolutionary theory passes in my opinion. These tests are all re-hashed and failed creationist arguments that have simply been dressed up in purposefully obscure language to seem credible and fool the unwary.
    • A final test appears to be neither one of ‘intelligent design’ nor evolution; but one that raises profound theological questions for you as the nature of god?

    My conclusion from this is that you are unable to propose any tests for ‘Intelligent Design’, which is not really surprising as you have no predictive theory on which to base any such tests.

    If I were to submit this analysis to the Discovery Institute I am quite confident that it would be completely ignored. However you might have more luck than me, as I understand that they support your club, and ought to be able to support you when you engage in debate with someone like me.

    Perhaps you’d like to submit our correspondance to them and see what they come up with. Perhaps they could enlighten us both about the ‘Intelligent Design Theory’, come up with some other tests, or cite what original research they have done that applies these tests?

    Finally Hannah, I hope you don’t mind if I publish this reply on the thread I referred to before, I’d like to let others pick it apart. Perhaps you could post it on a pro- ID site such as Dembski’s http://www.uncommondescent.com/ to let the people from your side of the argument challenge it?

    Sincere best wishes

    Dean Morrison

  33. #34 raj
    December 3, 2005

    Dean Morrison at December 3, 2005 08:46 AM

    I am astounded by your rebuttal, and thank you very much.

    I frankly could not figure out why the IDers switched from the evolution of the eye to the immune system. Kenneth Miller pretty much debunked their claims regarding the eye over a decade ago, so I guess that’s why they switched to the immune system.

    I suspect that if you or Prof. Miller would be interested, you all could be able to describe the evolution of the immune systems in various species. Might be interesting. Prof. Miller’s description of the evolution(s) of the eye from Tech Review was particularly interesting. The design of the human eye is significantly substandard.

  34. #35 ivyprivy
    December 5, 2005

    I wandered across a response to Hunter Rawlings’ address by engineering prof mark Psiaki, who is also the faculty advisor for the Cornell IDEA Club. Mostly it’s the same old same old. He claims that the reading of a statement in a Dover classroom is not “teaching”, that Behe’s IR claims have not been refuted, and he raves on and on about “philosophical materialism”. Afficianodos us such diatribes will find all the usual key words: Darwinism, micro- vs. macro-evolution, comparison to SETI. “{Darwinism} has made no predictions that are testable.”

    He never mentions how the science he deals with in his own field of engineering is not materialistic.

    It runs on for 40 pages, so I won’t attempt a point-by-point rebuttal.

  35. #36 Raging Bee
    December 5, 2005

    “In my opinion, both intelligent design and Darwinian evolution are science. Both have philosophical implications.”

    That’s funny, I recently got an email from someone who said almost exactly the same thing while asking me for sources to back up my opinions (stated in Classical values) that ID was dishonest crap. I replied with links to this place and Panda’s Thumb; and that’s the last I heard from him/her. I don’t remember the name, but I’m sure it wasn’t Maxson.

  36. #37 ivyprivy
    December 7, 2005

    In NewsWeek:


    Monkey Business
    For students who doubt the validity of evolution, college science class can be daunting. What happens when beliefs and schoolwork collide?
    By Victoria Bosch
    Current Magazine
    Updated: 10:46 a.m. ET Dec. 6, 2005

    Most faculty members and colleges agree that intelligent design and creation theories belong in religion and philosophy classes, while evolution should reign supreme in natural science courses. Following University of Idaho President Tim White’s statement that only evolution theory should be taught in his school’s bio-physical science courses, the interim president of Cornell University, Hunter R. Rawlings III, used his October State of the University address to condemn intelligent design for “put[ting] rational thought under attack.” He went on to deride it as “a religious belief masquerading as science.”

    Hannah Maxson, a junior at Cornell University majoring in chemistry and mathematics, disagrees with her school’s policy. “I don’t think [intelligent design] belongs in a humanities course. I think it does belong in a science course,” she says. Maxson is the founder of Cornell’s Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club, a new student organization dedicated to discussing the “holes” in evolution and researching other theories of origin. The club’s six members include a Muslim and an atheist.

    “In my classes, there was always only one viewpoint,” says Maxson, who was raised in a Christian household but says that she came to embrace intelligent design through her own readings and research. Professors, she says, “very much want us to believe in evolution and you get the impression that they’d be a lot happier with you if you did.” The IDEA Club meets regularly to discuss such topics as carbon dating and the fossil record. “The aim is not so much to reach a consensus,” she says, as to examine and discuss the hot topics in origin theory.

    Carbon dating? NO, they’re not creationists.(!)
    This is one of those human interest stories that declines to point out that ID supporters are actually wrong.

  37. #38 ivyprivy
    December 23, 2005

    Maxson is now apparently the go-to source for IDC comments in the Cornell/Ithaca area. The Ithaca Journal ran an article on local reaction to the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision today:

    Evolution debate PRI director lauds Pa. intelligent design ruling

    Journal Staff

    Not everyone in Ithaca is pleased with the Dover decision, though. Just a few miles away from PRI but on another end of the spectrum sits the Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness (IDEA) club at Cornell University, which formed earlier this year to foster discussions about intelligent design on campus.

    “Although they are able to tell us what may be said, they can’t yet tell us what we may think,” Cornell junior Hannah Maxson, one of the club founders, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. “If we felt we needed judicial approval for our existence here, his opinion might matter. But as things are, it shouldn’t make any difference to us here at Cornell. We’ll carry on … reading, discussing, debating and further examining the topics of origins. Science has never been determined by judicial fiat.”

    Local academics who see intelligent design as a threat to science education may agree with Maxson on one point, at least — that one court case isn’t likely to kill the movement.

    Ya know what? Science has never been determined by school board fiat either. This ruling does not in any way effect the existence of Cornell’s IDEA Club. The university allows all sorts of student groups, including those based on religion.

  38. #39 ivyprivy
    January 8, 2006

    I ran into Hannah Maxson at an off-campus event the other evening. She was asked point blank about the IDEA Center’s requirement that leaders of local clubs must be Christian. She dodged, she weaved, she waffled, but she simply would not answer a straightforward question.

    BTW, I am double-checking the IDEA Center’s guidelines on starting local chapters, and it has been changed. The clearly-stated requirement that leaders of local clubs must be Christian is gone, replaced with this:

    5) There are no requirements regarding the religious beliefs of IDEA Club leaders or founders.

    I guess someone finally was able to convince Casey Luskin how stoopid and self-defeating that was.

  39. #40 ivyprivy
    January 8, 2006

    Actually, the new requirements for IDEA Club requirements are a bit more complicated that my preceding post could account for. You can read and comment about it at either The Panda’s Thumb or Pharyngula, per your taste.

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