There is a long history of creationist misrepresentation of the views of scientists, going back to the time of Darwin himself. As the creationist movement has grown and gone through its various phases over the last century, such misrepresentations have been a powerful weapon in their arsenal. In the 20 years or so I’ve been involved in this dispute, I’ve seen it time and time again. Why is this the case? I have always suspected that it’s because they know that they can get away with it. The chances that their largely uneducated audience is actually familiar with the work of the scientists they refer to is slim, the chances that they will go and look up their work and compare it to the way it’s being characterized by the creationists even slimmer.
But during my involvement in this dispute, I’ve also often said that there are at least some creationists who didn’t do that sort of thing. I’ve defended, for example, Kurt Wise, Art Chadwick, Paul Nelson and a few others as being honest men, even genuine scholars, who do not do the sort of straw man caricaturing that so many of their colleagues do when presenting the work and thinking of scientists. And while I still have no reason to think otherwise of the first two, I can tell you that the third one, Paul Nelson, has now been caught in what I can only describe as one of the more outrageous misrepresentations – oh hell, let’s call it what it is, a baldfaced lie – I’ve ever seen. And the person whose views he distorted, Keith Miller, is one of the truly nice guys in the business. And to make matters even worse for Nelson, he’s also a fellow Christian. As we will see, this takes “bearing false witness” to a whole new level.
On May 21st, there was a debate over evolution and intelligent design at Rolling Hills Covenant Church in California. Two scientists from Cal State Fullerton, Jim Hoffman and Craig Nelson, debated against Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, both Discovery Institute fellows and advocates of ID creationism. At one point in his presentation, Jim Hoffman put up a slide with a list of names of scientists who were also theists who believed that God could have used the process of evolution to create life. The list included Howard Van Till, Ken Miller, Terry Gray, John Polkinghorn, Arthur Peacock, and Keith Miller. Here is the transcript of Paul Nelson’s response to this slide; the response contains the misrepresentation of Keith Miller’s views:
Nelson: Ah, I would like to begin by actually responding to this slide from Jim. Ah, it’s true that of these scientists named here, ah, are theists I think, Arthur Peacock I’m not sure would call himself a Christian, he has a rather heterodox theology, but they are all theists of one strip or another.
Here’s the problem though. All of them accept a philosophy of science that excludes intelligent causation by definition. Ah, for instance, ah, Keith Miller and I served on a panel that the, ah, American Scientific Affiliation assembled a few years ago to write a statement on creation, with a variety of viewpoints. Keith was defending theistic evolution I was arguing for intelligent design.
And we had an e-mail, ah, exchange that was quite extensive, and I said to Keith, your philosophy of science excludes intelligent design by definition. He would say that if you’re a scientist you have to look for a natural cause for any event or patter, and keep looking whether you find one or not, because that’s what it means to be a scientist.
So I posed him a thought experiment. I said suppose you went to a movie and when you came out and you discovered the driver side window of you car was broken, and there was glass everywhere. And you looked inside the vehicle ah, and ah, the McDonalds bag was still there, and the road atlas was still there, the tattered road atlas of Kansas where he lives, but your digital camera was gone and your CD player was gone.
Now what would you infer from that pattern, I put the question to Keith. And rather than do what everyone in this room would do, namely get out your cell phone and dial 911 and infer that someone had broken into his car, rather than say that event, that intelligently cause event had happened, Keith said a natural regularity occurred.
Now at that point our dialog broke down.
Because for Keith, who I have great respect for, he’s an evangelical Christian with a strong faith commitment, he’s very up front about it in everything he does in his professional life, but his philosophy of science is non-negotiable on this, on this point.
So the reason I think I would disagree with these guy is not, not that God couldn’t use evolution, God, the absolute sovereignty of God is something that I hold very dear, as a faith commitment because it comes right out of scripture. God can do whatever He wants. The question is what does the evidence indicate.
If evolutionary theory is not well supported by the evidence I don’t want to say that God used a theory that is not well supported by the evidence. God can do whatever he, whatever he, he, pleases. So my disagreement with these guys has relatively little to do with evolution and a great deal to do with what kind of philosophy of science we’re going to adopt. Are we going to allow for the possibility of intelligent causation when all of us know that could have happened? That’s what science should do. Science should be free to follow the evidence where it leads.
[Reynolds: “Hear, hear.”]
Boy, that sure makes Keith Miller look pretty stupid, doesn’t it? No one in their right mind would explain Nelson’s hypothetical situation as being the result of a “natural regularity” – a weather pattern, or some other purpose-less operation of natural laws – rather than being the result of a willful, intelligent act. No wonder there was such laughter from the audience and cheering from Nelson’s partner. There’s just one tiny little problem: Keith Miller said absolutely nothing that even remotely resembles what Nelson claims. Nelson, much to my surprise, was telling a baldfaced lie in order to make Keith Miller look foolish. And since I’m about to show you the full text of what Miller actually did say, I suspect it’s going to backfire on him.
First, a note on how this came about: in the audience at this debate was Troy Britain, a frequent commenter here and an old friend of mine going back to the Compuserve Religion Forum nearly 15 years ago (I actually used a DOS-based program to access it, that’s how long ago it was). Troy recorded the entire debate and made a transcript of it. This particular claim by Nelson just seemed absurd to him. He couldn’t imagine that Keith Miller would say something that absurd, and the moment I read the transcript I knew he was right. Troy contacted Keith and showed him the transcript. Keith sent along the full text of the email exchange that Nelson refers to, and it is with his permission that I am posting that text now.
As Nelson indicated in his remarks, the exchange took place among a group of Christian scholars who were part of a committee for the American Scientific Affiliation, a group of Christian scientists. Nelson gets the question right; that is, the question he asked Keith Miller in that exchange is essentially the same question that he repeated in the remarks above. But the answer that Miller gave wasn’t even remotely close to how Nelson characterizes it. Bear in mind the key arguments that Nelson attributes to Miller above:
A. That Miller denied that it was the result of human intervention; and,
B. That Miller had claimed it was the result of a “natural regularity”.
Now let’s compare that characterization to the actual text of Miller’s response to Nelson’s hypothetical. First, here is the text of Nelson’s hypothetical question just so you can see that it’s pretty much identical:
Nelson: Suppose you go to a movie with your wife. After the show, on coming out to your car in the parking lot, you discover that the driver’s side window is broken. The camera and CD player are missing, but the McDonalds bag and tattered road atlas are still there.
Now – what would you be justified in inferring from this pattern? Theft, of course, i.e., an intelligently-caused event – even though you haven’t exhausted all the possible natural mechanisms for breaking car windows and removing only the valuable items from automobile interiors. Indeed, given the problem of induction, exhausting all the possible natural mechanisms would be impossible in any case. (At possible mechanism n, there always remains the untried possible mechanism n +1.) And, of course, no one expects you to exhaust all the possible natural mechanisms. It would be madness even to try.
Imagine catching the thief somewhere in the parking lot with the camera and CD player. Only this is a philosophically clever thief. “You can’t say I broke into the Miller’s car,” he crows, “because you haven’t exhausted all the natural possibilities! That’s an argument from ignorance. Let me go.”
But thieves do go to jail, despite the problem of induction. Archaeologists are able to assign objects to the status of “artifact” – i.e. an intelligently caused object – and to sift these objects from the natural background. In short, basic human rationality depends on being able to discriminate naturally and intelligently cause patterns, and to allot causal responsibility accordingly.
Keith, if it is in principle impossible to move beyond natural regularities in causal inference, how would you ever be able to conclude that someone – a person, an intelligence – broke into you car?
And here is Miller’s reply:
Such analogies are completely inappropriate. The thief is a natural causal agent. Humans are part of nature – in fact a part of nature that we know a considerable amount about. As a paleontologist I can similarly infer the action of long extinct animals. We can study the patterns of breakage on shells or bones to infer the likely predator. We can infer much about the interactions of organisms from the fossil record – that is in fact one of my research interests. But you are proposing that science can infer the action of a cause external to the physical universe. Can science verify a divine miracle (in the sense of breaking causal chains)? Only in the sense of concluding that there is no presently known cause-and effect explanation. What science can do is debunk claims of supernatural action (such as bogus “faith healers” or “miracle workers”) or paranormal events – which it as done repeatedly. By equating divine action with breaks in the casual chain, you make the creative action of God something that science can disprove.
Furthermore, my objection is not just that in principle some unknown causal process may be discovered in the future to provide a plausible explanation for the origin of “irreducibly complex structure,” but that research is moving us rapidly toward such explanations. New breakthroughs in self-assembly processes, for example, are being made at an amazing rate. Our understanding of genetics and development is moving at unparalleled speed. Similarly, hardly a week goes by but that significant new fossil discoveries are made which fill in gaps in our understanding of natural history. In areas that I am competent to judge, these discoveries are rapidly closing gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary history – not making them more pronounced.
So not only did Miller not deny that a thief had stolen the items from his car as Nelson claimed (“rather than do what everyone in this room would do, namely get out your cell phone and dial 911 and infer that someone had broken into his car…”), he explicitly agreed that a thief had stolen them. Nor did he claim that a “natural regularity” occured. What he did dispute is the notion that human actions are somehow outside of the sphere of natural explanations. And he points out that science can and does infer human intelligent action all the time (to explain artifacts, for example), but that what Nelson is demanding is that science infer the actions of a disembodied intelligence that exists outside of the natural universe.
Nelson’s characterization of Miller’s position is as blatant an example of misrepresentation as I’ve ever seen. He flat out lied, folks, it really is that simple. And his excuse is quite transparent. After Miller posted a message to the ASA listserv about this distortion, Nelson issued the following “apology” (scare quotes intentional, as it is nothing of the sort):
I apologize to Keith Miller for making public what he regarded as a private email exchange. I would not have done so if I had known that he saw the back-and-forth as strictly private. The group of participants in the discussion included (as I recall) Keith, Bill Dembski, Bob Newman, Dave Wilcox, and me. I saw our written interactions as the record of deliberation of the ASA committee, not as private email. But Keith does not, and for that, I apologize.
I do not think, however, that I misrepresented Keith’s position. Indeed I would welcome Keith making publicly available the relevant portion of our correspondence. Rather than say that Dembski’s explanatory filter model had a well-justified decision node labeled “intelligence,” Keith said — in response to my car theft thought experiment — that he (Keith) was himself “a natural regularity.”
The written record should support this.
Again: I apologize to Keith for not consulting him first before mentioning our ASA committee deliberations exchange in public.
I couldn’t possibly care any less about the question of whether the exchange was private or not, I care about the substance. And on the substance, there is no doubt whatsoever that Nelson lied about Miller’s position. As quoted above, he explicitly says that Miller denied that there was a human thief that stole the items. As you can see from the text of Miller’s response, that is the precise opposite of what Miller said. Yes, Dr. Nelson, you did distort Miller’s position and the apology you owe him for that is much more important than this irrelevant apology above. You lied about what he said and the text of the exchange proves that. And if Troy had not been in the audience that night with a recorder, you would have gotten away with it. Until this happened, I had you rated as one of the “good guys” in the ID movement; that is no longer the case. The fact that you would lie about not only a fellow scholar, but a fellow Christian, is bad enough; that you continue to claim not to have done so with the evidence staring you squarely in the face puts you right down at the bottom with Dembski in my book.