Mike the Mad Biologist

the-helmut-protectz-me-from-teh-creationists-dumbitude
If you missed my talk, then you missed this slide

I leave to give a talk for a few hours, and suddenly all hell breaks lose on ScienceBlogs over the whole PZ Myers getting expelled from the movie Expelled incident, you damn kids! So I thought I would peeplay too.

First, I’m not sure the charge that this helps the movie is true: since the Great Expulsion, there have been cancellations of some pre-release showings. But this incident, and various ScienceBloglings’ reactions to it, to me, appears to be functioning as a Rorschach blot for a whole host of larger issues.

One of the things that came up after last night’s talk (both in the ‘formal’ Q&A and informal discussion afterwards) was the issue of whether recent atheist critics, like Richard Dawkins, harm or hurt the defense of evolutionary biology. Of course, how one answers that question hinges, to a considerable extent, on what one thinks about religions* in general.

Personally, I think Dawkins in his written arguments and public utterances incorrectly conflates three phenomena: religion as cultural identity, supernaturalism, and deism/theism. Preaching to the choir is one thing, but if you’re trying to reach people who aren’t atheists, this conflation is off-putting and weakens the development of a convincing argument for non-atheists. I also think Dawkins at some basic level does not grasp the dimensions of the U.S. political landscape, nor does he realize (or perhaps he does, and he just doesn’t care) to what extent the creationist controversy is a political battle.

Having said that, from a cynical, self-interested perspective, he makes my relatively unconventional views about religions and God seem absolutely respectable. While I don’t think he intends to do so, Dawkins is shoving the Overton Window in a good direction. On the whole, I think Dawkins is a wash. And it would serve no one very well if he were to ‘hide’ his views about religion–having a secret agenda is precisely the very thing that creationists do.

If Mooney and Nisbett want evolutionary biologists with different opinions about religion to be more prominent, then promote those biologists–don’t tear down other biologists. Hell, there are people at ScienceBlogs who don’t agree with PZ, go interview one of them if you’re worried about this.

The other problem is one that both Greg Laden and Tristero noted: Dawkins and Myers were lied to about the purpose of the interview, and had their comments taken out of context. As tristero put it:

Nisbet fails to realize that Dawkins and PZ didn’t create the takeaway message. The producers of the film did, by deliberately misleading them about the nature of the film in the first place, asking questions that provoked certain hoped-for answers, and most critically, editing the film in such a way as to turbo-charge the message. When you’re dealing with dishonest filmmakers – Matt, they lied about the nature of the film in order to snag face time with PZ and Dawkins – then no matter who they had “representing” science – including Nisbet himself – they would be slathered with bad music and edited to look like the Devil Incarnate…..

The effort to undermine American science and science education – did I just accuse creationists of being anti-American? Yep – is not being conducted by honorable men and women but by extreme right ideologues who will not take yes for an answer. They are funded by men such as billionaire Howard Ahmanson, a passionate follower of the loathsome R.J. Rushdoony, an avowed theocrat, and a man who was far to the right of Pat Robertson.

I’m sure if someone were really clever they could probably go through my blog and quote mine in such a way as to suggest that I think evolution isn’t important for understanding and preventing infectious disease even though any honest reader would realize the exact opposite immediately. Dawkins and Myers were deceived–it happens even to the most cunning of us.

But one thing I realized last night–and why I think my talk was well received–is that evolutionary biologists and other members of the Coalition of the Sane have done the following very well:

  1. Calling creationists fucking morons (because they are).
  2. Arguing that a better understanding of how life evolved is good in and of itself, and can imbue us with a certain sense of wonder.
  3. Refuting specific creationist claims.

These are necessary, but not sufficient. What we rarely do is make an affirmative, positive argument for evolution (as opposed to against creationism). I proposed one particular argument: we can’t do applied medical genomics at all without using evolutionary theory and tools. There are many other examples that can be made (I merely chose this one because I know it rather well).

The other thing we evolutionary biologists don’t do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”

This is how I think we need to argue. We need to put creationists on the defensive by arguing, part of the time, on behalf of the utility of evolutionary biology. Doing genomics without evolutionary biology is like drilling for oil with a dowser. Force creationists to defend the morality of their position.

We also have to realize that different audiences will need to hear different things (and will hear different messages even with the same exact presentation). I’m not going to present creationism, evolution, and genomics the same way to the Boston Skeptics as I would to a conservative Christian congregation. I don’t think we want to limit the diversity of approaches and voices.

*That’s not a typo; there isn’t ‘religion’, but religions (plural).

Update: In a previous edition of the post (not in my talk, however), I referred to Buckingham as Cunningham.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    March 25, 2008

    creationist school board member William Cunningham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

    That would be Bill Buckingham.

  2. #2 chezjake
    March 25, 2008

    An excellent post, and a great suggestion to promote positive aspects of evolutionary science. Thanks, Mike.

  3. #3 ctenotrish
    March 25, 2008

    Great post. And I love the response that you used in your talk r.e. the PA school board member – just the perfect point to make.

  4. #4 Andrew
    March 25, 2008

    “Personally, I think Dawkins in his written arguments and public utterances incorrectly conflates three phenomena: religion as cultural identity, supernaturalism, and deism/theism. Preaching to the choir is one thing, but if you’re trying to reach people who aren’t atheists, this conflation is off-putting and weakens the development of a convincing argument for non-atheists. I also think Dawkins at some basic level does not grasp the dimensions of the U.S. political landscape, nor does he realize (or perhaps he does, and he just doesn’t care) to what extent the creationist controversy is a political battle.”

    Im not sure I agree with the first part. Dawkin’s arguments are strong and really dead on when it comes to theism. Though it takes a rational mind to understand those arguments. And not everybody thinks rationally. And I have heard him say he is reaching out to the people on the fence. He doesnt try to convince flat earthists that the earth is round.

    Political battle? Perhaps I am missing something. But dont creationists push for ID in schools because of their religious beliefs?

  5. #5 blue collar scientist
    March 25, 2008

    “We need to put creationists on the defensive by arguing, part of the time, on behalf of the utility of evolutionary biology…. Force creationists to defend the morality of their position.”

    Oh, good – it sounds like I’m doing it right. Rebecca Watson says audio from the Boston meeting will be available, so I’m looking forward to hearing what you had to say.

  6. #6 steppen wolf
    March 25, 2008

    I am not sure I agree with what you say about Dawkins…but one thing is for sure: I think you nailed it when you said we need to change approach.

    We need to start talking about how useful the “theory of evolution” is – and how in science, if you can’t use a theory, that gets thrown out of the window sooner or later. We need to focus on getting the terminology straight, and to look at the positive, useful side of our work.

    Well done!

  7. #7 Mark P
    March 25, 2008

    I wasn’t aware of the Overton Window, but I have been saying the same thing for years: the extremes define the middle. If scientists muzzle the views of the extremes, then the middle becomes closer to the opposite extreme, namely, the ID/creationist position. That’s why I say that people like PZ are critically important in the struggle.

  8. #8 Jimmy
    March 25, 2008

    Political battle? Perhaps I am missing something. But dont creationists push for ID in schools because of their religious beliefs?

    Religion is a big part of it, but at this point it’s largely about constituencies and loyalties. When largely right-wing religious leaders promote ID, they aren’t just fighting for themselves: they’re providing a weapon to other conservatives who want to attack the other side. For example, fiscal conservatives might support IDers in order to reduce the support to publicly fund science, to cut government spending as a whole. Others might support ID in order to make a deal with the large religious base. Or for no other reason than that many liberals oppose it, and it’s a weapon like any other.

    Unfortunately, it’s not just about religion any more. It’s about taking sides, which is imho never good for policy.

  9. #9 James F
    March 25, 2008

    I enjoyed your talk, and I couldn’t help but applaud your final line. Emphasizing the positive is critical and you presented compelling examples (and LOLcats). If there were more time I would have liked to talk about what we, as biologists, can do to engage evolution opponents in this fight.

  10. #10 writerdd
    March 25, 2008

    Excellent post, thanks!

  11. #11 vhutchison
    March 25, 2008

    Now, THAT is proper framing. An Excellent post.

  12. #12 factician
    March 25, 2008

    Bravo!

  13. #13 Physicalist
    March 25, 2008

    Now I’m really sorry I missed your talk last night. But just couldn’t make time. Nice post!

  14. #14 PhysioProf
    March 25, 2008

    My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”

    That’s fucking beautiful, dude!

  15. #15 MAJeff, OM
    March 25, 2008

    One thing JamesF and not-MAJeff and I were discussing–can you see the woman in the red dress in your TGACAGACTA…. slide?

    Very enjoyable and informative talk. Thank you.

  16. #16 Brian
    March 25, 2008

    Good post, but I disagree to an extent about how/why we should be arguing for evolution in biology. Biology without evolution is like math without addition. It’s so fundamental that absolutely nothing that gets done in biology that does not use evolution as the underpinning. If some religious group got a bee in their bonnet about addition being false, the correct way to argue wouldn’t be to show them that engineers use addition in their calculations to build a bridge. The correct way to argue would be to say, “well, if you’re going to believe that addition is false, then there’s no such thing as math. Here’s why that’s a very stupid thing to say….” Giving specific examples of how addition is useful would be counterproductive, because it implies that something is only true if it’s useful in their daily lives.

  17. #17 Steven
    March 25, 2008

    2,000 years ago a guy died on a cross then went to eternal paradise which he was already in because he was god in human form but also his own son or something along these lines.

    My argument here is this “So?”. I mean if he died and that was him dead then its a bit of a sacrifice but if he dies and then goes to eternal paradise then what is the big deal. He didn’t really get a bum deal. I am assuming eternal paradise is a good thing. If I believed in such a thing. Isn’t it like winning the lottery and banging Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Alba in a threesome all in the one day. I’d take a couple days of torture for that reward.

    Jesus is a whiny bitch.

    Mike FTW!

  18. #18 genesgalore
    March 25, 2008

    ya, if atheist were real clever, with every scientific fact that redfines religious tenets, they would phrase it: look at what we discovered about how god did this and god did that.

  19. #19 Cherish
    March 25, 2008

    Thank you! Finally a positive, constructive way to approach this whole debacle.

  20. #20 Steven
    March 25, 2008

    “ya, if atheist were real clever, with every scientific fact that redfines religious tenets, they would phrase it: look at what we discovered about how god did this and god did that.

    Posted by: genesgalore | March 25, 2008 10:19 PM”

    Huh?

  21. #21 Ian
    March 25, 2008

    What kind of frame does the Overton Window have?

    Just kidding!

    I like your perspective. Thanks for the blog.

  22. #22 genesgalore
    March 25, 2008

    ok steve. we all should know that religion is, for the most part, a bunch of balderdash. It has served a purpose to advance civilizations and provide order, but alas it has outlived it’s utility. Also, it’s difficult to move the brainwashed forward. it can be done but insults often result in entrenchment. so that was the point. And while i have the podium, lol. That word atheist. It’s got to go. It has a negative connotation and implies that theism is valid. There has to be a better word, that describes realism.

  23. #23 The Wholly None
    March 25, 2008

    PZ sent me over here, and I think that I will lurk awhile, if you don’t mind. That was a truly excellent blogpost– quite thought provoking. You have caused me to do some thinking about what practical steps we can take at the local level to promote the utility of evolutionary biology to a general public that is not much used to rational thought. It’s a tough sell, but it shouldn’t be impossible.

  24. #24 Crow
    March 26, 2008

    Mike,

    I may agree only 80% with you, but you’ve added a much-needed dose of rational, clear-headed, even brilliantly insightful thinking to the whole affair. Nice post.

    -Crow

  25. #25 genesgalore
    March 26, 2008

    making the “concept” of a five billion year old, or so, planet relative to the last billion years, let alone the last 70,000, is a good start. some 70,000 years ago some shit happened that resulted in neaderthal and sapiens and who knows whoelse to be compressed to the equator. talk about survival of the fittest. just a blink of an eye.

  26. #26 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    March 26, 2008

    Good points.

    Personally, I think Dawkins in his written arguments and public utterances incorrectly conflates three phenomena: religion as cultural identity, supernaturalism, and deism/theism.

    I can’t say I fully agree, from my admittedly narrow reading. (Mainly The God Delusion.)

    IIRC Dawkins mentions the supernatural essentially once, when defining The God Hypothesis. But it is then discarded as it only served as an alternative hypothesis for his null hypothesis in his analysis. And he confines this analysis to the creationist subset of religions, but states the reasons why it isn’t of importance for his goal.

    Instead Dawkins is somewhat coarsegrained in his analysis of religion in culture. I think it is correct to address that aspect over the board for practical reasons as he does, as the debate is most often made in this manner. But at the same time one could wish for more statistical support instead of an anecdotal approach.

    As Dawkins treats the religious identity on the practices, I don’t think he actually treats the theological parts (deism/theism) in general, except as it pertains to his analysis of creationism. And that is one reason apologetics gets so upset here, they are used to bring their tool set of theology (such as “supernaturalism”) to the table.

    So AFAIU it’s not as much conflations but a judicious separation of what he needs to treat.

  27. #27 genesgalore
    March 26, 2008

    and while we are at it. why do some make the assumption that mutation occurs but only occurs once??? i find it quite difficult that penquins ever flew. sense would say that they padlled and kept on paddling.

  28. #28 genesgalore
    March 26, 2008

    get this through your fricken heads and keep it there. energy flows where ever it can, and the permutations are “problematic” not to mention fascinating.

  29. #29 Larry Fafarman
    March 26, 2008

    Bill Buckingham is my hero — he called Judge Jones a “jackass” on the PBS NOVA TV program about the Dover case and called him a “liar” in the book “Monkey Girl.” Those names are appropriate. In a Dickinson College commencement speech, Judge Jones showed extreme prejudice against Intelligent Design and the Dover defendants — regardless of whether or not ID is a religious concept — by saying that his Dover decision was based on his notion that the Founders based the establishment clause upon a belief that organized religions are not “true” religions. He said,

    . . . .this much is very clear. The Founders believed that true religion was not something handed down by a church or contained in a Bible, but was to be found through free, rational inquiry. At bottom then, this core set of beliefs led the Founders, who constantly engaged and questioned things, to secure their idea of religious freedom by barring any alliance between church and state.

    — from http://www.dickinson.edu/commencement/2006/address.html

    Ironically, Jones gave the speech while standing behind the Dickinson College seal, which was designed by USA Founders Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson and which contains a picture of an open bible and the college motto “religion and learning, the bulwark of liberty” in Latin.

    Also, in establishment clause histories given in two Supreme Court decisions, Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and Engel v. Vitale (1962), Jones’ above “true religion” is not even given honorable mention as a contributing factor (so much for Judge Jones’ emphasis on the importance of precedent).

    The most irritating thing about Judge Jones is that he has gotten a lot less hell than he should have gotten for the things that he has said and done.

  30. #30 Larry Fafarman
    March 26, 2008

    Brian | March 25, 2008 9:32 PM said,

    Biology without evolution is like math without addition. It’s so fundamental that absolutely nothing that gets done in biology that does not use evolution as the underpinning.

    That is total bullshit and you know it. I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school courses in biology and human physiology, and a lot of high school biology students today do not study evolution.

    Single fundamental underlying concepts are rare, even in narrow fields. For example, it is a true statement that Fourier’s Law is the single fundamental concept underlying all analyses of heat conduction in solids.

  31. #31 Cdesign opponentist
    March 26, 2008

    Larry, that is not bullshit. The entire idea behind studying specific organisms in even a high school biology class depends on the information learned applying to more different organisms. Which is at least evolution-the-fact as known by Linnaeus et al. even if you don’t discuss the mechanism of natural selection.

    And the instant that you start to compare two or more species, natural selection comes into play. And there isn’t a lot of biology that doesn’t involve comparing species.

    The main reason that it isn’t more prominent is that it’s just assumed without comment much of the time. If there’s a difference, biologists instantly start asking about selection pressure and a developmental path. They don’t footnote C. Darwin, they just do it. It’s a given.

  32. #32 NP
    March 26, 2008

    That is total bullshit and you know it. I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school courses in biology and human physiology, and a lot of high school biology students today do not study evolution.

    It may be true that a lot of high school biology curricula do not devote a lot of time to evolution (which by the way should be another reason not to “teach the controversy”), but that does not reflect the reality that evolutionary assumptions are essential to many of the life sciences. For example, the use of model organisms in virtually every biological field would be meaningless if it were not for common descent.

  33. #33 Jud
    March 26, 2008

    Larry Fafarman wrote:

    I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school courses in biology and human physiology….

    Are we supposed to take from this that your level of understanding of biology is evidence for or against the fundamental importance of evolutionary theory?

  34. #34 Mike Fox
    March 26, 2008

    I think evolution isn’t important for understanding and preventing infectious disease

    Finally, a biologist and rational thinker who agrees with Us.

  35. #35 Mike Fox
    March 26, 2008

    That might have been funnier if my end blockquote tag had worked.

  36. #36 Aaron
    March 26, 2008

    Beautiful. I totally approve, and agree that this is a good strategy; It’s about time someone started fighting back!

    Yours is a way better idea than my Black Propaganda team that’s been photoshopping pictures of Ken Ham and a pig in compromising positions.

  37. #37 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    March 26, 2008

    That is total bullshit and you know it. I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school courses in biology and human physiology, and a lot of high school biology students today do not study evolution.

    Just because you don’t remember studying evolution has exactly ZERO bearing on its worth to biology. Your complete ignorance to the importance of evolution to all of biology does not make it unimportant.

    You never fail to bring “teh dumb” Larry.,

  38. #38 Luna_the_cat
    March 26, 2008

    Mike, excellent and thoughtful. And some VERY good suggestions.

  39. #39 Larry Fafarman
    March 26, 2008

    Jud said,

    “I don’t even remember studying evolution in my high school courses in biology and human physiology….”
    Are we supposed to take from this that your level of understanding of biology is evidence for or against the fundamental importance of evolutionary theory?

    It is not merely evidence — it is proof that evolution is not “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology,” as the new Florida science standards describe it. Could heat conduction in solids be analyzed without a fundamental concept, Fourier’s Law, that really underlies the whole subject? Of course not. You greedy Darwinists are going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by continuing to insist that evolution is “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology.”

    Jonathan Wells says in his book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design” (pages 80-81) that “Darwinists steal credit for scientific breakthroughs to which they contributed nothing” and calls it a form of “intellectual larceny.” He says,

    . .most of the fundamental disciplines in modern biology were pioneered by scientists who lived before Darwin was born. These pioneers include the sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, the sixteenth-century physiologist William Harvey, and the seventeenth-century botanist John Ray. They include the seventeenth-century founders of microbiology, Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek; the eighteenth-century founder of systematics, Carolus Linneaus; and the eighteenth-century founder of modern embryology, Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Even paleontology, which Darwinists now treat as theirs, was founded before Darwin’s birth by Georges Cuvier.

    — and —

    Generations of breeders have been darwined. Mendel has been darwined. Jenner and Semmelweis have been darwined. Fleming, Florey, Chain, and Waksman have been darwined. So have the real pioneers of modern biology. They’ve all been darwined.

    Wells forgot to mention Louis Pasteur.

    Part of the problem is that biologists have an inferiority complex as a result of the kind of attitude expressed by Lord Rutherford: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” As a result of this inferiority complex, biologists have been waging a prestige war against other branches of science by boasting that biology has something that the other branches don’t have, a grand central unifying principle, evolution.

  40. #40 Mecha
    March 26, 2008

    I think you have a lot of good points, but when you say that Dawkins pushes the Window in a direction you like, you are not talking about with respect to science. You’re clearly talking about with respect to atheism. And that doesn’t refute Nisbet’s argument. It simply sets you up as having a slightly different goal.

    Based on your words, from the analysis point of strictly working on promoting science, Dawkins is not a wash. Unless you have an argument for him on that front that counteracts your entire first paragraph that you didn’t include, Dawkins is damaging. Now, from the atheist and science/atheism = science perspective, where you are mostly only allowed to have both (the position PZ holds) he might be a wash/net benefit. But that is not Nisbet’s goal. Nisbet’s goal is science alone. And it is perfectly reasonable, given your initial analysis of Dawkins (a net negative on the strict science front), for him to want him to step back, so that the science front can go forward. You don’t actually refute the core of Nisbet’s argument with that. Furthermore, Nisbet DOES try to push other science organizations (isn’t science about groups of people, not superstars?) and did so in his post that everyone’s beating him about. This meme that Nisbet n’friends do nothing but sit around and beat on PZ and Dawkins all day is, frankly, completely transparent, and very tiring to see over and over and over.

    I think one can argue whether the base of the ‘Expelled from Expelled’ event helps them more or not, but that isn’t what’s been actually happening, and that wasn’t the CORE of Nisbet’s post/argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is trivially easy to find posts, not quote-mines, but full out posts, in which PZ honestly espouses that religion and higher education (and, by extension, science) are incompatible (as I did it yesterday in responding to someone’s post, here) Finding other posts along those lines? Not hard, but not something I really want to keep having to do at work to make the really obvious point that it doesn’t take any quotemining to turn PZ into someone who’s anti-all-religious. Hell, it took more work to make Marcott anti-catholic than it takes to make PZ looks anti-all-religious. The ‘They hacked it up! It’s not the truth!’ concept, while often right, is not true in this case because the core is more or less what PZ seems to actively espouse.

    And finally on the disagreement front, it’s not about having a hidden agenda, or trying to keep atheists out of the discussion. It’s about not screaming, ‘RELIGION MUST GO’ from the rooftops every time the topic of _evolution_ comes up. They’re not. The same. Thing.

    To get back on the agreement parts of your post, though. I have to agree with previous commenters, that bacterial infection line is a fantastic turnaround on the given phrase. And I do personally think that the ideas you put forward at the end are good ones. I’d _hope_ that they’re ones that Nisbet agrees with. I’m not sure, because I’m not him and I have other things in my mind at the moment. The issue ends up being to me, strangely enough, that I believe PZ also would generally agree with them. But he’d also want to tack on, ‘And also, being religious is bad’, and, as you said about Dawkins, sorta damage the point being made.

    -Mecha

  41. #41 Matthew C. Nisbet
    March 26, 2008

    Mike,
    This is a partial repost from over at PZ’s blog but I wanted to just note it here as well. As I have written about and talked about in presentations or media interviews dozens of times over the past year, your suggested interpretation is our most effective frame in translating the importance of evolutionary science for the wider public. In fact this is something we suggested in our original essay at Science.

    The frame emphasizes defining evolution as the modern building block for advances in the medical sciences, and without evolution we wouldn’t know where to begin to understand problems such as bird flu. The frame takes a complex uncertain thing for the public (evolutionary science) and connects it to a shared value and interest in social progress and solving diseases.

    In fact, as I describe at my blog and in recent talks including at AAAS, this is the exact frame that the National Academies found in their focus groups and polling to be most effective in communicating about evolutionary science. As the National Academies also notes, the data show that when this progress frame is combined with a second interpretation reassuring Americans that indeed there is no conflict between science and many religious traditions, the twin frames translate into our most effective communication strategy for defending evolution in schools.

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2008/03/at_the_national_academies_rese.php

  42. #42 PRCalDude
    March 26, 2008

    2. Arguing that a better understanding of how life evolved is good in and of itself, and can imbue us with a certain sense of wonder.

    Why is it good? What is “good”?

  43. #43 cognitive dissident
    March 26, 2008

    That was, quite simply, a brilliant response!

    We need to remind everyone that while ignorance is free, its cost is incalculable. The questions not asked, experiments not performed, treatments not tested, and technologies not developed (through whatever form of intellectual intimidation) can scarcely be estimated.

  44. #44 ColtsFan
    March 26, 2008

    The other thing we evolutionary biologists don’t do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Buckingham, who declared, “Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can’t someone take a stand for him?”

    My response was, “In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him.”

    I think it is relevant to point out that you have committed the Straw Man fallacy.

    It is a mistake to confuse and mislabel creationists by comparing them to the Dover, PA school board member who wants to talk about a cross. Just like it is a mistake to confuse and label evolutionists or naturalists or atheists with the likes of Stalin, Nietzsche, and many other who are not talked openly by the pro-evolution crowd. I could mention names, just like you did with the Dover, PA guy, but I won’t.

    The reason I won’t is because I take logical fallacies seriously, and I avoid them like the plague. Logical fallacies are avoided in my Christian worldview because my worldview does indeed account for the universal law of non-contradiction and moral absolutes. The atheist universe does not account for the metaphysical existence of the laws of logic or laws of morality, holding that logic is reducible to evolutionary theory, etc.

    Could you please discuss creationists
    that are actually relevant to the question of the merits of the evolution debate?

    That would be a worthwhile discussion instead of you dishing out logical fallacies cited often by the pro-evolution crowd.

  45. #45 Expert
    March 26, 2008

    Single fundamental underlying concepts are rare, even in narrow fields. For example, it is a true statement that Fourier’s Law is the single fundamental concept underlying all analyses of heat conduction in solids.

    That’s not true.

  46. #46 W. Kevin Vicklund
    March 26, 2008

    Single fundamental underlying concepts are rare, even in narrow fields. For example, it is a true statement that Fourier’s Law is the single fundamental concept underlying all analyses of heat conduction in solids.

    The first statement is “not even wrong”

    The second statement misuses the terms. The fundamental concept underlying heat transfer within solids is conduction. Fourier’s Law is merely a mathematical description of conduction.

    It is not merely evidence — it is proof that evolution is not “the fundamental concept underlying all of biology,” as the new Florida science standards describe it. Could heat conduction in solids be analyzed without a fundamental concept, Fourier’s Law, that really underlies the whole subject?

    The question as posed is not analogous. It should be phrased “Can heat [transfer] within solids be [taught]without a fundamental concept, [conduction as described by] Fourier’s Law, that really underlies the whole subject?” The answer is yes. It would be taught the same way you were apparently taught biology. Here is how you teach it:

    1) Collect a bunch of data on heat transfer within various solids of various sizes and shapes, at various temperatures

    2) Prepare a series of tables that present the data

    3) Tell students how to use the tables

    4) Don’t point out any patterns within the tables

    5) If a student notices a pattern within the tables, deflect them from investigating further

    6) Never, ever mention conduction or Fourier’s Law

  47. #47 Rory Tate
    March 26, 2008

    Part of the problem is that biologists have an inferiority complex as a result of the kind of attitude expressed by Lord Rutherford: “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” As a result of this inferiority complex, biologists have been waging a prestige war against other branches of science by boasting that biology has something that the other branches don’t have, a grand central unifying principle, evolution.

    Actually, the history of this inferiority in the biological sciences is the perfect tool for showing how wrong your statement is.

    When evolution was first proposed (long before it became accepted as a full-fledged theory) most physicists gave the age of the earth as relatively young. That’s because gravity was the only known force for powering the sun. The need for huge time periods comprised many of the early rebuttals to evolution. Darwin’s response? He imagined that a new source of energy might be discovered, or else his hypothesis would be disproven.

    To physics at that time, this was the equivalent of an accountant telling a mathematician that fundamental changes would be required in number theory because of some scientific writings he had done. The audacity of the man!

    However, Darwin (and others) did the work, and slowly brought people around to the merits of the evidence. This led directly to the search that uncovered nuclear energy, DNA, the human genome, etc (there’s a reason that the computer game Civilization gives you the next two scientific advances for free if you are the first player to discover the “Theory of Evolution” :-).

    I see two main reasons that you hear evolution touted so loudly, and none of them have anything remotely to do with an inferiority complex:

    1. There are very few concepts like evolution that lead to such important discoveries and new understandings in such diverse fields as physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, computer programming (know about evolutionary algorithms?…Google is hiring), and many others.

    2. Scientists have been forced to defend evolution to an unheard-of degree.

    The quote you gave is actually an example of the superiority complex of some scientists in physics at that time, and nothing else.

    Don’t believe me? Well, even Stephen Hawking commented that if he had known how much molecular biology would grow and become the new “hot science”, he would have chosen a career in it over physics when younger. Given that endorsement, biologists don’t need to promote evolution to inflate their egos. (Side note: Hawking is also one of the signatures in the “Steve Project”.)

    Excellent article BTW, Mike. Very well written!

  48. #48 Peter
    March 26, 2008

    So you get to know who we are, but we don’t get to know who you are? Screw that.

    (I agree with your positions on creationism and Dawkins, though.)

  49. #49 Julie Stahlhut
    March 26, 2008

    Great closing line, Mike!

    I decided some time back that if a student asked me to give classroom time to creationist “alternatives”, I’d tell that student that I couldn’t do it because it would be unethical.

    It’s unethical to lie. It’s unethical for the instructor in a science class to deliberately confuse students by weakening the definition of science. It’s unethical for a teacher to hold different expectations of students depending on their religious beliefs. And, even in a church-affiliated school, it’s unethical to waste time set aside for science teaching by instead addressing an allegedly theological argument that’s actually so devoid of intellectual content that it’s not even wrong.

  50. #50 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    March 26, 2008

    your suggested interpretation is our most effective frame in translating the importance of evolutionary science for the wider public. In fact this is something we suggested in our original essay at Science.

    Ah yes, I usually (have to) kvetch that there is no constructive examples from Nisbet. Now I remember, I had lost interest waiting for that way before that article. My bad.

    Yeah, well, Nisbet still have an uphill battle for a comprehensive framing of his framing as regards me. :-P

    @ LF:

    his notion that the Founders based the establishment clause upon a belief that organized religions are not “true” religions.

    In the very comment you quote they mention how to find “true religion”. Nothing prevents those inquirers to organize a religion. The sermons would have to have different preaching though, such as personal witnesses and statements of results of inquiry.

    Single fundamental underlying concepts are rare,

    Not so, we have large areas such as thermodynamics, quantum theory and others. But mainly you misunderstand – evolution is to biology as cosmology is to astronomy.

  51. #51 Tulse
    March 27, 2008

    As the National Academies also notes, the data show that when this progress frame is combined with a second interpretation reassuring Americans that indeed there is no conflict between science and many religious traditions, the twin frames translate into our most effective communication strategy for defending evolution in schools.

    Matt, can you point to the actual data in the National Academies report that looked at the impact of “reassuring Americans that indeed there is no conflict between science and many religious traditions”? The notion that the two aren’t in conflict is included in text of Science, Evolution, and Creationism, but I honestly do not see any actual reported research on this matter, either in the National Academies report, or in the Coalition of Scientific Societies
    Evolution in Science Education Survey
    , upon which the National Academies relied.

    In other words, what is the empirical justification for your claim? (It certainly seems intuitively plausible, but plausibility is not the same thing as empirically supported.)

  52. #52 PRCalDude
    March 27, 2008

    This post should be re-titlted, “Can only I play?” I see none of the Christian rebuttals make it past the comment moderation.

  53. #53 W. Kevin Vicklund
    March 27, 2008

    This post should be re-titlted, “Can only I play?” I see none of the Christian rebuttals make it past the comment moderation.

    Have you stopped beating your wife, PRCalDude?

    Or in other words, has anyone actually tried to make “Christian rebuttals” on this post?

  54. #54 PRCalDude
    March 27, 2008

    “Beating my wife?”

    Wow, Kevin. Just wow.

    Yes, comments have been left.

  55. #55 G Barnett
    March 27, 2008

    Obviously, you’ve never heard of that question (Have you stopped beating your wife yet?) referred to before — it’s the prototypical loaded question, where the question itself immediately sets an image in the minds of an audience. In this case, he used it to call you on the exact same type of disingenuous rhetorical attack.

    Additionally, you used “Christian rebuttals” when you should have used “Creationist rebuttals,” as the two are not equivalent. Christianity by itself does not imply, nor require, Creationist viewpoints, so don’t conflate the two.

  56. #56 MartinM
    March 28, 2008

    Were anyone’s comments being censored, I’m fairly sure Fafarman’s would be the first to go.

  57. #57 Joel
    March 28, 2008

    G Barnett wrote: “Christianity by itself does not imply, nor require, Creationist viewpoints, so don’t conflate the two.”

    Not true. In order to uphold Biblical authority, Christianity certainly does require a literal, Creationist viewpoint.

  58. #58 RBH
    March 29, 2008

    Julie Stahlhut wrote

    I decided some time back that if a student asked me to give classroom time to creationist “alternatives”, I’d tell that student that I couldn’t do it because it would be unethical.

    Bravo! That is in essence what the Dover, PA, science teachers told the Board of Education.

  59. #59 Voice in the Urbanness
    June 8, 2008

    “Were anyone’s comments being censored, I’m fairly sure Fafarman’s would be the first to go.”

    Larry’s own blog is now heavily censored despite his claim to have establised his blog to avoid “arbitrary censorship”. He censors anything for which he has no answer thereby limiting the debate to his sock puppets.

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    Bravo! That is in essence what the Dover, PA, science teachers told the Board of Education.

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  86. #86 araç sorgulamaa
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    I am not sure I agree with what you say about Dawkins…but one thing is for sure: I think you nailed it when you said we need to change approach.

    We need to start talking about how useful the “theory of evolution” is – and how in science, if you can’t use a theory, that gets thrown out of the window sooner or later. We need to focus on getting the terminology straight, and to look at the positive, useful side of our work.

    Well done!

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    Bravo! That is in essence what the Dover, PA, science teachers told the Board of Education http://www.elitchat.com :p

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  91. #92 nakliyat
    July 20, 2010

    this conflation is off-putting and weakens the development of a convincing argument for non-atheists. I also think Dawkins at some basic level does not grasp the dimensions of the U.S. political landscape, nor does he realize (or perhaps he does, and he just doesn’t care) to what extent the creationist controversy is a political battle.”

    Im not sure I agree with the first part.

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  95. #96 can
    January 25, 2011

    I am not sure I agree with what you say about Dawkins…but one thing is for sure: I think you nailed it when you said we need to change approach.

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    I am not sure I agree with what you say about Dawkins…but one thing is for sure: I think you nailed it when you said we need to change approach.

    We need to start talking about how useful the “theory of evolution” is – and how in science, if you can’t use a theory, that gets thrown out of the window sooner or later. We need to focus on getting the terminology straight, and to look at the positive, useful side of our work.

    Well done!

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