Yesterday, I blitzed through a tiny slice of the Mensa meeting in Denver. My time was really tight, so after arriving on Thursday for a fabulous Pharyngufest, I only got to sit through two talks in the morning session before mine, and then whoosh, I was off to the airport and hurtling through the sky at 475mph to get back home.
I had time to look through the program at least, and I hate to say it, but Mensa meetings are better organized than the big meetings of most atheist groups I’ve been to (this is a peeve of mine — atheists give bad meetings, although I’m sure Margaret Downey will prove me wrong this fall). There were parallel sessions and a great deal of diversity in the subjects — which is especially good since there is a lot of credulous woo at Mensa, mixed in with the critical thinking — and plenty of time scheduled for socializing, which is the whole point of such events. The content was very mixed, however, and I sat through two talks that were not, I hope representative. I later realized I could have gone to the atheist meet-and-greet that was scheduled concurrently with the ID talk I saw, which probably would have been a much better use of my time.
The first talk I saw was “Is evolution incompatible with Intelligent Design?” by Edwin Chong. This was an attempt at a philosophical justification for regarding a weak form of ID as fully compatible with acceptance of a strong form of evolution. It was OK, not as horrible as it could have been, but the speakers motivation was transparent: it was a typical post hoc justification of a belief in god. I had a couple of major objections. One was his claim that ID is a legitimate scientific pursuit, made on the basis of the fact that they actually make epistemological claims, that is, that they express an intent to pursue a scientific line of investigation. Personally, I do not accept the fact that they have an honest intent; there’s too much bad scholarship and far too much willingness to distort the truth at the Discovery Institute. I also don’t think an intent to do research is sufficient to call it science. You also have to have some kind of evidential foundation, building on past observations — you have to be able to answer the questions “how do you know that?” or “why do you expect that result?” with something more than “because I wish it were so.”
A good chunk of the end of his talk was a long discussion of the nature of a god who would be compatible with both ID and evolution, in which you could have an omnipotent, omniscient designer who interferes in an indetectable way by selecting probabilistic outcomes, but in which you also do not have a deterministic universe. It was overwrought, I thought, a lot of intellectual masturbation to justify the existence of something Chong wishes were there, but for which he has no evidence at all.
The second talk was pure crazy. James Carrion of MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network, got up to tell us whose intelligence was controlling the craft. We got a short history of the UFO movement, from scattered reports of ‘foo fighters’ in WWII to the incident that started it all, the 1947 report of flying saucers in formation over Mt Rainier, to modern day accounts. He showed some of the McMinnville UFO photos, and seemed to think these were good examples of UFO evidence — they look like poorly photographed pie plates, if you ask me. Carrion thinks that UFOs are actually high tech craft built by our government that are being tested or used in secret missions. It was telling that when he said his reason for believing this was that it seemed much more likely than that aliens flew here that our government is lying to us, that there was much nodding of heads in the audience. Many of the questions revealed a weird conspiracy theorist mindset in the crowd. The best question was when one woman asked him to give the single most persuasive piece of evidence that UFOs exist…and Carrion couldn’t do it. The best he could do is cite trace evidence. He thought that soil changes (which he did not or could not describe) at purported UFO landing sites were evidence that something unusual had happened there; people in the audience actually chimed in with crop circle stories. Who knew ropes and boards were our government’s secret high technology?
What I find most damning about the whole UFO movement is that, as Carrion explained, they’ve got 60 years of history and absolutely nothing to show for it other than accumulated and often contradictory anecdotes. I say, cut through the crap: it’s a testimony to the imperfection of human perception and the suggestibility of the human mind, nothing more.
Then I gave my talk, which went in the other direction. It was OK, but I’m still working on getting this message across, which is really difficult to do: that the important evidence for evolution is all molecular, and that we’ve got this incredible wealth of detail available. I think I went over the audience’s heads in a few places. Oh, well — I’d rather credit my listener’s with more knowledge than less, and challenge them a little bit to learn more, than to dumb it down. I still have to work at making the abstractions of the molecular evidence more entertaining, though.
And that was it. It would have been good to get a more representative sample of the talks that were going on, but time was short. At least the people I met were smart and fun, even if those talks were a little odd!