George Berkin "don't know much [about] biology"


If you want to aggravate an intelligent design advocate all you have to do is point out the obvious. Everybody knows that intelligent design is just warmed-over creationism, but some creationists love trying to create a false dichotomy between the two in an attempt to appear more respectable. Creationism starts with the Bible, they say, while intelligent design starts with science. Nevermind that the most vocal advocates of intelligent design are evangelical Christians or some other flavor of theist. There's no connection there at all! Seriously! It's not like some of the most prominent folks behind the whole ID charade say that their 'Designer' is definitely the Judeo-Christian god or anything...

Even if we assumed that ID was actually science for a moment, though, there would be sparingly little to say about it. There is no real research program and the majority of what the most prominent ID folks do is publish their opinions in the form of textbooks, articles, or pop-sci books. Even then much of what they talk about (the supposed lack of transitional fossils, for example) is borrowed from other forms of creationism. If modern intelligent design had to stand by itself there would be almost nothing to talk about! All the advocates do is point to a structure and shout "Design!" without telling us anything about the what, where, why, how, and (most importantly) the who of the supposed miracle.

None of this is new. ID (creationism by any other name) has failed to come up with any concrete evidence to support its central claims and, frankly, is mind-numbingly boring. What good is a "science" where you can simply say "God did it!" (or come up with some convoluted theological reason, like radioactivity is really God's anger) when you do not understand something?

Given that ID has failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny its advocates are turning to the "It's not fair!" defense. This is the kind of populism that allowed the Butler Act and similar laws to create such a headache in the early 20th century. Many lawmakers went with "The schools should teach what most people believe," regardless of what science actually revealed. We have moved beyond this, to some extent, but there are still many who sit on school boards who think bringing creationism into the classroom is doing a favor for Jesus.

Indeed, there is perhaps no group that has a worse persecution complex than fundamentalist Christians, and blogger George Berkin has been good enough to prove this point. Apparently Berkin went to a screening of the classic film Inherit the Wind (see my previous post on the Scopes trial) the other night and was appalled when the audience did not agree that intelligent design should be taught in public schools. According to Berkin those who deny that creationism is science (or at least deserves equal time in science classrooms) are as "intolerant and close-minded" as the pious Hillsboro Townsfolk from the film. He, and his children, are now the ones being persecuted! (Nevermind that he is given free reign on a prominent blog to make whatever unsupported assertions he wants and does not appear to make much effort to cover stories about evolutionary science. So much for equal time, eh?)

I wish Berkin offered up a more substantial argument, something that would let me talk about some really cool science, but he didn't. Rather than supporting his points he sticks to classic creationist canards that are meant to stir outrage among those who already agree with him. "Darwinism" is a religion, Berkin insinuates, while intelligent design is pure science. He claims that intelligent design advocates make no reference to religion at all, so you can imagine why I laughed when he used works by Philip Johnson and Michael Behe to support his case.

It is difficult to understand how defenders of ID can continue to make such claims. Either they aren't really reading what the people they cite say (a good possibility) or they are being deceitful. I know it absolutely shocking to suggest that someone who professes to be a Christian would lie, but some people will do just about anything if they think it will give a hand to their chosen higher power. I really don't know if Berkin truly believes that ID is separate from creationism, but even if he keeps saying "ID is science!" it doesn't make it so. Creationism still remains as intellectually bankrupt.

Even if tactic fails, at least we can all agree that being "close-minded" about anything is bad, right? Freedom is a good thing, and so much the better if the freedom Berkin is asking for coincides with his already-established beliefs. Given that he is an evangelical Christian and a creationist it is not surprising that Berkin wants schools to reflect his view of the universe. I don't see him wailing about how it is unfair that geocentrism, homeopathy, alchemy, astrology, or any other form of pseudoscience be brought into the classroom. If people believe in these things, though, (and there are some who still do) isn't our exclusion of their views just as unfair? Is it not a good thing to have a completely open mind?

Of course not. Education seeks to create discriminating minds, not ones that are open to any idea some crackpot can cook up. We don't want students believing that 2 + 2 = 5 just because someone says so, so why would we want them to reject real science in favor of what some pastor says about the fossil record on Sunday? Whinging about "academic freedom" only clouds the fact that religious parents, like Berkin, are uncomfortable with the fact that their children are required to learn about a part of reality they can't accept because of their steadfast adherence to a particularly interpretation of religion.

As the saying goes, though, you can't draw blood from a stone, and that would be comparatively easier than changing Berkin's mind. A slew of commenters, my fine colleague John Pieret among them, have taken him to task over his rather shoddy editorial. Berkin has remained steadfast in his responses, and has insisted that scientists are all practitioners of a "materialist" religion and that ID really is science, really. I can only imagine the gems he is going to mine from the depths of Answers in Genesis and Discovery Institute propaganda when he gets to the fossil record (as he promises to do soon).

More like this

This is one of my biggest gripes about ID and creationism, and it is so mind-boggling to me that a lot of people can't see it: they really don't EXPLAIN anything!

As a diversion one day, I imagined what history might have been like if ALL science was practiced the same way ID folk practice their "science":…

This is one of my biggest gripes about ID and creationism, and it is so mind-boggling to me that a lot of people can't see it: they really don't EXPLAIN anything!

Posted by: Dr. Kate | April 30, 2009 4:20 PM

That would be because creationist philosophy of "science" holds that science can't explain anything. From the Pepper Hamilton brief filed in the ACSI case:

In a chapter titled âThe Scientific Method,â Biology for Christian
Schools places another drastic limitation on the proper scope of scientific inquiry.
The textbook states unequivocally: âQuestions asking how or why are not
measurable and are therefore beyond the scope of science. The scientific method
cannot explain a phenomenon.â Biology for Christian Schools, supra, at 15.
Highlighting this point further, an inset on the next page includes the following as
one of the nine âLimitations of Scienceâ: âScience can only describe, not explain.â

I think it bears pointing out that although for 'us' it might not make much of a difference, for its protagonists Intelligent Design IS a very different beast to Old-school creationism (OSC), for a number of reasons. First (and perhaps most importantly) it is a stray away from OSC and anyone who knows fundamentalist protestantism will see that as significant in itself. Second, rather than being anti-intellectual (which almost all forms of OSC are to some degree) it is intellectually inclusive, and to some extent appreciative of scientific method (of course, 'to some extent' is 'not enough', but still there is a difference). And thirdly, it is reflective of the insight a among a younger generation of fundamentalist christians (and some other faiths) that the OSC position is intellectually indefensible. So although for us it might not make much difference, it's important to take note of the fact that on the 'other side', this is perceived (and often argued against) as a major concession.

It is difficult to understand how defenders of ID can continue to make such claims. Either they aren't really reading what the people they cite say (a good possibility) or they are being deceitful.

Or they're simply employing a very advanced form of cognitive dissociation. I've seen this many times in creationists. Johnson, for example, uses both religious arguments and (pseudo)scientific arguments against evolutionary theory in his books. Berkin probably thinks that he can build an anti-evolution position using both scientific and religious arguments, then selectively remove the religious arguments and still leave the whole edifice standing.

There's also the fact that some Intelligent Design advocates really don't use religious arguments at all. Don't laugh -- I've met some of them. They use the same anti-evolution arguments that creationists do, all the probability guff and Haldane's Dilemma and "all mutations are bad" and "no transitional forms" and so on and so forth ... but they also actively deny that the Designer was God. Instead they invoke some sort of alien life-form. Sir Fred Hoyle was perhaps the best-known of these guys; if he was still alive, I'm sure he'd have been asked to testify in the Dover Panda Trial.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 01 May 2009 #permalink

ID = Creationism - well that's one take on it. I guess it depends on your defintion of creationist. If by creationist you include everyone who things there was some creative act at some point in the history of the universe, then I suppose you are right. But there is in fact a massive difference between most IDers and most creationists in the Christian fundamentalist sense of the word.

The difficulty you have if you treat them as the same is that most IDers accept a whole set of things that creationists don't, for example: the universe is billions of years old, and life on Earth many many millions of years old; many accept the idea of common descent; many believe in what is termed 'front-loaded design'. Most of this is not compatible with what is usually called creationism. Indeed it is worth pointing out that while many prominent IDers are from christian backgrounds, others are non-christian, non-religious, and some even agnostic. Indeed even some of those who profess to be christian belong to christian groups that are ok with evolution, and from the perspective of their beliefs would be quite happy to accept it, but for other reasons (they usually say based on scientific evidence) they are ID proponents.

The key to ID is that while accepting that science is the most pwerful tool we have for understanding the natural world, and accepting that most events in the history of life are the result of purely natural processes, it is important not to artificially constrain science to only point to natural causes, but rather to follow it where the evidence leads. As a professional scientist I feel that the approach of many (some times called materialists) who try to define science in such a way that it is not allowed to infer design, is a bit like a pathologist who decides in advance that all the bodies he examines died as a result of accidents or natural causes, foul play is not an available option - while this may work most of the time, any murders will go undetected. Science therefore should not be hamstrung by those who for their own reasons want to preclude design as a possible finding.

The issue has been somewhat confused by some creationists jumping on the ID bandwagon, and adding a veneer of ID to what is really just old fashioned creationism. But this is not the case for many IDers, who don't come from fundamentalist backgrounds.

I see the ID = creationism strategy as cheap new atheist propaganda. They can believe it if they want, but unfortunately as a consequence they keep troting out arguments way off the mark. For example, how often do you see arguments based on alleged imperfect or bad design. Such arguments may be relevant to a creationist who believes that all God's creations must be the best possible and perfect; but to IDers who do not carry such theological baggage there is no requirement that a design is perfect, or even good - after all the patent registers of the world are full of inventions that are ingenious but crap designs. Really the argument about imperfect design just reveals the rather naive theology of the persons putting it forward and a misunderstanding of the target. Until those arguing against it understand the differences between ID and creationism (which are fairly fundamental and a matter of mindset and philosophy not just approach and detail) they will continue to fire blanks.

People keep referring to the Dover trial as if it settled some sort of issue. Please remember that decisions made by one relatively minor court in the USA doesn't mean a great deal to most of us. Frankly which ever way the judge had decided, science is not decided by courts or by majority opinion, rather by the evidence. It seems to me that the debate about what is taught in American schools seems to be mostly between two groups who want the monopoly on indoctrinating kids with their preferred belief system.

Dr Kate's assertion is somewhat bizarre, does she really beleive that? It bares not resemblance or relation to reality. Please recall that the vast majority of pre-twentieth century, and a very high proportion of twentieth century scientists believed that there was a God of some sort behind the universe (including at least 2 of those she mentions on her blog, I'm not sure about the third). So clearly belief in a God of some sort does not stifle scientific progress. I guess a fundamentalist creationist approach could - but we're back to the huge mistake of confusing ID for creationism.

Brian - by all means argue against ID, but please don't peddle the ID = creationism crap. You questioned whether IDers were genuinely not getting it or were "being deceitful" - I guess I have to ask the same about your not seeing the differences.

By the way - I (usually) enjoy your blog ;)

Also your photo of the day of a herring gull - are you sure that's Larus argentatus? Surely in New Jersey Larus smithsonianus (American Herring Gull) would be way more likely. I know that the whole group is 'difficult' and in something of taxonomic turmoil, but except for the most diehard lumpers it is generally accepted that several species are involved with Larus smithsonianus apparently more closely related to (and perhaps conspecific with) Larus vegae (Vega Gull) than to Larus argentatus (Eurasian Herring Gull).

By A Sceptical Be… (not verified) on 02 May 2009 #permalink

A Sceptical Believer in Science,

See "Cdesign Proponentists" from Panda and People. But I see your point, ID = biblical creationism is kind of wrong. It should be ID = watered-down biblical creationism. The fundamental arguments of the two are the same. I've seen proponents of the two make the same argument almost word for word. (For example, there is a comment in the essay by George Berkin about who an evolutionist and a murder investagation, which is nearly identical to an argument made by Mr. Bananaman Ray Comfort.) The primary difference is that biblical creationism makes specific claims about the world, albeit incorrect claims, like the world is 6000 years old or that there was a giant flood. ID just makes vague statements about things being too complicated or that it has information, but they have never defined information or complexity in a measurable or meaningful way.

Also creationism is the belief that the world or man was supernaturally created, so creationism isn't limited to just biblical creationism. In that sense, ID is very much a subset of creationism.

Also Dover case was incredibly important. ID was shown to be nothing more than a religious idea and to have no scientific merit. This was found even though the ID side tried there best to show that it had even a little bit of scientific merit. They failed, and failed epically. It also wasn't a minor court. Basically, if ID comes up before any other court in the land, all they have to do is refer to this ruling. It only get to higher level courts if the losing side appeals the decision. In this case, the defeat was so complete that an appeal had no chance.

There is a difference between believing in God, which the early scientist did and as a lot of scientist current do, and believing that God is responsible and is the cause of a natural phenomenon which ID supporters believe. The first set of beliefs in inconsequential to science, while the latter is a detriment to science.

As for the Herring gull comment. The American Ornithologist Union still classifies it as Larus argentatus , which is what most of the field guides go by in North America. Generally, I find splitters to be too willing to split up species or to raise sub-species to species level. What is it creates a confusion in the literature, and it rarely helps clarify the understanding of the biology.

By Thoracantha (not verified) on 04 May 2009 #permalink

You state: "ID = watered-down biblical creationism" - I think some creationists (i.e. the fundamentalist sort) may agree with you, but they would be missing the point as well. The differences are as I said about mindset and approach.

You are correct that some arguments are common to both, but that isn't the same as being the same thing. There are plenty of examples of different schools of thought that may sometimes share common ideas/agruments without being the same. The point I made was not they don't have anything at all in common, but rather that they have differences which are of a fairly fundamental nature.

You also say:
"Also creationism is the belief that the world or man was supernaturally created, so creationism isn't limited to just biblical creationism. In that sense, ID is very much a subset of creationism."
- If that is your definition of creationism, and if by 'world' you mean the whole Universe, and if by 'supernaturally you mean by some means outside the laws that currently govern the Universe, then a surprising cast of well known figures have suddenly become reclassified as creationists - even Theodosius Dobzhansky, who famously said "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is a creationist by that definition.

If you adopt such a broad definition, then the concept begins to lose any real meaning.

Not being American, please forgive me, but I don't give a ... what the judge in the Dover trial did or did not decide. Facts in science are not decided by courts (unless they are legal issues). My description of it as a 'minor court' was because I understand it to have been a state court not a federal one, but in all honesty while I do get the impression that American courts would like to think their jurisdiction extends outside the USA it makes no difference to the issue of whether ID = creationism or not. I do find it bizarre that anti-ID arguments often end up something like, 'the Dover trial said it was so it is'. Well the news is that if you resort to the use of arguments based on authority, it is only convincing to those who accept the authority.

As for American Herring Gull - I agree that a lot of unneccessary splitting is done, and I am far from convinced by some of the splits in Larus. Indeed I tend to favour a middle ground, and certainly don't advocate splitting in general, but there is substantial evidence (genetics etc), despite superficial appearances, that American Herring Gull and Eurasian Herring Gull are not each others' closest relatives. American Herring Gull is apparently closer to Vega Gull. The authoratative 'Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America' by Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson certainly treats them as separate species. They may not be currently recognised as separate by the AOU, but in Europe the various ornithological societies, including the usually hyper-conservative BOU do recognise the split, while acknowledging that morphologically adults are very very difficult to separate with confidence.

DDen :)

By A Sceptical Be… (not verified) on 05 May 2009 #permalink