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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Intelligent Design at TAMS: Summary

I first heard about the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in an article posted by P.Z. Myers, which took me from elation to disappointment in two sentences. Throughout this country, any effort made to improve math and science education is well-needed, and for such an academy to be organized in the state of Texas seemed to fit that desperate need as well as a rainshower in the West Texas wasteland.

But then the shoe dropped: "a gang of god-walloping creationists" had set their sights on TAMS, and were coming in to ensure that students heard their own particular brand of religious dogma to usurp an otherwise wholesome scientific education. Who are these nasty, creationist bugaboos? Probe Ministries, and more specifically as it turns out, Dr. Ray Bohlin.

I have been somewhat familiar with Probe, as my good friend Derek Sansone had been engaged with their team on a regular basis when he was trying to develop himself as a Christian apologist. Essentially, they operate very much like apologetical consultants; they spend their time writing articles and giving lectures for the benefit of churches that are interested in bolstering the faith of the average pew-sitter with a bit of argumentation. I'd gotten to meet another of Probe's team, Patrick Zukeran, through my relationship with Kevin Harris (who podcasts Pat's "Evidence and Answers" show, as well as William Lane Craig's "Reasonable Faith" show, and who also participates in my "Apologia" podcast). The three of us had even sat together last year when the Discovery Institute road show came to SMU. From my experience, they're good, sincere people that you'd probably enjoy going to dinner with... they just also happen to be very sincerely wrong on a number of critical points.

I received an email from a friend forwarding the particular details of Probe's involvement yesterday: Probe was sending Dr. Ray Bohlin to TAMS to talk about Intelligent Design, and it would be taking place last night! Needless to say, I cleared my schedule and high-tailed it to Denton to figure out what was going on.

I arrived early and took a seat in the front row as Dr. Bohlin was setting up his presentation (incidentally, I caught a glance at the filename for the presentation, which was "sermon1"). I introduced myself, and we chatted about how molecular biology had changed since he received his PhD (in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Texas at Dallas, after joining Probe). After students filed in (lured by the offer of food, the key to any university-level function), an RA with TAMS named Samantha introduced Dr. Bohlin and the lecture series. Apparently, the "Think Tank" series tends to be conducted in the fall semester, but given her interest in the Intelligent Design issue and Dr. Bohlin's schedule, it had to take place in the early spring. Dr. Bohlin then launched into his presentation, which made essentially the same points as this article.

Overall, the demeanor of the presentation was submissive and defensive. Nearly all of the scientific information being presented was accurate as far as I could tell, and "Darwinism" was only used instead of "evolutionary theory" once or twice (although that may even be too much for some people). Evolution was accepted almost completely as a concept, and even the usage of the word "theory" was mostly appropriate (although perhaps slanted a bit to emphasize uncertainty for rhetorical effect). Intelligent Design was presented as an enterprise that was committed wholeheartedly to the scientific method, with no desire to overturn evolutionary theory as we know it. The pitch was more of ID being an "Evolution-Plus," sort of a scientific bonus that does not detract from evolutionary theory, and may even help it.

I was taking notes throughout, and jotting down appropriate questions that I planned to ask, since I had no way of knowing if there would be any scientifically literate people in the audience. I was pleasantly surprised (in a similar manner as when I visited Carl Baugh's Creation Museum in Glen Rose) to find the audience chock-full of students who saw the flaws of ID's rationale as easily as I could, and so I gave most of my questions an early retirement.

I did, however, offer this criticism: the concept of 'specified complexity' as advanced by ID advocates seems to me to suffer from a control problem. Both Dr. Bohlin and myself were trained in the conduct of scientific experiments, and one of the cardinal rules is that without proper positive or negative controls, an experimental result is scientifically meaningless. Any experiment needs a positive control (an independent verification that the test will work), and a negative control (an independent verification that the test can distinguish between signal and background noise).

Specified complexity can make use of neither: using Dr. Bohlin's analogy of rocks on a beach as an example of non-design, it could be the case that an intelligent agent has arranged those rocks in a specific pattern that just happens to appear random, and which no human agent would recognize as such. This demonstrates ID's inability to rule out false negatives, meaning that it cannot distinguish actual design from background noise. In addition, it lacks the right positive control: Dr. Bohlin offered many examples of human design, but that's not at issue. Assuming ID is accurate, the design in nature would be from a non-human agent, and we have no clear examples of such. Without an independent verification of specified complexity using an externally-provided example of non-human design, this approach is a scientific non-starter.

Needless to say, Dr. Bohlin took umbrage at my criticism, and responded that using human design (e.g., "John loves Mary" written on a sandy beach) was not a problem for ID. According to him, "as long as it tells us something, who cares [about controls]?" Scientifically-literate readers will of course be aware that any experiment can 'tell us something,' and in fact nearly any assay can produce data, even if used incorrectly. Hell, I can get beautiful protein bands on a Western blot if I overexpose the film, but you always have to check your controls before you start polishing your Nobel. If the controls aren't telling you the right thing, then your experiment can't tell you ANYTHING.

Aside from my own contribution, as I mentioned the audience was brimming with students on the side of science- even some first-year students who had scientific publications handy when they asked a bacterial flagellum/Type III secretory apparatus question. After the lecture ended, I introduced myself to them and encouraged them to found a new secular student group on campus (the previous incarnation had disbanded)- from the makeup of the audience last night, it's something that is sorely needed. And another positive note- I introduced myself to the event organizer and offered to present a lecture on the molecular evidence for common descent at any time, which was provisionally (though gratefully) accepted. Before leaving, I thanked Dr. Bohlin for his participation and offered the same lecture to him, albeit in debate form. It's a subject that he doesn't normally speak on, but he agreed to consider it if given ample opportunity to prepare. Hopefully, all three of these will come to fruition, and sooner rather than later.

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