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Stephen Meyer - 17th Nov
  • SimonSimon November 2011
    Pretty much everyone I know in the Science Faith community was invited to a lecture by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute in Whitehall last night - the inaugural lecture of the UK Centre for Intelligent Design. Almost everyone turned down the invite except me as I'm still impressed by a free dinner in a posh location!

    Meyer's lecture was truly awful. I was sat next to a pro vice chancellor of a Russell group university (I'm not supposed to divulge who else was at the event) who left pretty much as soon as the lecture was over saying he didn't have time for this drivel. To be fair I was expecting something much better from so senior an ID person and was disappointed. He started with a brief overview of natural selection followed by a more detailed (but stumbly) description of the cellular transcription/translation machinery. He then showed all the usual calculations of why a functional protein sequence can't have evolved by chance, followed by a really confused attempt to explain how the information content cannot have evolved by necessity (ie physical laws). This was the worst bit of his lecture by a long way - something about bonds between base-pairs in DNA not being able to self assemble. He really did not spend enough time explaining his reasoning on this point and sort of jumped quickly to his conclusion (he was running late at this point) by saying since the cellular machinery was so complex, it must have been intelligent design.

    I was hoping for a much better talk from so well known a speaker, but basically it boiled down to the incredulity argument coupled with a God of the gaps conclusion. The event reminded me of why I no longer bother to read any of the ID literature, and generally consider anyone who takes ID seriously as either being naive about science or alternatively a bit stupid.
  • SimonSimon November 2011
    Just listened to Keith and Stephen Meyer on the premier radio podcast (may have to copy and paste the full link into browser address):

    http://www.premierradio.org.uk/listen/ondemand.aspx?mediaid={9BE24BFA-49CE-455B-9C2F-32087F4C546D}

    I think Meyer was better in the debate than he was giving a lecture, however I do think this debate was a triumph of style over substance. Meyer got himself out of most holes by trying to adopt a scholarly air with appeals to history or name dropping, which sounds quite good as a debating tactic but didn't really defend his points. He also kept saying "I have a chapter in my book on that" which is a pretty useless thing to say on the radio unless you are trying to sell your book (hmmm!!). I enjoyed the last few moments when Keith pointed out that most IDers are not biologists - Meyer objected to this however he is definitely wrong here - look at Meyers background as an example!

    The whole thing was a bit frustrating to listen to as it slid between evolution and abiogenesis too much despite everyone saying they were trying to stay on track. It made me think that next time I debate an ID person I will stick to three topics - ID is 1) an argument from incredulity 2) a "God of the gaps", and 3) bad theology because it makes God a tinkerer rather than a creator. If one isn't strict on topics IDers are as bad as YEC's when it comes to going at a "Gish gallop": http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop
  • GrumpyBob November 2011
    I've just joined the site to comment on this item (I'm a bit of an interloper I guess, as I'm not a christian). I too was invited via my HEI address to attend Meyer's lecture (I blogged about it at http://tinyurl.com/83plm2f). I initially, and tentatively, accepted the invitation, but later chose not to attend. Simon's report very much reflects how I expected the lecture to be, based on my reading of Meyer's meagre published output, none of which is in reputable science journals.

    Your take on ID as a 'God of the Gaps' and an argument from incredulity is spot on, I think. ID is a particularly cynical attempt to re-brand conventional creationism in a superficially 'sciencey' coat. Meyer himself is a co-author of the Wedge Strategy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedge_strategy).
  • Michael November 2011
    In 1997 in a review of Darwin's Balck Box I described ID as godofthegaps wrapped up in amino acids. Things have not changed one bit.

    Why do ID get so iffy about the vast age of the universe and earth. Grumpy is right to see ID as essentailly repackaged creationism - in the 90s Van Till called "creationism in a tuxedo".

    What also concerns me is that ID is used as a cloak for YEC in groups like Truth in Science (when the chairman -Mcintosh - beleives that dinos were roaming around the Lakes in 1500) and C4ID.

    Why are people attracted to such guff?
  • GrumpyBob November 2011
    Simon - in your review of the radio debate you refer to the observation that most ID supporters are not biologists. This is correct, and does hit the nail on the head rather. One of the C4ID leading triumvirate (Nevin) is a retired medical geneticist (which almost counts, but he's on record as a YEC), there's Behe (LeHigh) and Axe (Biologic Institute). The main unifying correlation is that they all hold a firm christian belief of one form or another, possibly excepting Steve Fuller. I think this is quite telling - i.e. that ID supporters are religiously rather than scientifically motivated.

    ID creationism won't topple evolutionary biology by making public statements and holding public debates: science is done by scientists, and biology by biologists. The main aim of the Discovery Institute is to muddy the waters in public perception. Following the Dover trial, they are a bit blown out of the water in the USA, where religious instruction is prohibited in publicly funded schools. It may be that faith schools in the UK are seen as a target. Don't forget Alastair Noble's role in education with CARE.
  • SimonSimon November 2011
    Thanks for the comments!

    I was thinking a bit more about this last night and especially the way Meyer denies the God of the Gaps argument by saying that ID merely refers to the scientific best explanation...

    Thing is there are essentially two types of intelligence - natural intelligence (ie humans, animals, maybe aliens) and supernatural. One of the reasons for evolutionary biology is to explain how "natural" intelligence came about - using cranes rather than sky hooks to quote Dennett. ID steps in and says that evolution by natural selection isn't sufficient and intelligence is required. BUT if the whole purpose is to explain how "natural" intelligence came about, the only possible OTHER intelligence that ID can invoke is "supernatural" intelligence! So it is rather disingenuous for any ID supporter to claim it is either a scientific theory (assuming science is some sort of methodological naturalism/physicalism) or is not religious, because by definition ID is invoking supernatural intelligence to explain natural intelligence!
  • GrumpyBob November 2011
    Did anyone ask Meyer who or what he thought his Designer is or was?

    ID isn't really a scientific approach. It doesn't frame testable hypotheses, and merely makes fanciful attempts to discredit individual examples of evolution. Then some pesky scientist comes along and shows a rather likely evolutionary scenario. I really don't think a strategy of trying to disprove specific cases of evolution by pulling the 'it's too complicated to have evolved' is in any way likely to prove ID. It's a very negative approach.
  • Michael November 2011
    That is why it is God of the gaps. At least early design types like Paley and Buckland saw design in everything.

    It is a fatally flawed apologetic strategy.

    I am prepared to say all is intelligently designed (lower case) but not Intelligently Designed (upper case). But even then I wish my neck were more intelligently designed and then I would not be seeing the physio on Friday. If ID were true there would be very few physios needed. And that is why I cycle with raised butterflies rather than drops:) That is grim in a head wind. But then you would consider me a slow cyclist:)
  • David_Tyler November 2011
    Simon, your report of the lecture is full of value judgments but not helpful if your intention is to say that Meyer's lecture lacked robustness. The probability calculations relating to functional proteins are not to be dismissed easily. There are many competent biologists saying similar things. You say that his argument against information being derived from natural law was "really awful", but I found it very clear. I also found the argument regarding self-assembly of DNA base pairs clear and convincing. What is your problem? Can you articulate the concerns without expecting us to take your word for it? His reasoning, leading to his conclusion, was explained in some detail. He was using the approach adopted by Darwin in "On the Origin" of "Inference to the best explanation". Your summary comments on the conclusion do not match my understanding - he was arguing from evidence, not from gaps. Regarding literature, a reading of "Signature in the cell" is advised, because you have read things into the presentation that were simply not there.
  • Michael November 2011
    Being aware of the errors in the film Darwin's Dilemma and Meyer's apporach to "Cambrian Explosion" I am not concerned to read the Signature as I have found when he speaks on my territory he is wrong I will let the many others deal with his errors in the Signature
  • SimonSimon November 2011
    Hi David,

    Of course my report of the lecture is full of value judgements - it was a poor lecture that really didn't stand up to the quality I expect of an academic lecture. Furthermore Meyer was disappointing considering his high profile in the ID community. I have been to good ID lectures - John Lennox is always great (even if I do disagree with him) - but Meyer in comparison was quite poor.

    Regarding the biochemistry, the whole argument about probabilities is a complete red herring. The reason why natural selection is a powerful theory is because it short-circuits the vanishingly small probabilities required to generate complex life through just chance by adding a "necessity" selection filter. Granted this is the "chance & necessity" argument, however Meyer did a really poor job in saying why chance & necessity cannot lead to specified information increase. For instance polyploidy is a well known biological phenomenon which leads to an increase in "specified complexity" as Meyer would call it, however he seemed to suggest that such systems couldn't occur!

    Regarding arguing from evidence, a couple years ago I debated Ralph Seelke, who was introduced as being one of the top experimental IDers. On a bit of probing I found out that he only really teaches and his experimental team are undergraduate project students - not exactly a high profile biochemist! Then in Stephen Meyer we have a physicist/philosopher, Philip Johnson a Lawyer, and of the people I spoke to last week I met a mathematician, accountant, lawyer, surgeon, engineer and chemist. As a biochemist myself I am singularly unimpressed with the way the ID field handles biochemistry. It's a bunch of amateurs using a "golly ain't it complicated" argument with little feel for how the subject actually works. Come back and give me the evidence for protein folding when you too have experimentally solved over 100 protein structures and published in Nature as I have!
  • GrumpyBob November 2011
    David_Tyler: Are you a biologist? Can you provide a reference to the probability calculations you refer to? Meyer is, as I recall, a geologist/earth scientist who went on to gain a PhD in the philosophy of science. He has never been a practising research biologist.

    Meyer (and the other ID creationists) do not use "inference to the best explanation". they are religiously motivated to disagree with non-supernatural rational and evidence-based explanations of life's origins and its diversity. Simon and Michael are correct: the ID line always boils down to "I cannot understand this, so God did it", though in their deceitful ID strategy, they are always careful to avoid mentioning God. I'd be interested to know what the readership of CIS (who I would expect to be largely Christian) feel about the ID creationists, who are almost all christian themselves, taking a God-denial strategy. Isn't that a little insulting?
  • David_Tyler November 2011
    Grumpy Bob, regarding a reference to probability calculations, the issue appears to be widely understood to be problematic for OOL researchers, but few calculations reach the literature. An example is in the appendix in: “The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life”, by Eugene V Koonin, Biology Direct, 2007, 2:15 | doi:10.1186/1745-6150-2-15.
    A link is provided by this blog: http://www.arn.org/blogs/index.php/literature/2007/06/23/how_to_solve_a_puzzle_that_defeats_conve

    Your assertion that Meyer does not use "inference to the best explanation" needs to be justified. He explained this carefully in his lecture and, as you have observed, his PhD is in the philosophy of science (from Cambridge). Perhaps he does know what he is talking about when he explains this methodological issue.
    I would go so far as to say that the ID line never boils down to "I cannot understand this, so God did it". The argument is always based on evidence. I find this allegation about gap-reasoning is made frequently, but never backed up with a reasoned argument. Also, ID is not being deceitful about God – it is respecting the limitations of science.
  • SimonSimon November 2011
    @David_Tyler: I would go so far as to say that the ID line never boils down to "I cannot understand this, so God did it".

    But that's precisely what Meyer was arguing!! He cannot understand how specified complexity came about in DNA/biochemistry so instead he is appealing to a necessarily supernatural (see my above post) cause. It's precisely the incredulity argument followed by God of the gaps! (BTW although I have far better things to do than read Meyer's book from cover to cover, I'm willing to give a chapter or two a go if you think he explains why chance & necessity cannot lead to specified complexity any better than he did in the lecture - give me a recommendation!)

    @GrumpyBob "I'd be interested to know what the readership of CIS (who I would expect to be largely Christian) feel about the ID creationist... taking a God-denial strategy."

    The majority of CiS members that I know (who are mainly professional scientists or educators) do not generally hold to ID often complaining that it is both bad science and bad theology (as you said the God-denial strategy is problematic, coupled with positing God as a tinkerer rather than immanent & transcendent creator). Denis Alexander is one of the more prominent members and wrote the book "Creation or Evolution do we have to choose" which is very critical of ID. We also have links with people like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller in the states who adopt the more orthodox "theistic evolution" position. Check out our resources page on the subject: http://www.cis.org.uk/resources/articles-talks-and-links/creation/ Contrary to common perception the majority of Christians may be creationists, but not of the YEC or ID variety!!
  • GrumpyBob November 2011
    Simon & David_Tyler, I understand from reading critiques of Meyer and Dembski's specified complexity and their treatment of information theory that their work is somewhat at odds with research in the field as a whole (and that they don't have a publication track record) - though I am a biologist and not a mathematician. I would add that having read some of Meyer's more biologically focussed writing, that I'm not convinced he has a decent grasp of biology.
    -----
    David_Tyler - thanks for the citation. It's interesting to see non-anonymous refereeing and the exchange of comments published. (On the other hand, one might think twice about going up against the Editor-in-Chief!) Having skimmed the article (it's not so much a research paper as an hypothesis presentation, largely hanging on cosmology, written by a non-cosmologist. I've yet to read this throughly, but I did notice the passage:

    "The MWO model is tightly linked to the anthropic principle (anthropic selection), a controversial but increasingly popular concept among cosmologists. According to the
    anthropic principle, the only "reason" our O-region has its specific parameters is that, otherwise, there would be no observers to peer into the universe [13-15]. "

    Which seems to presage an argument that the statistical improbability of life originating is somewhat moot, because if it hadn't, we wouldn't be here to wonder about it.
    -----

    I genuinely think that a current lack of understanding of life's origins doesn't mean we will not uncover more likely mechanisms in the future. I certainly don't think one should respond to a difficult scientific problem by throwing one's hands up in the air, giving up and proclaiming that a Designer did it.
  • GavinM November 2011
    Proponents of ID don't see themselves as giving up, rather they believe they have legitimate scientific arguments for drawing their conclusions that external input of information is required (ideas such as examining the probabilities of proteins assembling by chance, etc) to explain life.

    Non-ID proponents rightly see this as a type of 'God of the gaps' argument as it is accepting a permanent level of ignorance of a natural process. The fact that the evidence for that ignorance has been robustly answered many times doesn't seem to faze them and is the cause of the scientific communities frustration with ID. It refuses to listen to evidence and engages in whole scale generation of suspicion against both scientists and the scientific process.

    The whole ID position and the way it is promoted is frankly arrogant. ID has yet to put forward a firm argument, backed up by rigorously tested evidence and submitted to peer review as every other branch of science does. Yet its proponents are perfectly happy to spend their time wagging fingers at every one else via non-science public community.

    The fact that they have drawn the conclusion (and advocate it publicly) that there will *never* be a non-directly interventionist method proposed or discovered is from my perspective as a scientist (a physicist I note) staggering. At best all they should be able to say is *currently* they do not think there is such a mechanism, but they'd be open to evidence otherwise. However the last 10-15 years have shown that ID proponents are not ones to let that happen and continue to promote the same ideas to the churches that have been robustly answered by both scientists (Christian and not) and theologians.