May 11, 2006

What if they held a colloquium on ID, and nobody bothered to discuss ID?

I had the opportunity to attend a colloquium at the University of California at Irvine the other night which included talks by Paul Nelson and Ralph Seelke representing the ID/creationist approach and followed with an interesting but, in the end, rather unproductive panel discussion.

I wasn't well prepared to take notes (it was a last second decision) so I cannot report specific statements, but I will make a few observations based upon my impressions.
-- The tone was pleasantly polite. This made for willing conversation during the panel discussion and confident questions and answers at the end. But there was something missing. I do not want to be seen to be urging confrontation and histrionics, but it is unavoidable that there are some seriously difficult questions that arise in the course of a collision between ID and mainstream science. Unfortunately these questions were not addressed. In fact for the most part they were not even acknowledged.
An example: when Professor of Ecology/Evolutionary Biology Timothy Bradley started off the panel discussion he summarized Nelson's position on the age of the earth and the common descent of biological organisms as being consonant both with his own and that of modern science. He was apparently unaware that Nelson is a young earth creationist, and Nelson made no attempt to set the record straight. The ensuing discussion was not crippled by this strange oversight, but, for me at least, it was rendered a bit surreal.
There was a good bit of this kind of talking past each other going on during the discussion and I think it derived from the rather mismatched assemblage of individuals. Nelson and Seelke are an unusual pair of ID spokesmen (although I must say that I found Seelke's presentation very interesting and expect we will be hearing his name cited quite often by ID proponents). The three speakers for the side of mainstream science were all knowledgeable but fell into the trap of discussing scientific minutiae while broad unwarranted assumptions or conclusions went unchallenged.
An example again: after Bradley had made a creditable attempt to get Nelson to state his alternate model and how it would be tested Nelson responded with some typical circumlocutions in the middle of which he said (something along the lines of) - "When we invoke intelligence we don't have to provide any mechanism..." This dodge is one of the most critical flaws in the reasoning of ID proponents. It leads to all sorts of relevant avenues of discussion including whether ID is legitimate science, whether natural evidence can lead empricially to non-natural phenomena, and whether science should remain operationally materialistic.
These paths were never pursued. The same thing happened later when Seelke offered (something along the lines of) - "When something looks designed, it a pretty reasonable conclusion to say that it was designed." A statement chock full of unwarranted assertion and unsupported assumption.

At the end someone on stage asked if anybody's mind had been changed. No one raised a hand. Not a surprising result but I had to wonder, based on the disconnected feel of the discussion, if anyone's perspective was ever really challenged.
-- Nelson is personable, knowledgeable and courteous. His demeanor pretty much set the tone for the evening, and he should be credited for this. But he is also a credentialed philosopher, and as such he must be aware that every one of the points he presented, both in his talk and during the panel discussion, amounted to an argument from incredulity. There was simply no there, there. Virtually everthing he said could have been paraphrased thus - "It all just seems so farfetched!" The implied (false) dichotomy, and lack of critical discussion of ID went substantially unchallenged.
-- The two speakers I found most interesting were the aforementioned Seelke and Gregory Weiss, a Professor of chemistry and molecular biology who spoke knowledgeably about RNA evolution. Neither, though, indulged in any particularly deep reflection on ID and its ramifications.
In fact, that pretty much sums it up. I'm not saying the evening should have been full of it, but just a little sound and fury would at least have signified something.


Blogger Gary S. Hurd said...

I was going to attend the UCI thingy, but a chance for a deep sea fishing trip overwhelmed my deciation to the evo/creto war.

Thanks for your observations.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for attending. I have to say I'm not sure why you think Prof. Seelke's approach to ID/Creationism is interesting. Based on a reading of his articles from his website, it seems he's vulnerable to the critique that his work--whatever his motives--tests standard (evolutionary) biology. Strictly speaking, it does not consitute a creationst theory 'in action'.

Certainly, I don't think Prof. Seelke has found anything close to what he claims in the intro. to his paper. In any case I would be interested if you could elaborate on why you found it interesting.


4:21 PM  
Blogger RLC said...


I did enjoy Seelke's presentation. After Nelson's talk it was refreshing to hear about some legitimate experimentation. Also I hadn't heard of Seelke before this so I was surprised when he finally got to the conclusions he drew from his data. As I listened to his introduction and was exposed to the data, I didn't really tumble to the fact that he was an ID proponent until he began emphasizing the difficulty of double mutations in his E. coli studies.

His motives rang true for me, even if they weren't (this is not something I'm asserting, I have no reason to believe he was dissembling when he said he pursued his research primarily because he wanted to test Behe's ideas scientifically).

I think there are some experimental design problems with his research (for instance the lack of appropriate controls for that which he was testing, e.g. when he tested for two mutations out of the four chosen loci he apparently did not test for all 6 combinations of 2 base pairs) and I most certainly agree with you that regardless of the veracity of his work it does not support the causal inference he wishes to draw. It is no more evidence for ID than any currently unexplained natural phenomenon.

My impression was that he was somewhat measured and cautious, qualities not often found in those arguing creationism. However I knew, and still know, nothing more of him than what I heard that night. I will read his paper when I get the chance.

I guess it was just nice to finally hear something new, however spurious, from these guys.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Art said...

Dear Robert,

Thank you for coming to our colloquium, and thanks for sharing your feedback on it.

--Art, iDesign@UCI

5:04 PM  
Blogger Art said...

Here is my colleague's observations about that event.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous bFast said...

I did a little googling on Paul Nelson. I fail to find support for your view that he is a young earther. He seems to hang out with the classic ID crowd (Dembski, Behe, etc.) which is not a young earth crowd by any means. Do you have evidence to believe that Paul Nelson is a young earther or was this just an assumption on your part?

9:16 AM  
Blogger RLC said...


Your Googling could use some work. Try "Paul Nelson, YEC" and click on the first link.

11:05 AM  

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