January 6, 2007

The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola

[This is the long version of an article written for the NCSE's journal: Reports from the National Center for Science Education (Vol. 26. No. 3. May, 2006) about an event held back on May 12th 2006 at Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola). Go here and here if you want to refresh your memory. A sidebar to this piece examining the wisdom of opposing creationism at events such as the one at Biola can be found here.]

The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola
or "We may not know where we’re going, but we’re certainly not going away."

On the way to the “Intelligent Design Under Fire” event (also referred to as “Grill the ID Guys”) at Biola my wife asked me what she should expect. I considered for a few moments and replied, “Well, if the past is any indication you will probably see responses from the “intelligent design” (ID) guys that begin with a good bit of geniality, and then make a cursory attempt to address the question before digressing into something unrelated about which they wish to talk. That and a lot of complaining that a question is unfair, or ignoring it altogether.”

She eyed me with a look that seemed to say, “what makes you think you can make that kind of prediction?” To be honest, although the cynic in me expected little more than a post-Dover pep rally my mind still harbored a tiny kernel of optimism that we might finally see some genuine light shed on difficult issues. But I’d learned not to give voice to these hopes.

“What about the individuals,” she asked. I gave her a quick run-down on each guy as she ticked off the names.
“He’s a Moonie, got his bio education so he could prove evolution wrong.”
“A young-earth creationist, not really an ID guy as I see it, but he likes to hang out with this crowd.”
“He’s relatively new so he probably won’t say much, wrote a book about how fortunate we are to live on a place like earth which is so well suited to life.”
“No way,” she replied.
“Way,” said I.
“And Meyer?”
“Oh, you’ll like him,” I said. “He’s really good at this kind of thing, very polished and professional. He’ll probably do most of the talking and the other guys might even defer to him. He thinks well on his feet and comes across as quite genuine.”
“But you don’t buy it?”
“I don’t really know,” I pondered. “I don’t buy the rhetoric, that’s for sure, but I tend to think most of these guys believe they’re being straightforward.”

“Now, Michael Behe, I know him,” she realized. We’d seen Behe and Dembski give talks a while back.
“Yeah, that’s the interesting thing to me about all this.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well, since the events in Dover, I’ve been wondering how they were going to rehabilitate Behe’s image.(1) He took a bad beating there and since he and his flagella are pretty much the ID standard bearers it seems to me they’ll need to prop him back up somehow.”
“Maybe that’s partly what this is about,” I said as I pulled into Parking lot A.

We merged with the crowd meandering toward the auditorium. Some of them were wearing shirts with Bible excerpts on the back.
“Oh, and watch the audience,” I said, gesturing to the people with whom we were entering the hall. “Depending on how it’s played, this whole thing could end up being about them.”

Waiting for the coals

John Bloom, the event’s organizer, took the stage and explained how it all came about. He’d noticed that the best part of similar events he had attended were the Q and A sessions at the end. Reasoning that an entire evening organized around this structure might present some edifying discussion he put together two panels, one comprised of “intelligent design’s” leading proponents and another representing ID’s “toughest critics” (see sidebar). The critic’s panel included Antony Flew - well-known philosopher, Charlotte Laws - columnist and a PhD. in philosophy, Keith Morrison - a television correspondent, Larry Herber - a retired Geology professor, and James Hofmann, Craig Nelson and Bruce Weber.

These last three were the principle critics for the evening. Morrison and Laws described themselves as confused but interested outsiders. Herber made one comment which ended up being more of a clarification of uniformitarianism, and Flew never spoke. It was Hofmann, a Professor and Chair of Liberal Studies at Cal State Fullerton, along with Weber, a Professor of Chemistry and (Craig) Nelson, a lecturer on Comparative Religions (both from CSF as well) who asked most of the informed questions and tried to follow up when possible.

After introducing both panels Bloom had Stephen Meyer come up and present a short primer on ID. This was presumably for the uninitiated in attendance. Judging, however, from the immediate hisses and grumbles that rippled through the audience when Meyer put up a slide which mentioned Richard Dawkin’s it appeared most in the hall needed little help getting up to speed.

Meyer’s introduction was worth noting for a few reasons:
  • It was not an impartial outline; it was undiluted (and un-rebutted) ID argumentation.
  • It included his public-relations equivocations that ID proponents are “not necessarily challenging the idea of evolution per se…nor are we necessarily challenging the idea of evolution as common ancestry” and that the differences are between themselves and their “Darwinian colleagues as opposed to generic evolutionists” [All emphasis mine].
  • And it offered Meyer’s first opportunity to suggest one of the main themes for the evening: technological analogies. These included many mentions of ‘sophisticated cellular machines’ and the genome as digital code (accompanied by the stipulation that the only known design source for digital code is intelligence).
Once Meyer finished Bloom started things off by encouraging a question from the critics. [This format – critic asks question, ID guys answer – could be effective. But it does have some drawbacks, one of which is that the interaction can become tangential and ultimately unprofitable. What I’ve tried to do in recounting the discussion is ignore the ramblings and focus on the advertised purpose of this event: the salient questions asked and the answers given. Further asides and clarifications from me will, as with this one, be bracketed and colored.]

Let the grilling begin

Question (Q) 1 - TV personality Keith Morrison began by asking, “What kind of intelligent being are you proposing, or are you proposing any specific intelligent being?” Stephen Meyer looked to his mates briefly before taking up the question, sort of. After a digression into how the media report ID poorly he explained that there is a difference between the theory and the religious beliefs of those who hold it. He concluded by repeating the caveat that ID infers only intelligence, not a specific entity. [This “we don’t need to know anything about the designer to infer design” rhetoric is quite familiar to ID critics. Of course it qualifies as a reasonable response only in the case that the putative “intelligence” is an evidentially uncontroversial inference, such as with archeological studies of human intelligence. Otherwise it is a spurious argument.]

Thus the first question is met with hand waving and evasion. Not an auspicious beginning.

Q2 - Morrison continued, observing that ID is being embraced by people who take the Bible literally, while scientists and progressive Christians largely dismiss it. He wondered if those on the ID panel were comfortable with that. Michael Behe answered that he wasn’t, but then protested, “Most people don’t understand intelligent design, and try to fit it into pre-existing categories. Certainly that’s true of the scientific community, most people have a skewed view of intelligent design there.” Behe went on to expound on initial reactions to the Big Bang (the first of several Big Bang excursions) and how the cell is “incredibly sophisticated technology” (the second of multiple machine references). Behe can be credited with a half-answer to this question.

After a bit more discussion John Bloom got the Fullerton contingent involved. Jim Hofmann began by noting that the event was being held at Biola (Bible College of L.A.) as preamble to his point that for ID to be considered a legitimate scientific theory it must be evaluated at the relevant conferences and in the appropriate journals. This brought murmurs of disapproval. He then went on to introduce Bruce Weber.

Q3 - Weber presented several slides which documented studies examining exaptation as a reasonable naturalistic explanation for the evolution of “irreducibly complexity” (IC). Eventually he came to his question. Though research on exaptation is a work in progress, still it is still making progress. Where, he asked, is the ID research? And “why would a scientist abandon the productive research program of the Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis for one informed by intelligent design?” Behe responded with the rather opaque observation that what Weber had shown is not really new or supportive research, it’s “just regular biochemistry which is being spun in a Darwinian fashion.” He went on to ignore the question and renew his battle with Ken Miller by way of slides and retreads of previous arguments. Weber interrupted in an attempt to get Behe back on track. Behe ignored Weber again and returned to reinforcing IC. After Weber tried once more to get back to his questions Behe attempted to refute recent research from Joe Thornton.(2) Soon thereafter Meyer jumped in and digressed into possible Type III secretory system arguments, asserted that Behe hasn’t been proved wrong and suggested that proposed naturalistic pathways don’t cut it. [This is part of ID proponents’ continuing attempts to cover the deficiencies of the IC argument by shifting the burden of proof. But the response from biologists is to the in-principle argument that there cannot be an evolutionary explanation, and as such does not call for tested and replicated research, it simply requires empirically defensible hypotheses.]

At this point Paul Nelson (hereafter Nelson) joined the discussion. He continued Meyer’s impassioned defense of Behe by noting that some scientists have taken up their research partly as a response to Darwin’s Black Box. And his pleas for due recognition continued with the pettish assertion that it was the ID people, “the people on this panel,” who have raised the important questions of development of organismal complexity. [It may come as a shock to developmental biologists to learn that their very investigation of such questions owes to the bravery of Nelson and his colleagues in broaching them. This is an example of hubris on the level of Behe comparing his “discovery” of IC to the accomplishments of "Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur and Darwin."]

Nelson directly addressed the crowd as he complained bitterly about “two sets of rules” preventing guys like Behe from publishing in the scientific literature. The audience applauded vigorously. Meyer carried on playing to the house by recounting the unfair treatment received by Richard von Sternberg in the aftermath of his resignation from a biological journal, then pitched some “peer-reviewed” ID publications, and finally asserted that “we cannot take peer-review as the gold standard of scientific literacy.”(3) This elicited more applause.

Hofmann interjected with the explanation that science works by consensus, not popular vote. Meyer seized upon this to conflate those ideas (popular vote and consensus) and attempted to catch Hofmann in a contradiction. Hofmann responded that he was speaking of a “scientific” consensus: the agreement of those with the appropriate education and experience to interpret the evidence. The audience remained unconvinced.

And Weber’s long forgotten question remained unanswered.

Q4 - Trying to get back on track, Jim Hofmann talked about studies on human chromosome #2 and the detailed findings that strongly support a fusion event in the evolution of humans. The point was about the specificity of empirical questions (where, when, and how?) in preparation for his next question. For ID to be taken seriously as a science, Hofmann said, it must address two questions: When did a design event take place and how did it take place?

Meyer quickly responded to this with a protest directed once again to the audience. He complained that design critics set forth rules on the methodology of science, assume their acceptance, and then proceed to dismiss design on that basis. Getting back to the question, he then referred to his own Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW) paper and said that he believes the Cambrian is a good candidate for when an act of design might have taken place.(4) He added that the origin of life and the origin of intelligence are other possibilities. “So in fact we do say when, and moreover we say how,” he said, “we say it was done by an act of intelligence.” [Of course Hoffman meant that ID needs to address these questions empirically. Meyer’s suggestion that “an act of intelligence” could be a scientifically satisfactory explanation is sophistry. In leaving the “how” at “intelligence” Meyer is ignoring the need to test his hypothesis (a designer) as well as the requirement to establish natural mechanisms by which the intelligent intervention occurred.] Meyer repeated his disdain for the rules of science, suggesting that they may need to be changed in order to accommodate different kinds of explanation.

Jonathan Wells took the ensuing lull as an opportunity to return to the question of “consensus.” He counseled that the American people are “not quite as ignorant as the scientific community would make them out to be,” and went on to argue that because of failed ideas such as geocentrism and phlogiston, and the fact that at one time even Darwinism was considered incorrect we shouldn’t be so willing to trust the consensus. Jim Hofmann responded that those failed ideas were overturned as a result of the scientific process.

Despite Meyer’s sparest of partial answers, another question lingered in limbo.

Q5 - After some discussion of "information," Weber proceeded to ask Behe if the blood-clotting cascade qualifies as a case of intelligent intervention. Behe replied that “these are difficult questions to address,” and we shouldn’t jump to “premature and unjustified conclusions.” Behe went on to say that for all he knows life could have been set up at the time of the Big Bang. Meyer interceded to again mention how intelligence is necessary to build digital code, at which point Weber circled back to the earlier plot and suggested that there are natural mechanisms that produce an increase in information. Meyer decided to answer Weber with a question (Reverse Question 1): “Do you all have an explanation for the information that’s necessary for the origin of life?” Meyer asked. Weber noted it is an active area of research. Meyer repeated the question then scuttled off into an argument about ribozyme engineering.

Behe judged this a good time for him to turn the tables with a question as well, so he asked Weber et al, if they don’t agree that science has reached its limits on these biological questions, “when would you think so?” (RQ2). The audience chuckled knowingly. Meyer complained again about the “rules” of scientific materialism.

Weber’s question received only more questions.

Q6 - Hofmann then asked the ID panel how far they would be willing to go in abandoning methodological naturalism. Nelson agreed readily that science can’t appeal to magic, and then went on to appeal to the vanity of the crowd, musing that “no natural law, no physical process, no algorithm can possibly explain what we’re doing here,” in reference to the evening’s intelligent activities. “It’s not spooky, but it’s not strictly material either,” he said. [Nelson here was summarily and arbitrarily separating human consciousness from conceivable explanation by physical law. Upon evaluation, his point reduces to: “there’s science, there’s magic, and then there’s the non-material causal agency which we like to infer.” Unfortunately, he neglected to explain how this last category is empirically distinguishable from magic.] Hofmann responded that science must operate by way of methodological naturalism otherwise causal inference might be left open to miracles. Behe rejoined with another question: “How would you categorize the [Surprise!] Big Bang?” (RQ3)

Q7 - Hofmann now got Craig Nelson (hereafter C. Nelson) involved. C. Nelson returned to the notion of consensus and asked when the ID guys would consider such a thing important. Meyer answered that they’re not saying consensus isn’t important (in fact they were), they’re saying that the ID arguments aren’t even being considered. Their detractors, Meyer bemoaned, simply appeal to the consensus and never listen to what they have to say. [It didn’t seem to occur to Meyer that what they have to say has been considered and rejected. An excellent reason for which rejection might be non-responsive performances such as the one occurring this very evening.]

Q8 - John Bloom brought Charlotte Laws into the discussion. Laws observed that ID is being pushed into schools and asked the panel for their views as to why. Meyer noted that the debate involves the intersection of cultural and scientific ideas regarding origins and implied that people generally get carried away with the religious implications of ID theory. Laws tried to get back to the question, saying that she thinks the movement might have something to do with a general distrust of science, an observation that science currently appears to be vulnerable, and the influence of postmodernism. She also admitted that she thinks it’s fine for ID to be in classrooms because it’s philosophy, and wondered how the panel felt it should be taught.

Wells remarked that they don’t advocate required teaching of ID. In fact, he went on to say, ID is already in the textbooks. He made reference to a stack of textbooks he has that include a section on ID and asserted “they bash it.” Nelson picked up on this theme, noting that prominent evolutionary biologist George Williams wrote a book in which he discusses whether the vertebrate eye is “wise” design.(5) [Neither Wells nor Nelson indulged the obvious explanation for all this, that biological science has been, and continues to be, assaulted by creationism and at times has responded to intentional misrepresentations. Only a perverse interpretation of “intellectual fairness” would suggest that creationism deserves equal time as a result.]

During further discussion Meyer came back to the subject of methodological naturalism. He opined that this rule prevents us from concluding design. [Of course it does not, archeologists and forensic scientists conclude design all the time. This is another case of ID proponents using ambiguous language to obfuscate and conflate concepts to their advantage.] Then he went on to offer another reverse question (RQ4) asking: “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument - the universe really is designed - would you ever be able to tell, as a scientist, if you held that rule…?” The gathering rumbled its approval.

Law’s query had been largely ignored.

Q9 - Craig Nelson extrapolated from Meyer’s question to ask one of his own, wondering why theistic evolution isn’t an acceptable explanation. Is there some reason God couldn’t have worked in that fashion? Behe answered that God can do whatever he wants. Behe and C. Nelson then exchanged good-natured barbs about which Catholic leaders to follow. Aside from Behe’s dismissive non-answer, there is no response to C. Nelson’s query.

More interplay dealt with Darwin’s use of “God wouldn’t have done it that way” style of argument. Wells took the opportunity to offer further arguments about biased textbooks. [Wells’ integrity on this subject is, at best, in question.(6)]

Anticipating that the end was near Meyer got Guillermo Gonzalez involved, pumping him to talk about his work (who needs critic’s questions anyway?). Gonzalez summarized his book: The Privileged Planet, then confidently stated that now is the best time in history to be a cosmologist (implying this is part of the cosmic design). [Considering that cosmologists throughout history likely each in their time could have said something similar Gonzalez’s statement can be seen as little more than a truism based upon the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. However, many onstage and in the audience seemed to swallow it with respectful awe.]

Q10 - In wrapping up the evening Bloom reserved to himself the right to ask one last question of the ID panel. “What do you think it would take for intelligent design to be accepted in scientific circles?”

Jonathan Wells answered first. He agreed with an earlier observation that ID needs to be fruitful. He then said that there is real ID research going on around the world. Meyer prodded Wells to talk about his “cancer research.” Wells allowed that he would be doing some ID inspired work that may have cancer implications. Meyer, not content with waiting for the results of the study, proceeded to drive home his point, saying Wells’ work is a “direct application of irreducible complexity and design.”

Paul Nelson answered next. He agreed with Wells, accepting that scientists want to see results and “new knowledge.”

Stephen Meyer followed and took issue with Nelson and Wells. He stated that ID doesn’t need to lead to new knowledge, that ID is already fruitful, and mentioned recent studies that suggest “Darwinism has been unfruitful.” He moved on to assert that ID is attracting a following and implied that it is only the entrenched majority that is denying “intelligent design” its due. This will come, he suggested, as a result of retirement and turnover in academia.

Michael Behe lined up with Meyer. “It’s nice to make a prediction,” he said, but the “question is - does this idea explain what we see?” [Judging from the alternative he offers, Behe apparently does not feel the idea must “explain what we see” in an empirically testable fashion.]

After this John Bloom invited the audience to give the critics (who were offered no chance to comment on the last question) a standing ovation. “They took a lot of heat,” Bloom acknowledged, and the proceedings closed with applause.

I went to a cookout...

Let me emphasize that there was much more discussion than could be captured in this review. I have tried to concentrate on those moments when questions got asked and answers were attempted. For the most part the interaction was good-natured and cordial, and the audience was generally courteous.

That said, let’s look at the numbers: As I tally it, ten significant questions, including Bloom’s softball at the end, were asked (someone else may come up with a different count as there were a few questions that either ended up lost in the cross-talk or subsumed into one of the larger discussions). The response to those ten questions included three half-answers (Q2, Q4, Q10), three evasions (Q1, Q6, Q7), three ignored (Q3, Q8, Q9), and one (Q5) answered with a question (though reverse questions also played a part in other responses). Much of the time was spent in digression into matters of dubious pertinence.

One way to put the evening into perspective would be to note that the ID panel asked more questions than they actually answered.

...and all I got was this bun

The tiny, hopeful part of me that thought, “maybe this time it’ll be different” took a severe thrashing once again. My sardonic side, however, was pretty puffed up after it was over. Most of my pessimistic expectations were fulfilled, not that this is any great feat of prognostication. Familiarity with the history of these events would have led anyone to the same sad prediction.

There was no insight gained this night, nothing new to be heard. In fact, looking back on how few of the questions actually got answered, and the form the responses took, it’s hard to conclude that there is any acceptance on the part of the ID spokesmen that the “tough questions” even exist. They were either dodged, dismissed or met with another question.

One problem with the evening was that the encounter took place in front of an ID sympathetic crowd. It’s hard not to be cynical about the motives for this event when so much of the time ostensibly intended for answering “tough questions” was instead spent reading from the playbook and pumping up the home fans.

But the biggest drawback was the clear lack of fortitude on the part of “ID’s Top Proponents” to candidly engage the inquiry they invited. The critics, especially Hofmann, Weber, and Craig Nelson, tried to press them in many cases, but there was no mechanism for detailed examination such as was available in Dover. Thus, the advertised purpose of the event was well swamped by a tide of tired complaints about persecution, repetition of stock talking-points, and pronounced public-relations efforts to rally the faithful, get Behe back out in front, and give Gonzalez some exposure.

It was a sharp portrait of “intelligent design” as a movement with few guiding principles other than the desire to continue to hang onto political market-share. Though slowed by the events in Dover it’s clear that the ID machine is still rolling, if with no more scientific direction than before.


1. Memorandum Opinion - Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al. (Judge Jones findings). 2005.

2. Bridgham, Carrol and Thornton. Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation. Science. April 2006:Vol. 312. no. 5770, pp. 97 – 101

3. Von Sternberg is the former editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington who was accused of fudging peer-review so as to publish Meyer’s paper on the Cambrian (see next note). It is alleged by ID advocates that he received prejudicial treatment following this publication and his subsequent resignation.

4. Meyer, Stephen C. Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. 117(2):213-239. 2004

5. George Williams, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 72-73.

6. Robert Camp. 2005. Do Biology Textbooks Pit Evolution Against Theism? - A response to Jonathan Wells.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am impressed with your honesty and forthrightness. You seem to be well versed in science, but more hopeful than cynical. I am a Christian minister first, with a B.A. from Multnomah Bible College. I am currently working on my masters through Liberty Theological Seminary. However, at the undergraduate level I have recently CLEPed Biology with a 76 out of a possible 80, and completed Chemistry 1020 with an A grade at Eastern Wyoming College. I am also an adjunct faculty member at EWC. My point is I can understand the arguments with a little help and I have credibility with the other side.
I am coming around to the evolutionary view concerning the present observable universe. However I seen no basis for extrapolating backward through eons of time, or denying that all current observations show a tendency toward decay. Can you help me in these areas?

10:56 AM  
Blogger RLC said...

- Anonymous (Fred?)

Thanks for your comments. Yes, I am hopeful. Not only because I think there is reason to be so, but also because that outlook is more likely to produce positive results than the alternative.

"I seen no basis for extrapolating backward through eons of time..."

All science is an extrapolation backward through time. Whether you are looking through a microscope or telescope you are observing past events. This is a strain of argument that touches upon some of the philosophical aspects of science and the process of "observation."

There are those who believe that a sharp line of separation can be drawn between direct observation and inference from evidence. But this is a misapprehension.

Yes, many evolutionary observations are inferential or indirect, but so are lab observations. Even when something is "directly" observed under a microscope there are layers of physical and physiological processing between the event itself and its instantiation in the mind of the observer. All observation, whether of events in the deep time or laboratory data, is indirect and therefore inferential.

However the power of science lies not in the nature of observation, but in the replicative corroborative processes that weed out weak inference and strengthen the theoretical base. Any conclusions based on experimental or historical observational inference must then be generalized to ideas that can be repeatedly tested for confirmation or falsification. Even if the reliability of any particular observation, whether historical or experimental, is deemed to be of dubious value, this lack can be covered by the breadth of corroborating evidence required, and the volume and quality of confirmatory tests produced.

Evolutionary biology doesn't stand or fall on the uncertainty of events in deep time. In fact it may be the most interdisciplinary of all the sciences. It doesn't matter that we were not "there," only that we have enough evidence of sufficient quality to describe events in an empirically reliable fashion.

"...or denying that all current observations show a tendency toward decay."

Well, I don't think it's accurate to say that all observations show that tendency. Thermodynamics does describe this theoretically, but that does not disallow (nor should you believe anyone who says this is what the 2nd law says) local decreases in entropy.

These decreases show up in genetic complexity, in developmental biology, heck, in simple organismal growth.

This is an argument that depends heavily upon scale and context. A good idea would be to read something by someone who really knows what he's talking about. You could start here - http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/thermo/probability.html

6:54 PM  

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