Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

Tonight in honor of Darwin Day (198th anniversary of his birth) I went to my first Kindlings Muse, a weekly discussion of matters theological with the Inklings as an inspiration, posted as a podcast online where you can hear the entire talk. This week was on "the new atheism", as discussed in Wired Magazine. John West, Associate Director of the Discovery Institute, shared from the Intelligent Design perspective, and our own Adrian Wyard of from the balance of religion and science perspective. (Counterbalance tries to find ways to take the ideas of scientists and theologians and make them accessible to the general public so that ethical issues can be directly addressed.) Dick Staub is an engaging host, really getting down to substance. Adrian was very smooth and personable, and I was impressed at how much he knew his stuff.

Staub began by asking Adrian to summarize the ideas of the new atheism, printed in recent books by Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett. He basically pointed out that there wasn't much new in this atheism- the basics had been out there for centuries. The idea that religious elements are based in observable psychological phenomena or evolutionary mechanisms has been argued for decades. What is new is the virulence of this atheism, claiming that religion is not only wrong, but is actually evil. Since 9/11, there is now the argument that religion will not only lead people astray, but could also bring on the apocalypse. Staub asked Adrian about the ideas behind Flock of Dodos- getting scientists to relate their ideas better to the common guy. Adrian pointed out that was good, but there are certain things you just can't "discuss at a bar" in a short period, like quantum mechanics.
Staub then brought on Dr. West, who really didn't feel there was anything new in the new atheism. He shared how Denton's A Theory in Crisis was one of the first instrumental books that got him onto the issues of Intelligent Design. (That was when I involuntarily squirted out the water I was drinking, having actually read that atrocious book. But I did find West's admission interesting, considering that Denton has more recently come out to say that he was trying to say all along that evolution occurs through purely natural means, but that very quick transitions occur between orders not because of God but because of homeobox genes.) West then made the claim that 95% of biologists were atheist. (This is really contrary to other studies I've seen, indicating about a 40% rate for belief in a God, the same as the general populace.)
West spoke of how often Behe had been denied his place as a scientist because of his Catholicism. (I don't want to deny West's experience. It could certainly be true. But I've read many places where people say that Behe has done some good biochemical work, and his ideas on Intelligent Design are all rot- because of the ideas, not his religion.) He complained that often those who follow religion are excluded from the scientific community, and there's not an opportunity for genuine dialogue. (I was thinking of what I've read on Panda's Thumb of ID science conferences where anyone who didn't agree with ID was explicitly uninvited.)
Staub then engaged Adrian and Dr. West together. Adrian proposed that God is interacting through the whole of creation, seamlessly, so that He is there at all moments. Flock of Dodos then came up. If you'll recall, Adrian had helped bring the movie into Seattle, and so has an invested interest in the film. Adrian argued that the film is light fun but is good for encouraging discussion on these matters. Staub also echoed this, saying it is stimulating for discussion. West responded, "I agree with that." If this isn't clear, at the end of the podcast, West recommended seeing the movie (along with his Hoax of Dodos.)
There was some interesting questions at the end of the podcast. One of the members of the Discovery Institute in the audience suggested that Adrian's comments (that there are certain aspects of science that can't be dumbed down) held true for only a small portion of science, like quantum theory. Adrian rightfully responded that there was a lot of science that you need a lot of training and experience to understand, like evolution, which can be incredibly complex. (I think this is an area that non-biologists, particularly at the DI, often don't get. If you have only three weeks to teach evolution in a high-school class and you spend half that time "teaching the controversy", there's no way any of the students can grasp the fundamentals of evolution.)
I actually got to ask a question I'd been dying to understand. (I didn't know ahead of time that the questioner actually reads the question into the mike and it goes into the podcast, so that was suddenly rather intimidating.) After Flock of Dodos came out, the DI responded with two points of trivia, implying that they tried to tell Olson about this but he wouldn't change his film and didn't respond to them. Yet Olson states in the movie and in person that he tried to contact them numerous times, but they wouldn't return his calls. He had wanted to include them in the production and let them have more of a say. So I asked West what his response to these claims was. West stated that actually they helped Olson get some of his interviews, but then stopped interacting with him when it became clear to them that he was biased. Even after that point they continued to offer corrections, but they were not incorporated into the movie. (Of course, on the latter point, it was cost-prohibitive for Olson to make changes when they finally got back to him.)
Staub proposed that both extremes in atheism and religion seemed to lack humility. Adrian gave a rousing "Yes!"; West defended the Discovery Institute, and questioned the titles of extremes, and never seemed to get around to addressing the issue of humility.
In his last words Adrian mentioned that his background is not in science but rather in computer programming, to which West winced. (If you remember, the DI wants to get programmers and see them as scientists, as they see the issue is their version of information theory, rather than biology.) Adrian shared that he felt that Flock of Dodos shows clearly how everything on both sides is a circus, and West responded that he felt it dehumanizes people to call it a circus. Adrian clarified that he would still call it a circus, but it doesn't deny that there are important, technical, legitimate questions involved in all this, but that it is hidden in the circus.


Joe said...

I listened to the podcast and was also struck by West's claim that Behe and others were supressed because of their religious beliefs. I don't know that I've ever heard anyone specifically criticize him because he is a Catholic or a Christian, but I have heard lots of criticisms of his science. People don't criticize Ken Miller or Francis Collins (at least on science) because of their religious beliefs, if they do so with Behe and other IDists it's only because they are letting their religious beliefs get in the way of good science.

I was also curious about West's "95% of biologists are atheists" claim. I wonder what kind of sample they had to circumscribe to get that figure.

West's final comments were telling. He did recommend FoD and some other books by non-ID writers, but notice that he only talked about debate and dialogue, not science or scientific research. Since ID consists almost entirely of criticizing evolution, when people spend their time debating, IDists get their way. Perhaps scientists should ignore ID until it can produce some real science or at least propose some testable hypotheses.

@bdul muHib said...

Those are some excellent thoughts. You should post them on PT too.