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.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

David's Delusions: An Agnostic's Pretensions of Science

Last night I went to see David Berlinski at the Benaroya Hall's small hall, on the beginning of his book tour for The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Berlinski is an odd duck. He's an avowed agnostic, yet is supported by the Discovery Institute, the world's preeminent promoter of the religious belief of Intelligent Design. At the talk I learned that Berlinski is also on the board of the Discovery Institute. Honestly, I don't quite get that. He comes across as on the atheist side of agnosticism. The DI is a very religious organization- be it Christian or Jewish or Unification Church. I'm not sure how he fits in there. I later learned he also has a prominent role in the Expelled movie- and he is as every bit pretentious in person as he appears in the movie.

I was looking forward to a discussion by the author on how religious thought was being attacked and how science was the new religion of our age. I wasn't sure if I'd agree with him, especially considering his supporters, but what he had to say should nonetheless be interesting. How disappointed I was.

A prelude to the evening was when the head of the Discovery Institute, Bruce Chapman, stepped up to introduce David Berlinski. Except he talked for a long time, and mostly not about Berlinski. He talked a lot about how wrong evolution was, and about the upcoming Expelled movie. When he got to Berlinksi, who was pacing stage right waiting to go on, Chapman talked him up by stating all the negative things others said about Berlinski. Indeed, that seemed to be how Chapman supported any institution or person. He supported the movie and the institute in the same way. David mocked those who support evolution and are against Intelligent Design (whom he calls "Darwinists", as if we are still back in the 1930s), and appeared shocked that people would find the Expelled movie anti-Semitic. (Expelled advocates that evolution lead directly to the holocaust, and so a number of people have pointed out this is rather blatant manipulation of the victims of that tragedy, for a narrow political agenda.) It was as if simply mentioning negative comments by others automatically meant the the one accused was a positive force for good. If there are attacks, its a conspiracy, and if its a conspiracy, the one accused is a victim, and therefore right. I didn't catch anything in Bruce's intro that talked about what Berlinski had done- it was all about the bad things others say about him.

Finally Berlinski got up to speak.
I didn't have enough space on my videocam to catch the entire speech, but here are some snippets.

He began his talk by sharing about how there are only a few truly great scientific theories. I kept on waiting for him to obviously include evolution. I hadn't at this point realized how deep he was in the IDist camp, and how much his talk would focus on evolution. How does one list the truly great theories of our time, that encompass broad stretches of reality, without including evolution, a theory that transformed all of biology, and therefore everything we know about life? A theory that has such a huge weight of evidence behind it, that it is well nigh incontrovertible, ever- no mean feat in science.

One of his earliest points made no sense. He stated that there was really no definition of science, and science has no process or coherent method. I am confused. Has he never heard of the Scientific Method? When he studied molecular biology at Columbia, did they not go over this basic principle covered in every high-school science course? Sure, I know there are a few different scientific methods out there, but they are all clustered around a primary course of action. How could one ignore this, unless one truly intended to blind oneself by sticking large heated knitting needles into their eyes?

As you can see, one of the most disturbing aspects of David's speech was not only his vicious ad hominem attacks, but extreme sexism. Making a joke about the pleasure of having multiple wives who are all satisfied with the arrangement, in this day and age, is truly a representation that not all of us have an equal rate of evolution in our ancestral line. If you're going to make fun of evolution, at least have the decency not to sound Cro-Magnon as you do it. Is this truly representative of the ID crowd, that they enjoy and laugh with the description of multiple wives as "miraculous and enviable"?

One of the most glaring inadequacies to the ears is the repeated use of the word "Darwinist" and "Darwinian". I know they are trying to surreptitiously plant the meme that evolutionists are actually part of a religious cult, following a man just like Christians follow Jesus. But don't they understand at all that Darwinian Evolution ended in the 1930s? That the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis developed after the rediscovery of genetics and DNA in the 50s? That many advocate that the Cladistic Revolution and Punk Eek have changed evolution yet again, so that we are now in a new chapter, beyond the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis? It's like Fundamentalists responding to the issues of the 1880s, not realizing that the rest of the culture transformed itself in an Awakening at that point, and then responded to that transformation with the 60's with another cultural synthesis. Can the IDists truly be that far behind? Yes, evidently, Yes they can.

Berlinski showed an incredible lack of understanding of the basics of evolution in his talk. He actually advocated that it could be taught in a week! A week? (My emotional reaction was a mouth open in shock, and my thought ran something along the lines of questioning the species of David's mother. I however did not voice this.) I had four weeks to share with my high-school students the basics of the theory, and I could only barely brush the surface! Its an incredibly complex theory, and our primary difficulty is translating it to the public in a way they can understand it. For instance, the Discovery Institute still thinks that evolution advocates that everything arose by chance, despite our protests over the last 150 years. Berlinski states that it's evolution is easy- it's not "active brainwork". I'd submit that he's right- for him, it's not.
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Berlinski also seems to misunderstand science. He has a long list of areas where science is in the same place in its study as it was 800 years ago. Half of the items on the list are philosophical and therefore under NOMA outside of science; the other two-thirds have actually had significant research done on them, of which Berlinski seems to be blithely unaware. It would appear that he only believes science that has all the answers, and when science states, as it so often does, that it does not yet know the answer, that's just not good enough for him. He wants us to say that we don't know, and will never know, or else prove that we know everything. The former gives up on the premise of scientific inquiry; the latter is a very lackluster world indeed.

He was impressed that we can understand a black hole mathematically better than we understand a rabbit, and therefore this shows we know little of biology. And so he makes the classic error of size being important, which C.S. Lewis years earlier showed the fault of. Sure, I can mathematically define the black hole that I've never seen. But you can't see it because it's the absence of light. And you can define it easier because a rabbit is so much more complex, with its internal and external ecology of a multitude of other organisms. But I suspect that if we ever reach the day when we are close enough to a black hole to observe it as close as we do a rabbit, we will also find it equally complex- if not infinitely so.

During the Q&A I got a turn at a question, much influenced from my having just finishing reading The Evolving World by David Mindell. In his talk Berlinski claimed that evolution is unique because never before in history has an important scientific theory something been held in such contempt by those paying for its research. He then asked us to imagine what it would be like for this to be true for any other theory. Well, it is questionable if the vast majority don't support evolution, and there are historical issues in that we live in a democracy now so funding comes from the people rather than from wealthy individuals, as occurred during the Renaissance. But it is just completely ahistorical to advocate that never before have there been scientific advances that the vast majority of the public rejected- the real point behind what Berlinski was saying. I knew that, in a very pro-ID crowd, if I were to make any headway with the speaker and the audience, I had to frame my question in a non-argumentative manner. So I asked him,
Earlier you stated, in a more eloquent manner, that you found it strange that this seemed to be the first time in history that a scientific belief has been financially supported by those who disagree with it. But I know that you are aware of Galileo, and Copernicus, and the rejection by many of the public of germ theory for centuries- even to the point where some were killed for advocating standards of hygiene in care for the sick. How is the situation of early astronomy and germ theory different from the situation of evolution, where a scientific theory is advocated and advanced, but rejected by a majority of the public?
He asked me to clarify the question, which I did, and then seemed to equivocate, stating that he hadn't seen a case like this in modern times- implying that Galileo and Germ Theory weren't modern times. He never really got around to answering the core of my question. His implication had clearly been that it is unfair that evolution be supported when the majority of the public reject it (rather ignoring the truth or falsehood of the idea). Yet this vulgar rejection has been a common case in scientific history; evolution is hardly unique- which is what David had been originally arguing.

Shortly after me a bold woman pointed out that David and Bruce Chapman had both been using ad hominem arguments and creating strawmen of the other side, after making a big point throughout their speeches of how wrong it was to create strawmen and attack character. The questioner pointed out that for her, as a Christian, this wasn't the way of Jesus. To David's credit, he apologized, and admitted the truth of her words. To Bruce's discredit, a few minutes earlier when an ID-supporter's question was taking too long, Bruce mocked him by asking how long this question would be- if Bruce needed to go to the bathroom while he continued. (Because of the way the question was phrased, Bruce may have thought the questioner was against Intelligent Design.)

Strangely, in this opening of the book tour, there was no book read. I think it's the first book tour I've ever been to where that happened. And while filled with amazement (and not the good kind), I am also left with a great deal of puzzlement. Why would an agnostic, be so filled with fervor for the cause of science and evolution being wrong? Sure, many times he stated he was just arguing that there could be a possibility either way. Yet, in truth, the underlying feeling throughout was that he was really invested in this ID idea. And for all the mysteries of the Heavens, this is one of the greatest: What is David Berlinski really on about?

1 comment:

Cedric Katesby said...

Thanks for recording all of this.
Very interesting.