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Friday, August 15, 2008

Dust-Up in Dover

The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo, The New Press, New York (2008)

This is a book about the recent trial in Dover, Pennsylvania (USA) between a group of parents (Tammy Kitzmiller et al.) and the Dover Area School District (Kitzmiller v. Dover). The school board decided to introduce intelligent design creationism into the high school curriculum by requiring students to listen to a statement that was to be read to them by their science teacher when evolution was covered in class.1 The statement said, in part,...
Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origins of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually offers.
In the USA, the introduction of intelligent design, or any other form of creationism, into the schools is blocked on the grounds that it is a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment prevents the establishment of religion by government, and by extension, the public school system. You can't teach religion in public schools.

All proponents of Intelligent Design Creationism know that the intelligent designer is God and that IDC is an attempt to demonstrate scientific proof of the existence of God. Similarly, all science supporters know that Intelligent Design Creationism is religious. The court case consisted of Intelligent Design supporters pretending that this wasn't the case while science supporters attempted to prove that IDC was based on religion. It was hardly a surprise that the creationists lost. After all, they were promoting a lie and everyone knows it.

The Devil in Dover is an entertaining and highly readable account of the events leading up to the trial and of the trial itself. The author, Lauri Lebo, was a reporter for a local newspaper and her account of the trail is greatly enhanced by her knowledge of the participants—many of whom, on both sides, became her friends. She also takes us on a journey of personal discovery as she moves farther and farther away from the religious convictions of her childhood. We follow the conflict between her and her fundamentalist father as the trail approaches.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the evolution/creationist controversy. Ms. Lebo devotes most of her story to the conflict within the community and the mentality of those who back creationism. It is fascinating to read of school board members who talked openly of God and creationism while denying that their motives were religious. We are introduced to Christian fundamentalists who are absolutely convinced that science is wrong and evolution is a lie. Nobody in the community is confused about the fight—it's science vs. religion and no amount of pretending by the lawyers for the school board was going to change that.

For those who are expecting a blow by blow description of the trial, this is not the book for you. Ms. Lebo tells us all we really need to know: the lies of the school board members were exposed and intelligent design creationism was shown to be based on religion and, incidentally, completely non-scientific.It's interesting that the author only picks out a few salient bits of testimony and one of them is Kenneth Miller's response to a question from the lawyer for the plaintiffs (the good guys). The lawyer asked whether science considers questions of meaning and purpose. Miller replied,
"To be perfectly honest,no," Miller said. "Scientists think about all the time about the meaning of their work, about the purpose of life, about the purpose of their own lives. I certainly do. But these questions, as important as they are, are not scientific questions."

"If I could solve the question of the meaning of my life by doing an experiment in the laboratory, I assure you, I would rush off and do it right now. But these questions simply lie outside the purview of science. It doesn't say they're not important, it doesn't say that any answer is necessarily wrong, but it does say that science cannot address it. It's a reflection of the limitation of science."
Lauri Lebo knows that this is the issue that divides the community. Science teaches us that we are "only" animals.2

Many supporters of intelligent design creationism were extremely confident as the trial began. They believed they had finally succeeded in constructing a scam that would stand up to assault from the lawyers. On the other hand, the real experts at the Discovery Institute knew they were in trouble. That's why they distanced themselves from the trial and that's why some of the big guns, like William Dembski, refused to testify on behalf of intelligent design creationism.

Unfortunately, they didn't tell their supporters to shut up. I'll close with one of the best quotations in the book but in order to do so it requires a bit of explanation. The judge in the trail—as I''m sure you all know by now—was Judge John E. Jones. Jones is a conservative appointed by George W. Bush. He is friends with Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a right-wing, religious Republican. The quotation is from a comment by DaveScott on Dembski's blog Uncommon Descent.
Judge John E. Jones on the other hand is a good old boy brought up through the conservative ranks. He was state attorney for D.A.R.E., and Assistant Scout Master... extensively involved with local and National Boy Scouts of America, political buddy of Governor Tom Ridge (who in turnis deep in George W. Bush's circle of power), and finally was appointed by GW himself. Senator Rick Santorum is a Pennsylvannian in the same circles (author of the "Santorum language") that encourages schools to teach the controversy) and last but far from least, George W. Bush hisself drove a stake in the ground saying teach the controversy. Unless Judge Jones wants to cut his career off at the knees he isn't going to rule against the wishes of his political allies. Of course the ACLU will appeal. This won't be over until it gets to the Supreme Court. But now we own that too.3
The naivety and stupidity of Intelligent Design Creationists isn't lost on Lauri Lebo but instead of telling us outright what she learned in Dover, she lets their own words and actions speak for them.

1. As it turned out, the teachers refused to read the statement so school board members came to class and read it to the students.

2. This is the main theme of Kenneth Miller's latest book Only a Theory. In that book he seems to be saying something very different from what he says in his testimony at the trial in Dover. Miller argues that science reveals purpose in the universe. Such meaning and purpose is evident from the fact that the universe is fine tuned to produce intelligent beings. He criticizes those who say that science reveals a meaningless universe; "... this bleak view is actually at variance with what we know about the nature of our universe and the nature of evolutionary change." (p. 154)

3. I can't help but wonder if there are many Americans who think like this. Notice that the concept of justice isn't a factor in DaveScott's analysis. The judge's decision only depends on politics and ambition. DaveScott was very wrong but that's hardly a surprise to those of us who read the creationist blogs. He has a perfect track record.


  1. school board members came to class and read it to the students.

    Nitpick: it wasn't school board members, it was the school administrators.

    He criticizes those who say that science reveals a meaningless universe; "... this bleak view is actually at variance with what we know about the nature of our universe and the nature of evolutionary change."

    Hmmm. I'll check that when I get home tonight. You know my views on this. It's one thing to say that science reveals/denys purpose and another to point to facts in the world in support of a philosophical argument about purpose. At the very least, he may be replying to an improper claim of scientific support for purposelessness by pointing at at evidence that could lead to a different (philosophical) conclusion.

    Or, he could be as wrong as you are on this issue. ;-)

  2. I can't help but wonder if there are many Americans who think like this. Notice that the concept of justice isn't a factor in DaveScott's analysis. The judge's decision only depends on politics and ambition.

    Why wouldn't they think like that, it isn't far from the truth. Remember that a vote on habeas corpus was passed by only one vote! Several of the "liberal" judges on the supreme court will retire very soon so if McCain gets elected and he lives up to his promise to select a fundamentalist, issues of church-state separation, presidential authority and other "no brainers" could flip dramatically.

    It's a scary thought. The Supreme Court has a much longer and deeper impact than even the most regressive presidents. DaveScott could easily be proved right.

  3. If you haven't read it, Ed Brayton does a good rundown of the issue:

  4. Biochemistry is in constant embarrassment because it can't answer the fundamental question of how life began on earth.

    This leaves the door open to the supernaturalists to claim, absurdly, that "God did it" and to gain a hearing.

    Why don't biochemists make a major effort to understand the way life began and to replicate that beginning in the laboratory?

    Speciation (biodiversity) is no longer the "mystery of mysteries". Today the origin of life is the mystery. As long as it remains a mystery, supernaturalists will win a hearing.

    The problem can't be solved by argument; it can only be solved by experiment and observation. By science.

  5. the real experts at the Discovery Institute

    (giggle fit)

  6. Why don't biochemists make a major effort to understand the way life began and to replicate that beginning in the laboratory?

    Oh, just a wild guess off the top of my head: because there's not a lot of funding for that? are you familiar with the work that is being done? Have you read Genesis by Robert Hazen?

  7. "Why don't biochemists make a major effort to understand the way life began and to replicate that beginning in the laboratory?"

    Many of the pieces have been replicated. Which gaps do you think need more work? Why should any of this be an embarrassment?

  8. He criticizes those who say that science reveals a meaningless universe; "... this bleak view is actually at variance with what we know about the nature of our universe and the nature of evolutionary change."

    Really Larry! That's pretty close to quote mining. The "bleak view" Miller was criticizing was not science but the assertions of creationists like Rick Santorum that "evolution tells us we are a 'mistake of nature'" and, therefore, "if life itself was given us by evolutionary random chance, then we shouldn't bother searching for meaning in our own existence ...".

    And this whole chapter "The World That Knew We Were Coming" is about philosophy. After recounting his being frequently asked there is nothing more to life than struggling, survival and mating, Miller points out that unlike the age of the Earth or the meaning of transitional fossils, "this is not the kind of question that scientists can easily answer, and there's a good reason for that. It's simply not a scientific question. In short, the chapter is about philosophy or, as one of his young daughters asked him: "What are people for?"

    You may not like his answers to those questions but at least Miller knows what it is he is asking.

  9. Re Judge Jones

    Judge Jones is a protege of former Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican. He is also a member of a mainline Lutheran Church which long ago accepted the Theory of Evolution.

  10. John, you are wrong about Ken Miller and his recent book. If you think the fine tuning argument isn't a scientific argument then we really don't have anything more to say to one another.

    If you think the argument about convergence is philosophy and not science then we are simply talking different languages.

    If you think the discussion about facilitated variation is philosophy then you'd better write Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart and let them know about it.

    If you think that Miller's concept of "evolutionary cosmology" isn't intended to sound like science then you are naive.

    I think Miller is trying to use scientific arguments to bolster his case for the existence of God. He discusses scientific evidence that the world knew we were coming and concludes with, "The point for today is that it's perfectly reasonable to maintain that evolution as we know and understand it was almost certain to produce a species like ours under conditions that prevail on Planet Earth." (p. 153)

    Does that sound like philosophy to you?

    I don't know why you are so reluctant to admit that Miller and others are abusing science while, at the same time you nitpick incessantly over the postings of scientists who criticize those arguments. I think you need a change of glasses—the one you are wearing are too rose-colored.

    Here are some other quotations from Miller that you can chew on.

    "Evolution really does tell us something deep and profound about the world in which we live—something that Darwin glimpsed but that is much more obvious today. As it turns out, there really is a design to life, but it's not the clumsy, interventionist one in which life is an artificial injection into nature, a contradiction of it's physical laws. Rather, it is a design in which life emerges from the laws of the universe around us. The conclusion is unavoidable, robust, and scientific. The elegant universe is a universe of life. And the name of the grand design of life is evolution." (p. 134)

    What would you have said to me if I had written something like that and claimed the "the conclusion is unavoidable, robust, and scientific?" I'm willing to debate these issues with you but only if you stop being a hypocrite.

    On page 163, when Miller discusses the concept of evolutionary cosmology, he makes it very clear that it's science that tells us we are special, "Science draws it meaning and value from the search for the truth about the natural world, and in this context it has told us, at least so far, the we are every bit the 'children' of the universe that 'Disiderate' assured us we were. Believers and nonbelievers can agree on this element of science, and then part company as to how it is to be interpreted."

    I disagree with Miller's statement about "this element of science." I do not think that science tells us any such thing. In fact, I think science tells us we are not special and I use scientific arguments to advance my case, just a Miller does.

    John, you simply can't have your cake and eat it too. Please stop giving the theistic evolutionists a free pass to abuse science.

  11. I haven't read Miller's book but, in general, I don't see any "abuse of science" when theistic evolutionists simply try to interpret the findings of science as supporting their beliefs. As long as science takes priority over faith where the two come into conflict in questions about the observable Universe there is no problem. If doctrinal injunctions are allowed to override observation, there is.

  12. You can mix scientific topic with non-scientific topics to make them look scientific. Larry is quite simply been suckered, by Miller and Conway Morris. Like a baby.

    Larry could avoid this is he simply were more honest to himself!!! Is Larry saying that if evolution is shown to repeat itself, say, by evidence of an overwhelming amount of convergence, then he would run for a church?

    I don't think so.

    The reason why I reject the notion of purpose is not based on "evidence", but it IS based on science, namely, the philosophy of science.

    Science simply has no use for explanations that are not enlightening about mechanisms.

    Notice that this is a very different reason than saying "because there isn't more converghence" or "the tape would play differently". The truth of the matter is that if any of those things are wrong, larry will be running to church completely on his own stuoid selfe, since most scientists won't find the logical connection at all (and surprise! most theologians would not make things hinge on science. They don't give a shit. Only Miller and Conway-Morris...)

    The way I see it, Larry is just making inadvertent propaganda for the views of conway-morris and miller, honoring them as if they were scientific. They are not. These arguments are poor science in every sense of the word, and well-distanced from the concern of most scientists

  13. While she was finishing the book Lauri joined a group of Panda's Thumb folks for a tour of the creationist museum in Kentucky. In addition to having written a good (and touching, in places) book, she's a cool lady as well.

  14. I'm looking forward to reading my copy of The Devil in Dover as soon as I finish Monkey Girl by Edward Hume.
    Books like these are important because they shed light on the motivations leading up to the incident. Fortunately, the important decisions are not made by some fiat of the Discovery Institute. They are made by people who do not stick to the DI's Master Plan (that says do not mention God in public), but instead bring the tent revival meeting to the record (even though like the Board members of Dover, they deny their own words later). Both books highlight the devisiveness brought to the community and even within families as a result of ideological zealots and show the wisdom of the founders of our nation who argued for the acceptance of the first amendment.

  15. Mark says,

    Both books highlight the devisiveness brought to the community and even within families as a result of ideological zealots and show the wisdom of the founders of our nation who argued for the acceptance of the first amendment.

    These divisive trials don't take place in most other Western industrialized nations and creationism is (mostly) kept out of the schools in those nations. How does this demonstrate the wisdom of the founding fathers?

  16. Evolutionary convergence exists. The reasons are still debatable: simple physics entails some probable evolutionary pathways that we see oft repeated in relation to variation of body size in different environments (water, air, land)

    Then there is the idea that the main reason is that similar selective conditions bring about convergence. This has been traditionally challenged by generations of paleontologists, including Gould, who point to parallelism: "convergence" is much likelier among closely related groups than distantly related groups.

    Convergence is not all all there is Larry is right to say that there is plenty of scientific reason to think the origin of humans was not inevitable.The contingential encounter of non-causally related factors is tantamount to the direction taken by evolution. Since the possibility of no humans may seems contrary to any religion, so it is fairly immediate to at first succumb to the temptation of declaring this to be scientific evidence in support for atheism.

    Yet, if you tell religious people we are highly improbable outcomes and probably alone in the universe, many will consider this the sign that we are the unique, exceptional children of god. Many "natural theologians" argue precisely that, human beings being an improbable outcome of so many unrelated events, the fact the right accidents happenned that we are here, is where the action of the finger of god is revealed.

    Larry, you're always going to lose with these guys.

    It's much simpler to point out that notions like purpose are pretty useless for science (in fact, science-stoppers).