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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Michael Behe in Toronto: Part 3

I went to three of Michael Behe's talk while he was in Toronto [see Michael Behe in Toronto!, Part 1,
Part 2].

The third talk was on Friday morning (Nov. 15, 2012) in the Multifaith Centre. It was sponsored by Power to Change (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). There were about 150 people in the audience, mostly undergraduates. I estimate that less than half were believers.

Behe gave pretty much the same talk he had given the night before. There was only time for a few questions and most of them were from skeptics. Two students challenged the science but their questions were convoluted and confusing and Behe had no trouble dismissing them. (The standard trick is to say "That's a very good question" and then suggest they could discuss it later on so that others have a chance to ask questions right now.)

One student asked about the philosophical justification for some of Behe's conclusions. It was a valid question but way over the heads of the audience. Behe gave an incorrect answer. I spoke to that student and her friends after the talk. Several of them were taking biology/evolution courses but they weren't really prepared to identify the flaws in Behe's arguments. They just knew that he had to be wrong.

This is the problem. It's just not that easy for the average person to refute the arguments of people like Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells. That's why we need to teach the controversy in school and show why their science is flawed.


  1. That's why we need to teach the controversy in school and show why their science is flawed.

    But who will teach the teachers first? It's a safe bet that only a small proportion of them have a sufficient understanding of good science.

    1. That's a huge problem indeed. And there is no good solution; what is worse, that is probably true for a lot of researchers too - even if you are working in the fields of molecular biology and genetics, unless you have studied modern evolutionary theory on your own, most likely you have not been exposed to enough of it to be able to confidently discuss these things, neither as an undergraduate nor as a graduate student (when the goal at many places seems to be to get you started at the bench ASAP, with intellectual development being a secondary priority).

    2. I totally agree. I made the same points in the other recent threads. Basic courses on evolution, biochemistry and molecular biology aren't doing a good job of teaching the details needed to understand molecular evolution. Texbooks in general are doing a pretty bad job at that, too.

  2. That's why we need to teach the controversy in school and show why their science is flawed.

    Unfortunately, religion is being spoon fed from the age of 2, whilst basic understanding of biology/ evolution is high school level.

    1. There is a solution to this - schools start actively weaning kids off religion as soon as students enter them in first grade, by showing them the logical and factological inconsistencies and teaching them proper reasoning and critical thinking skills. The problem is that that's an idea that a lot of people who are otherwise not at all friendly to religion would be absolutely horrified by because it supposedly violates the constitution, etc. But I don't see another way

    2. I don't think that's the way. If anyone takes a deistic position, no matter how convoluted, they are free to do so. I don't see Einstein's god of Spinoza beliefs beying any problem to society at large.

      What we need to do is to teach the *details* of how Earth's age is measured, how we know what we know, molecular evolution in detail (e.g. neofunctionalization), the misuse of probability and information theories, evolution of molecular machines, etc. This should all be standard fair in science classes at the required detail depending on the student's level. In philosophy classes we can discuss the weaknesses of arguments for theistic evolution and more specifically the problems with religious appologetics. This is important stuff even for theists. This should NOT be done in a way that amounts to indoctrination in atheism, but instead as solid, free discussion of scientific and philosophical matters. People should be free to think what they will after that.

  3. The third talk was on Friday morning (Nov. 15, 2012) in the Multifaith Centre. It was sponsored by Power2Choose (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).

    But ID is totally about science, nothing to do with religion, nosiree!

    Also: is it just me not paying attention, or does Campus Crusade For Christ keep morphing nyms? In the past few years I've seen "Campus For Christ", "Cru", and now this. Next they'll be creating sock-puppet organizations....

  4. "Cru" is actually the latest version, or rather it's Campus Crusade for Christ worldwide (in theory) but Cru in the US. They're already spawning sockpuppets by the dozen. In my country (Poland) they are known as Student Life; in Spain and Germany, Agape Europe, etc.


    There's only one reason for our new name; we want to do a better job of connecting people to God's love and forgiveness. It's all about helping people experience the good news that Jesus offers.

  5. AMEN and I'm surprised to hear TEACH the controversy in schools!
    I know in York biology books they dismiss creationism outright,. no rebiuttal, and I know in high schools they teach the monkey trials settled the issue.
    Yet to teach the meat and potatoes of the great contention would be a boon to truth and stir up interest in sciences. Makes it more important.

    I presume you mean each side make its own case!
    I don't believe North American evolutionists and supporters in the school systems would ever agree with this.
    After all the censorship and evolutionary "truth' thats been taught and they struggle to maintain 50% confidence in evolution ITS UNLIKELY they would allow rebuttal.

    1. Just because the fact of evolution is occasionally taught in schools (there seem to be many schools in this country where it isn't taught), it does not mean that the theory of evolution is learnt by students. The percentage of people that come out of school and do understand the theory of evolution is close to zero.

      That's why teach the controversy is not at all a bad idea from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist - if that means teaching students how to think plus teaching them some serious evolutionary biology, it would be a great improvement compared to what the current situation is

    2. I agree with Byers, just not in the way he thinks. We should take a note from the IDiots and "teach the controversy" in schools. The same way that we teach discredited theories and hyphotesis like old Lamarkism, Vitalism, etc, we should present every single argument proposed by ID/YEC and show, point by point in a thorough analysis why it is wrong and discredited. This is valid scientific analysis. Should be in any textbook on evolution. So by all means, do them that favour. Show what is wrong with fallacies like irreducible complexity, misuse of statistics and information theory, etc. It should be evident in every texbook that these are fallacies. If we leave this to webpages in the Internet we are doing IDiots a favour.

    3. @Pedro

      Just like the way Larry Moran's textbook on biochemistry provides a thorough treatment on alchemy, phlogiston theory, the philosopher's stone and the vital force ?

      For all I know it may cover some of these discredited notions but the question is how many resources do you expend in this sort of exercise rather than just teaching the current understanding.

      And it what context do you do this, in a core course in evolution, chemistry, physics etc. or as an adjunct to these courses.

      Since mystical and irrational thinking seems to cross scientific boundaries, from IDiots, creationists, flat earthers, geocentrists, AGW deniers, homeopathics and so on, rather than duplicating the effort across disciplines it may be more efficient to address them all in a single syllabus.

    4. [I]t may be more efficient to address them all in a single syllabus.

      Like the Defence Against the Dark Arts classes at Hogwarts?

    5. No, but many of the points raised by ID stem from the way the subject matter is treated in texbooks. Some Evolution texbooks have a section called "Why Evolution is True". Why not present arguments there that apparantly present problems to evolutionary theory and explain what is wrong with them? You don't even have to refer to ID itself, you can simply show that some arguments can be raised (e.g. probabilities) but that they are apparent.

      Let me give you an example of what is wrong with texbooks. I was reading a book called "Molecular Genetics of Bacteria" (the big one, not the small) some years ago. At some point the author asks in the exercises questions something like "how can a gene duplication be kept in the genome if they have a tendency to disapeer? How can the duplicated gene evolve to a new gene?". I was trying to push my brain to see how I could explain a sequence of beneficial mutations that could all of them be beneficial enough for NS to act on the duplicated gene. At the time I didn't know anything about genetic drift, neutral throry, etc, so I gave up and moved to the answers section. The answer of the book was something along the lines of "if the duplicated genes suffer beneficial mutations then the duplication will be kept by NS". :/

      Whith explanations like these in a supposedly advanced textbook on molecular genetics it's no wonder students can't answer perceived problems like Behe states.

      So again, when I say to answer ID propositions "point by point" I don't mean making a list called "ID nonsense"; what I mean is that in a section like "why evolution is true" you can dispel preconceptions that students have, or explain potential wrong logic (e.g. probabilistic) that students may have, etc. Many of these problems should explicitly be covered in evolution textbooks. You don't need to name it "Arguments against ID". They are answers to many points that should be clear in all students minds. For exmaple, they coul be presented as mental exercises in which the student has to come up with a solution to a perceived problem. Then the book provides a good answer that can be followed more deeply with recomended reading.

      There are many ways to do this. But looking at what texbookx are doing in general, we are shooting ourselfs on the foot if we think that most students will come after classes home to search the internet for Panda's Thumb or Sandwalk websites. Most are left without an answer to many of ID's nonsense because they are not beying tought correctly and texbooks are way to simplistic and don't cover many essential concepts.

      In classes, yes, we should defenetly talk about ID openly. Not namecalling, but present arguments by ID in a fair way and then explain what is wrong with them and their assumptions. That's a good teaching exercise.

    6. In classes, yes, we should defenetly talk about ID openly. Not namecalling, but present arguments by ID in a fair way and then explain what is wrong with them and their assumptions. That's a good teaching exercise.

      I think critical thinking and examples of bad science are useful topics. As a matter of practicality in the US, however, perhaps one of the countries that might benefit, looking at ID in anything other than a favourable light would be pounced upon as breaking church/state separation - active promotion of atheism. Which is ironic - they want the 'controversy' taught, and want to circumvent church/state separation to enable it, but if ID were shown up for what it is, there'd be hell to pay.

    7. Yes, I understand this is a problem in the US. It has to be done in a sensible way so that it is not perceived as a direct attack (and it shouldn't be). What we must do is to present mental exercises, present the problems that are raised by ID in a fair manner and then decosntruct the arguments and see what is wrong with them. This is what we do regarding Lamarkism, Vitalism, and so forth. There will be problems, all right, the ID movement will try to spin it into a perceived attack on religion, but with a fair and sensible aproach it may be done. They can have it both ways. If they want ID to be presented as "scientific" and in a fair manner, then they have to accept the criticism in the class room just like anything else. They can't have it presented as science and then complain about religious persecution when the "theory" gets trounced in the class room. It's scientific discussion and critical thinking about problems.

    8. Correction: I meant that they CAN'T have it both ways, not CAN.

    9. Like the Defence Against the Dark Arts classes at Hogwarts?

      There would be no problem filling the course with a name like that.

      And speaking of dark arts, it could attract the attention of J.K Rowling's lawyers.

  6. Power2Choose? This seems to be some energy related company not the Campus Crusade Christ. Perhaps you mean "Power to Change" (and not, also, by the way, "Power2Change" [sic])

    1. Oops! Should be "Power to Change." I'm pretty sure I've seen it written as "Power2Change."

  7. If Evolutionists sincerely want to "Teach the Controversy", I'm sure putting some sort of petition together, signed by some leading Evolution proponents, would go a long ways in speedily adjusting the relevant curriculum.

    Somehow I doubt that is going to happen, though, for obvious reasons.

    In the meantime, skepticism towards Evolution in general will increase as more people are exposed to what they view as legitimate criticism that is being obfuscated rather than properly addressed.

    1. In the meantime, skepticism towards Evolution in general will increase …at this time, a friend shall lose his friends’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before around eight o’clock...

      You know there's plenty of material out there that addresses this 'legitimate criticism'? Almost invariably, the anti-evolution side embarrasses itself with its grasp of evolution and science. Nobody has concerns about Simple Harmonic Motion or Atomic Theory, but if they did, they would have to persuade scientists first and schools second.

      People aren't arguing against 'teaching the controversy' on ideological grounds, rather it is a bullshit controversy, stirred up by a vocal minority with an absolute determination not to understand evolutionary theory, who would love if kids grew up sharing that blind spot. It's fine to go into it as part of teaching science and critical thinking, but not everyone has the time or the inclination to explain why this or that 'alternative theory' is not accepted by the scientific community, however much reach it has among people who have spent 5 minutes thinking about the matter. There is a curriculum to teach. Your hope that people will, on critical examination, discover that evolution was bullshit all along is naive.