Saturday, November 14, 2015

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

Intelligent Design, as Explained by Sock Puppets

The 104th  Annual Technical Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences has just concluded, and with it my term as president. I am now the Immediate Past President. The president for 2016-2017 will be Terry Conley, a dean at Cameron University. The new president elect, who will become president in 2018, is Adam Ryburn of Oklahoma City University. During Adam’s term I will devolve from being Immediate Past President to being Le Président Ancienne, and then after that I will be Le Président Vieux.

The OAS Technical meetings are an excellent venue to connect with our fellow scientists from around the state. It is also an excellent place for students to present their first research results in a non-threatening environment. Our passion at OAS is to nurture an ongoing culture of science in Oklahoma.

But I need to comment on a student presentation in the Science Communication and Education section. The two students, from Oral Roberts University, gave a presentation that was clearly not research. It was a scripted presentation that was very similar to one given by the science dean at ORU (who was a co-author on this presentation) back in 2012, only this time it was incomprehensible. Perhaps this was because it was redacted from a longer version. But unlike the dean’s presentation back in 2012, this presentation had sock puppets. Well, a PowerPoint slide of sock puppets.

The sock puppets told us that there is an “invisible hand” behind everything in the universe. Evidence? None was presented. Perhaps the sock puppets, and their friend the Pastafarian Flying Spaghetti Monster, are all the evidence you need.

Next, without visible connection to what had come before, the presenters claimed that engineering can come to the rescue to help solve the alienation between social sciences and natural sciences (and they showed a cartoon to this effect). Once again, they did not explain how engineering was supposed to do this.

Then they claimed that the cosmos was obviously designed. Evidence? The evidence was that water says “drink me” and woman says “love me.” (No, really. You can’t make something like this up.) So it was obvious to the presenters, and they assumed it should also be to us, that the purpose of water is to be drunk by humans and maybe other animals. Presumably evaporative cooling of animals and leaves, and erosion of sediments, are not part of water’s purpose. And, of course, the purpose of a woman is to be loved. Does this refer to carnal love by a man? If they were referring to spiritual love, they would have said people say “love me.” But the statement (which they were quoting from a book I had never heard of) gave it a specific gender. Maybe this is not what they meant, but they (and whoever wrote the script) were incredibly naïve to think that their listeners would not make the inference of carnal love (presumably within holy matrimony).

Then they explained the part of the presentation that, in the interest of time, they had to omit. In their presentations to audiences, they present the evidence for evolution and the evidence against evolution and allow the listeners to choose. As anyone who has read this blog or any legitimate books about “creation vs. evolution” must know, it is dishonest to polarize all viewpoints into these two extremes.

But it gets worse. If the presenters were deeply convinced that evolution is utterly evil and creationism utterly true, as appeared to be the case, then they could not possibly present an unbiased assessment of evolution, any more than an atheist can present an unbiased assessment of religion. I could only imagine that they presented something such as “Evolution says that you get ahead by using and subduing other people, survival of the fittest, red in tooth and claw, while creation says you should love other people.” What is a person to think when offered such a choice? If that really is what evolution is about, even I would reject it. (Interestingly, this was merely hours before the Paris terrorist attacks, for which ISIS took credit, and carried out in the name of religion.) I brought this point up during the brief question/answer period afterward. (There was no time for questions, but I was the next presenter and gave up some of my own time for it.) All the students said was that they really tried to present a fair version of evolution.

The presenters also indicated, as nearly as I could understand, that the funding they had received required some kind of assessment at how effective their presentation had been. They presented the results of audience feedback from previous presentations. The audiences had overwhelmingly liked their presentation.

Now, suppose that they had, at this time, conducted a survey of their presentation with our group. They did not, but had they done so, they might have gotten a more positive response than they might otherwise have simply because they told us that previous audiences had liked it. This is almost a textbook definition of bias. That would be like me telling my students, before semester evaluations, “All my other classes for the last 17 years have loved me,” implying, “so if you don’t there’s something wrong with you.” (I don’t do this.)

I asked the presenters who the audiences were who gave them their positive evaluations. They claimed they had given presentations at two previous scientific meetings, and that the other presentations had been to church groups and Bible studies. To me this indicated that the vast majority of their sample was from carefully-selected religious groups. I very much doubt they gave their presentation to any Unitarians, or to mainline denominations (including the twenty-first century Catholic Church) which have, for the most part, made their peace with evolutionary science. If they separated out their presentations to science meetings from the others, would the results have been so positive? Well, I can tell you that if I were them and the feedback from scientists had been positive, I would certainly have said so, and with pride. I doubt that they held this information back due to modesty.

This project was sponsored by Biologos, which claims to defend an evolutionary interpretation of God’s creation. Unlike organizations such as the Discovery Institute, Biologos does not appear to be simply a front for Intelligent Design, which is by no stretch of the imagination evolutionary. ID (as it is known) is top-down, in which a Great Engineer in the Sky designed the world, while evolution is bottom-up. However, Oral Roberts University apparently convinced Biologos to give them a grant in order to promote ID. I very much doubt that Biologos likes the creation/evolution polarization that ORU appears to promote. This presentation would have been better if it were merely old-fashioned ID. As it was, it was merely confusing.

My presentation, following theirs, was about Lee Smolin’s idea of fecund universes, that is, the natural selection of universes. I have written about this previously. I think it offers a truly clever example of natural selection at work on things other than organisms. Ideas, music, technologies (in general, memes) evolve, and do so by natural selection. Computer programmers often use evolutionary computing to design things from the bottom up rather than the top down. Why not universes? The difference between my presentation and the one preceding it was that I admitted there was no evidence, since this universe (sample size = 1) is the only one we know about. The ID proponents never admit that there is no evidence for their beliefs.

OAS encourages student research. But the ORU presentation sounded very much like student indoctrination, the recital of a script that sounded suspiciously like what the ORU science dean had presented before, than research. 

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