Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

This is the third in a continuing series.

Expelled

I am reviewing the video Expelled, produced by Premise Media and starring Ben Stein (see above). The subtitle is No Intelligence Allowed. The inside joke is this video is about the Intelligent Design brand of modern creationism. Previous reviews have dipped into the stories of two of the six who were supposedly “expelled,” Specifically Richard Sternberg and Caroline Crocker. Next up is Guillermo Gonzalez.

Guillermo Gonzalez

The book

The book

Gonzalez’ main claim to fame is a book he published and a video on the same subject. The book is The Privileged Planet, with the subtitle How Our Place In The Cosmos Was Designed For Discovery. I have the book and the video, and I promise a review in the future. When the video first came out I did a short review for The North Texas Skeptic, which I will repost here:

The Privileged Planet

by John Blanton

If you think Texas is Heaven on Earth, think larger. Apparently Earth is Heaven on Earth as well.

A new video from the Discovery Institute comes to us by way of Illustra Media, and it seeks to remind us how fortunate we are. Not just for living in Texas, but for being born on the planet Earth. Aliens, eat your hearts out, both of them.

Privileged Planet 
The Privileged Planet

By now, we are quite familiar with the Discovery Institute (DI). Its Center for Science and Culture is a think tank for the new creationism called Intelligent Design. Illustra Media, you will recall, is the production company that a few years back gave us another creationist video, Unlocking the Mystery of Life.

The Privileged Planet, as the title suggests, wants to make the case that not only are we lucky to have been born on this planet, but Earth is lucky to be here at all. It doesn’t take long for the narration to get around to reminding us that this was not all just dumb luck. Broad hints at a guiding hand are dropped everywhere.

Wilston Nkangoh is the president of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Club on the University of Texas at Dallas campus, and he was kind enough to invite me to a showing of the video at their October meeting. Although IDEA clubs are promoted through the DI at campuses across the country, Wilston does not receive financial support, and he purchased his own copy of the DVD.

companion book of the same title is by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards, who also appear in the video. Dennis Danielson also appears in the video and has given the book a resounding endorsement:

“Impressively researched and lucidly written, The Privileged Planet will surely rattle if not finally dislodge a pet assumption held by many interpreters of modern science: the so-called Copernican Principle (which isn’t actually very Copernican!). But Gonzalez and Richards’ argument, though controversial, is so carefully and moderately presented that any reasonable critique of it must itself address the astonishing evidence which has for so long somehow escaped our notice. I therefore expect this book to renew-and to raise to a new level-the whole scientific and philosophic debate about earth’s cosmic significance. It is a high class piece of work that deserves the widest possible audience.”

This is impressive, considering Danielson is a professor of English at the University of British Columbia. He is also editor of The Book of the Cosmos: Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking.

Gonzalez and Richardson are with DI and are featured prominently in the video. Although a number of other notables weigh in, it’s Gonzalez and Richardson who do all the heavy lifting.

It is hard to argue with the major points these creationist make here. Who would deny, for example, that if the sun were hotter, if the Earth were not the right distance from the sun, and if water weren’t wet, life in Texas would not be as we know it today. The video gives a list of these critical factors with a probability of 0.10 for each, and it is clearly demonstrated that when you multiply them all together our odds of being here are vanishingly small. You stand a better chance of finding a winning lottery ticket stuck under your windshield wiper.

I only had a chance to watch the video through one time, but I came away with the impression that Gonzalez and Richardson ran out of good ideas half way through and began to cast about for material to fill the rest of the time. Some of the later arguments could best have been left on the cutting room floor.

For example, the authors assert that things seem to have been engineered just right so our great thinkers and scientists would be set up to succeed. If Earth’s atmospheric characteristics were different, they say, we would have had a hard time seeing the stars, and I guess the science of astronomy would have been replaced by the science of peering into the murk. What the astrologers would have done for a living is anybody’s guess.

If we were not in such an opportune location within our own galaxy, it would have been a lot harder to figure out the Milky Way’s exact shape. Again, I am only guessing, but there would likely have been a Nobel Prize for solving that puzzle.

All those points aside, a key issue discussed is fine tuning. Again, few would doubt that if the constants of nature, those eight and nine-digit numbers we all learned to memorize for the strength of gravity and the mass of the electron, were just a little off, the Universe would be a whole new ball game, and you would not be reading this newsletter. Paul Davies is a real scientist and not associated with DI. He has written a number of books on the mysteries of the Universe, including The Forces of Nature. In the video he explains the delicate balance of these forces. There is no denying: Either these supposedly independent factors are all tied together somewhere off where we can’t see just yet, or we have indeed won the grand jackpot.

My guess is it is some of both. First of all, underlying tie-ins are the history of scientific discovery. Aside from that, it seems a bit self centered to believe a world unsuited for humans would be a tragedy of the first magnitude. It would appear the creationists are attempting to use their point to make their point. Nice try, though.

Notes:

1. You can purchase the books and videos mentioned in this article from Amazon.com by linking through the NTS Web site. Just go to www.ntskeptics.org and use the search feature to find the title and the Amazon link. This story will carry the links when it is posted on the Web at http://www.ntskeptics.org/2004/2004november/november2004.htm#planet.

2. We have previously discussed the UT Dallas IDEA Club in the April 2004 issue of this newsletter. A copy of that issue is available on the NTS Web site.

The Wikipedia entry for Guillermo Gonzalez is worth noting:

Gonzalez obtained a BS in 1987 in Physics & Astronomy from University of Arizona and his Ph. D. in Astronomy from the University of Washington in 1993 and has done post-doctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin and the University of Washington. He has received fellowships, grants and awards from NASA, the University of Washington, Sigma Xi, and the National Science Foundation. He introduced the Galactic Habitable Zone concept. He currently teaches at Grove City College, an evangelical Christian school, and was previously an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Iowa State University until May 2008.

Gonzalez was a regular contributor to Facts for Faith magazine produced by Reasons To Believe, an old earth creationist group. In addition to his work for the Discovery Institute and International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, he is a researcher for the Biologic Institute, which is funded by the institute for research into intelligent design.

In 2004 he published The Privileged Planet and its accompanying video, which takes the arguments of the Rare Earth hypothesis and combines them with arguments that the Earth is in prime location for observing the universe. He then proposes that the Earth was intelligently designed. William H. Jefferys, a Professor of Astronomy at theUniversity of Texas at Austin, reviewed the book writing “the little that is new in this book isn’t interesting, and what is old is just old-hat creationism in a new, modern-looking astronomical costume.” Co-author Jay Richards responds to such criticism with the following statement: “It has absolutely nothing to do with biological evolution. We are talking about the things that you need to produce a habitable planet, which is a prerequisite for life. It doesn’t tell you anything about how life got here.” A documentary based on the book was produced by the Discovery Institute.

[Some links deleted]

Something to note: I met professor Jefferys when I worked at the UT Austin Astronomy Department and have since come to know him as an outspoken proponent of rational skepticism, just the kind of person to take issue with the pseudo science promoted by the Discovery Institute.

Regarding the comment by Jay Richards that “It has absolutely nothing to do with biological evolution,” I would then have to ask why Gonzalez, Richards and all those other creationists at the Discovery Institute are making such a fuss over the issue. Richards’ personal history does not seem to lend itself to purely scientific investigation:

Richards hold a B.A. with majors in political science and religion, and Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Master of Theology (Th.M.) degrees. His Ph.D. (with honors) is in philosophy and theology from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous scholarly and popular articles, as well as four books, including The Untamed God and The Privileged Planet. Richards has been known for his intelligent design advocacy since 1996. The Privileged Planet was co-authored with astronomer and fellow CSC Senior Fellow Guillermo Gonzalez.

Richards was the first fellow at the Discovery Institute to confirm the genuineness of the Wedge document. Science organizations then paid attention to the Institute after the document was published online, but Richards wrote “that the mission statement and goals had been posted on the CRSC‘s website since 1996.” Richards has expressed skepticism of global warming.

[Some links deleted]

The National Center for Science Education published rebuttals to all of the “expelled” stories in the Expelled video. Here is just part of what they had to say about the Gonzalez case:

The Claim

“According to a Smithsonian/NASA astrophysics database, Gonzalez’s scientific articles from 2001 to 2007 rank the highest among astronomers in his department according to a standard measure of how frequently they have been cited by other scientists. He has published 68 peer-reviewed articles, which beat the ISU department’s standard for tenure by 350 percent. He has also co-authored a standard astronomy textbook, published by Cambridge University Press, which his faculty colleagues use in their own classes.” (Klinghoffer, D. (2007) Tenure TroubleWeekly Standard: 8 June. Linked from the Expelled website)

The Facts

Gonzalez’s publication output dropped steadily during his time at ISU. The work he did publish was based on re-evaluations of data he had previously collected or analyses of other people’s data.

An assessment by the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) found that:

…a closer look at Mr. Gonzalez’s case raises some questions about his recent scholarship and whether he has lived up to his early promise. …

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Gonzalez’s publication record would be stellar and would warrant his earning tenure at most universities, according to Mr. Hirsch [a scholar who analyzed the publication record]. But Mr. Gonzalez completed the best scholarship, as judged by his peers, while doing postdoctoral work at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Washington, where he received his Ph.D. His record has trailed off since then.

“It looks like it slowed down considerably,” said Mr. Hirsch…. “It’s not clear that he started new things, or anything on his own, in the period he was an assistant professor at Iowa State.”

That pattern may have hurt his case. “Tenure review only deals with his work since he came to Iowa State,” said John McCarroll, a spokesman for the university.

When considering a tenure case, faculty committees try to anticipate what kind of work a professor will accomplish in the future. “The only reason the previous record is relevant is the extent to which it can predict future performance,” said Mr. Hirsch. “Generally, it’s a good indication, but in some cases it’s not.”

David L. Lambert, director of the McDonald Observatory at Texas, supervised Mr. Gonzalez during his postdoctoral fellowship there in the early to mid-1990s. … [H]e is not aware of any important new work by Mr. Gonzalez since he arrived at Iowa State, such as branching off into different directions of research. “I don’t know what else he has done,” Mr. Lambert said. …

Mr. Gonzalez said he does not have any grants through NASA or the National Science Foundation, the two agencies that would normally support his research…. He arrived at Iowa State in 2001, but none of his graduate students there have thus far completed their doctoral work

That even Gonzalez’s former academic advisors expressed doubts about his performance at ISU suggests that this is a serious issue. It is worth noting that the decline in his publication rate corresponds to the time when he started putting time into an intelligent design project that has produced no peer-reviewed results. This includes his work on The Privileged Planet and his collaboration with old-earth creationist Hugh Ross from the ministry Reasons to Believe (for instance: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2612 and http://www.reasons.org/resources/fff/2002issue09/index.shtml#rare_sun).

In wading through the video with Ben Stein I continue to encounter questions and statements regarding the unwillingness of mainstream science to consider the possibility of Intelligent Design. This issue is put forward as though there were some legitimate reason for considering Intelligent Design. My point is it is not a given that scientists should consider Intelligent Design.

  • Intelligent Design is a religious concept with no basis from any scientific research.
  • Addressing scientific issues with consideration for Intelligent Design has no purpose other than to promote a particular religious concept.
  • Proponents of Intelligent Design like to emphasize they are not proposing the God of Abraham as the designer, thus removing religion as their motivation. This position exhibits a large amount of deceit. The promotion of the God of Abraham (and by extension the divinity of Jesus) is the sole purpose behind the promotion of Intelligent Design. These people expend a large amount of effort and expense promoting Intelligent Design but would not walk across the street for Intelligent Design if it did not promote their religious faith.
  • Scientists do not consider a supernatural designer, because the phenomenon of a supernatural designer has never been observed.
  • Proponents of Intelligent Design do not even attempt to explain by what mechanism an intelligent designer could be tweaking natural law to produce the features they attribute to Intelligent Design. They do not attempt to explain Intelligent Design. They only attempt to get people to accept it. This is religious proselytizing only.

This series will continue a critique of the Ben Stein video. The next post will feature Robert Marks, who was “expelled.” That is, Baylor University shut down his research Web site.

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3 thoughts on “Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

  1. Pingback: Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Ex Nihilo | Skeptical Analysis

  3. Pingback: Platforms Against Science | Skeptical Analysis

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