Persecution Complex

An addendum

Over the past few days I reviewed ten episodes of Does God Exist, a video produced by the fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family. It’s offered as a DVD and is also streaming on Amazon Prime Video. In addition to the ten episodes addressing the question, “does God exist,” there is a bonus segment highlighting the challenges fundamentalist Christians encounter in a less than sectarian world. The operating title is “The Toughest Test In College.” From Amazon:

Preparing for college involves more than just buying new clothes and textbooks. Your toughest test is not going to be on paper; it is a test of your heart and mind. Can you live out your convictions and share your faith with students and professors who might not agree with your Christian worldview?

Here is a brief review. We start with Jay. “He’s on his way to college.”

What Jay and other fundamentalist Christians encountered (according to the video) is the challenge of hostile professors. Across the spectrum, these (supposedly) liberal professors go from questioning students’core beliefs to heaping ridicule on any and all who will not abandon their beliefs. We are informed these hostile professor in the video are actors paid to stand in for real people.

Prominent contenders for Objectionable of the Month include Peter Singer and Ward Churchill. Singer is polarizing for his views on the value of human life. Churchill would be controversial on any campus, but this video singles out his opposition to the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Churchill wants administration officials prosecuted for war crimes, a not totally un-Christian position.

Del Tackett, D.M., president (now former president) of Focus on the Family, weighs in and narrates much of the story.

Stephen C. Meyer, the main figure in the video, also appears. Meyer gained fame as an advocate for Intelligent Design as legitimate science. He was prepared to testify (but did not) for that at the Kitzmiller trial. Here all the wraps are off. Meyer is a Christian warrior, fully committed to a campaign to define what is the true faith.

And there is J. Budziszewski, Ph.D., a professor of history and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. He argues strongly against “moral relativity.” He compares it to factual relativity. If somebody advises against eating the cafeteria’s tuna salad, citing that it’s making people sick, he portrays the relativist as saying, “That’s your own opinion” (not his exact words).

Eric Pianka, is Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Before I proceed further I need to clear up a minor point. Despite the correct spelling of Pianka’s first name, and despite displaying graphics depicting his complete name, the producers somehow missed the point.

The controversy about Pianka is a speech he made. Wikipedia provides some details:

Pianka’s acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award from the Texas Academy of Science resulted in a controversy in the popular press when Forrest Mims, vice-chair of the Academy’s section on environmental science, claimed in the Society for Amateur Scientists e-journal The Citizen Scientist that Pianka had “endorsed the elimination of 95 percent of the human population” through a disease such as an airborne strain of the Ebola virus. Mims claimed that Pianka said the Earth would not survive unless its population was reduced by 95% suggesting that the planet would be “better off” if the human population were reduced and that a mutant strain of Ebola would be the most efficient means. Mims’ affiliate at the Discovery InstituteWilliam Dembski, then informed the Department of Homeland Security that Pianka’s speech may have been intended to foment bioterrorism. This resulted in the Federal Bureau of Investigation interviewing Pianka in Austin.

Pianka has stated that Mims took his statements out of context and that he was simply describing what would happen from biological principles alone if present human population trends continue, and that he was not in any way advocating for it to happen. The Texas Academy, which hosted the speech, released a statement asserting that “Many of Dr. Pianka’s statements have been severely misconstrued and sensationalized.” However, Dr. Kenneth Summy, an Academy member who observed the speech, wrote a letter of support for Mims’ account, saying “Dr. Pianka chose to deliver an inflammatory message in his keynote address, so he should not be surprised to be the recipient of a lot of criticism from TAS membership. Forrest Mims did not misrepresent anything regarding the presentation.”

Some of the same names keep cropping up in the creation-evolution controversy, and one of those is Forrest Mims:

Forrest M. Mims III, who most recently wrote the Amateur Scientist column of last June’s issue of Scientific American, is out since they discovered he is a committed creationist. Mims talked to the Houston Chronicle and to the Wall Street Journal, and that’s when the watermelon hit the fan. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a letter to SA, asked them not to use religion as a basis for publication, and the ACLU has taken up his case. That was where the matter stood the last I heard of it.

The Skeptic editor, Keith Blanton, was able to tape record an interview with Mims on the CNN show “Crossfire,” and he has made the tape available to interested viewers. Contact Keith at one of the NTS meetings if you want to borrow the tape. Appearing in the interview with Mims was NCSE Director and CSICOP Fellow, Eugenie C. Scott. The interview was moderated by conservative Cal Thomas (substituting for Pat Buchanan) and by liberal Mike Kinsley (of New Republic).

And here is what is additionally interesting. Both Pianka and Budziszewski are at the University of Texas at Austin, a place where I once obtained a degree. If you casually watch the introductory sketches you might get the idea that students are going to show up at college and run head on into a wall of liberal bias, unlikely, based on personal observation. Creationist Robert Koons is a professor of philosophy at UT Austin, and he is also an advocate of Intelligent Design, being a former fellow of the Discovery Institute. Robert Pennock was a professor of philosophy at UT Austin  when  he published Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism. What needs to be taken away from this discussion is that students leaving home and heading to college are going to run into the real world, and the real world is not the family dinner hour.

Christian students in the video are portrayed as earnest and sincere. You would want your own children to be like these. Except… Except we see students (or stand-ins) reflecting disdain for homosexual lifestyles and even those whose only offense seems to be anti Christian.

The video includes testimonials by a litany of students regarding the disrespect they received at even Christian institutions. They recount observing lewd behavior, sexual promiscuity, and tolerance for un-Christian life styles. Individual students are generally not identified on-camera, but the end credits list names of actual students as well as names of actors who dramatized students in the video.

Students testify. What they found, even at Christian academies, was a more open attitude, one their home life had neither accepted nor recognized. There was more tolerating of sin and also an acceptance of world views that were not biblical. To that, a thinking person would have to respond, “No shit.” People, you can walk a block from  your front door, even in Salt Lake City, and find world views that are not biblical.

But this video drills down on college campus life and wants to target not only bad actors, abusive and wrong-headed faculty, but also the openness we should hope to find on campus. I notice some play with the concept of intolerance. There is intolerance toward Christian values, and there is intolerance toward uncommon lifestyles. There seems to be a lot of intolerance going around. See the case of Emily Brooker below.

We also learn we should not put our complete trust in the experts. We are reminded that experts predicted a glowing future for the American economy, just days prior to the greatest collapse in our history.

Also mentioned are predictions by “experts” a few decades back of a threatened global cooling, and also the advice from other “experts” that eugenics, including forced sterilization, was necessary for the purity of the gene pool. Particularly, the case of Carrie Buck is highlighted. She was deemed a danger to the gene pool and forcibly sterilized in what is now acknowledged to be a gross injustice and a violation of all sense of humanity:

Paul A. Lombardo, a Professor of Law at Georgia State University, spent almost 25 years researching the Buck v. Bell case. He dug through case records and the papers of the lawyers involved in the case. Lombardo eventually found Carrie Buck and was able to interview her shortly before her death. Lombardo has alleged that several people had manufactured evidence to make the state’s case against Carrie Buck, and that Buck was actually of normal intelligence. Professor Lombardo was one of the few people who attended Carrie Buck’s funeral.

A historical marker was erected on May 2, 2002, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Carrie Buck was born. At that time, Virginia Governor Mark R. Warner offered the “Commonwealth’s sincere apology for Virginia’s participation in eugenics.”

Missing from the narrative is what position people of Christian faith took on the matter at the time.

A prominent case featured in the video is that of the student shown below.

While not identified here, her case is a matter of record:

Does a professor have the right to require his students to comply with a certain political or social view in order to pass a course? Can universities demand that students observe policies that conflict with their religious views or restrict their First Amendment rights?

A lawsuit filed by a Missouri college student may soon provide some answers to these questions–with important implications for academia.

The lawsuit, Brooker v. The Governors of Missouri State University (MSU), was filed on Oct. 30 by the Alliance Defend Fund on behalf of Emily Brooker, a student in the university’s school of social work. The ADF, a Christian legal group that advocates religious freedom, accuses tax-funded MSU of retaliating against Brooker because she refused to sign a letter to the Missouri Legislature in support of homosexual adoption as part of a class project.

Gay adoption violates Brooker’s Christian beliefs.

As told in the video, the suit was settled in Brooker’s favor, and the offending faculty largely left their positions. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is a regular target of mine for their pursuit of frivolous causes:

You get the picture. Congress outlawed such practices in venues covered by US law,which would be public accommodations. In short, places open for business to the public are no longer allowed to embarrass the entire nation through the use of insulting and exclusionary practices.

Beyond that, this is a truly egregious case and one the ACLU would have taken.

It is perhaps inevitable the matter of Guillermo Gonzalez will come up in the context of campus intolerance. He is featured as one of the cases of those expelled for advocating Intelligent Design. Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University, where he taught. He contested this action, contending he was denied tenure due to his support for Intelligent Design. The faculty board that declined to offer him tenure stated the denial was due to his lack of productivity at the University. Although he showed promise early in his career, at Iowa State his publication record was sparse, and he sponsored no successful Ph.D. candidates. The National Center for Science Education published a critique of the Expelled video and included the Gonzalez case:

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

Provided that his colleagues at Iowa State objected to his views on Intelligent Design, we need to recognize there can be a problem when a fellow scientist is seen buying into wacko science. I have observed previously there only so many times you can show up with your fly unzipped before you are no longer invited to the party.

It is unfortunate that Stephen C. Meyer has allied himself with a bastion of intolerance which Focus on the Family is. Or perhaps it is fortunate for readers. His several books, including Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell, attempt to make a show of scientific validation. Not so here. Meyer goes full monty in support of religious orthodoxy. Barbara Forrest has written Creationism’s Trojan Horse as a critique of Intelligent Design, and Meyer’s religious intent is hard to hide:

Religious motivation drives all the CRSC leadership.14 Indeed, Stephen C. Meyer, the director of the CRSC, professed his attraction to “the origins debate” precisely because it is theistic: “I remember being especially fascinated with the origins debate at this conference. It impressed me to see that scientists who had always accepted the standard evolutionary story [Meyer says he was one of them] were now defending a theistic belief, not on the basis that it makes them feel good or provides some form of subjective contentment, but because the scientific evidence suggests an activity of mind that is beyond nature. I was really taken with this.”15

Forrest, Barbara. Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (p. 260). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Meyer’s pretense at academic rigor and any scientific basis for creationism dissolve completely in the video that follows this one. Also produced by Focus on the Family, its title is “Is the Bible Reliable?” A quick peek reveals that Meyer is hosting this one and is arguing for biblical literalism, or something close to it. A review is coming up next. Keep reading.

And may Jesus have mercy on your soul.

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Fool’s Argument

Third of a series

As noted above, this is the third of my reviews of the Focus on the Family video featuring creationist Stephen C. Meyer. It’s a DVD set available on Amazon and titled Does God Exist? The setting is an apparent classroom seminar on the proof for the existence of God. Episode 3 is titled “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 2: In the Beginning,” and it seeks to affirm that God, that is the God of Abraham, is the root explanation for the creation of the Universe.

Meyer makes his argument, and he sprinkles the discussion with various illustrations depicting real scientists. Here are a few.

Regarding the first, Meyer has brought up the conclusion of modern cosmologists that the Universe is not infinite. It is both finite in scope and finite in time. It had a beginning. Allow me to quote, not from Meyer:

Genesis 1:1 King James Version (KJV)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

There. Modern cosmology and the Bible are in agreement. The argument goes pretty much from there.

He dismisses quantum cosmology. Back to Lawrence Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing, previously reviewed:

The lesson is clear: quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothing— meaning, in this case, I emphasize, the absence of space and time— it may require them. “Nothing”— in this case no space, no time, no anything!— is unstable.

Moreover, the general characteristics of such a universe, if it lasts a long time, would be expected to be those we observe in our universe today.

Krauss, Lawrence. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (p. 170). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.

But Meyer has issues with quantum cosmology, and he lays them out:

Problems with Quantum Cosmology

  1. It doesn’t explain how you get from the timeless state to temporal state.
  2. Must use mathematical tricks.

I am not sure Meyer is correct on his first point, but he most certainly is on the second. Quantum cosmology does require the use of mathematical tricks. It’s what physicists do. Tricks with mathematics.

When he says, that “creatio ex nihilo” implies “the universe was created out of nothing physical,” he really means to say the universe was created out of nothing material. Everything is physical, especially if you’re a physicist.

Meyer cites the work of Arno A. Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson in the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, confirming a critical consequence of the proposed origin of the Universe. And he quotes Penzias (Nobel laureate):

The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on  but the five books of Moses, the psalms, and the Bible as a whole.

This is, indeed, a quote in proper context by Penzias. At issue are the sources Penzias cites. First of all, Moses is known to be a fictional  character. Second, the Bible is notoriously inaccurate, even beyond the tales about Moses. Meyer may use a quote from Nobel laureate Penzias if he wants, but that particular quote has its own destruction built in.

Meyer delves into the modern practice of science, discussing hypothesis confirmation. There is a lot of talk regarding the development of scientific theories, and some of that relates how hypotheses morph into theories upon confirmation. Experience says otherwise. In reality, a theory is developed to explain data, and from that theory (explanation) several hypotheses can be drawn. If the theory is valid, then certain consequences must ensue. These consequences are used to form hypotheses regarding the theory. Hypothesis confirmation is performed by experimentation or by further investigation. Confirming a hypothesis does not prove a theory, only strengthen it. Theories are never disproved. Failure to confirm a hypothesis can defeat a theory.

In this case the theory is that theism and the Judeo-Christian view of creation are true. Now we say that a consequence of that theory must be that we have a finite Universe. Additional studies have demonstrated we have a finite Universe. The hypothesis is confirmed. This strengthens the theory. Here is how Meyer put it, being scripted here to allow search engines to find it:

Confirmation of a Theistic Hypothesis

If theism and the Judeo-Christian view of creation are true, then we have reason to expect evidence of a finite universe.

We have evidence of a finite universe. Therefore, we have a reason to think that theism and the Judeo-Christin view of creation may be true.

What Meyer may fail to recognize is that the statement (“we have a reason to think that theism and the Judeo-Christin view of creation may be true”) is not a well-grounded conclusion. Left as an exercise for the reader.

Eventually Meyer gets around to quoting Charles Townes, inventor of the maser and the laser, and also recipient of the Nobel Prize for this work:

Charles Townes

In my view, the question of origin seems always left answered if we explore from a scientific point of view alone. Thus, I believe there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation. I believe in  the concept of God and in His existence.

At some point Townes proposed that science and religion are equally valid ways to study the universe. Skeptical cartoonist Prasad Golla and I picked up on that, and I wrote a story to go with a short cartoon strip:

Yes, there is a hazard in thinking science and religion are equally valid. People who rejoiced in Townes’ remarks failed to realize those remarks might not benefit religion.

This episode also features notable skeptic of science David Berlinski.:

Most rational people will agree with the argument I have put forward here, but an amazing portion of otherwise sensible people will argue that biological science must be treated differently. Whenever the matter has gone to legal arbitration, as in the court cases McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education and Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, it has been easy to demonstrate a religious motivation behind the actionable offense. (There seem to be a few with no apparent religious ax to grind, and David Berlinski stands out. With no outward religious leanings, Berlinski seems to be chiefly of a contrarian nature.) Also, the writings and actions of various proponents of creationism demonstrate a religious agenda. It quickly becomes apparent that advocates of supernatural explanations, especially with respect to areas that touch on religious beliefs, are allowing religious conviction to trump objectivity in these matters.

Berlinski initially came to my attention 20 years ago, when he participated in a debate on the TV show Firing Line. You can watch the show on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITqiIQu-fbA.

Berlinski is without doubt a master intellect, but his formal study climaxed in obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. He is presently listed as a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture, the Discovery Institute being this country’s prime supporter of Intelligent Design. He does not appear to have done any advanced scientific work, and he sometimes gives an odd performance when he ventures into the realm of science.

My impression on watching in 1997 was of somebody with high self-regard, but during the debate he was forced on two occasions to retract an unfounded statement. For his statement of position, catch him at the 45-minute mark. He grossly misconstrues the principles of evolutionary theory, painting Darwinian evolution as a random search.

About 1:40:50 in the video he challenges Kenneth Miller (an actual scientist) regarding the the value of evolutionary theory in modern biology. He remarks that Miller’s published work uses the term evolution as often as it uses the term presbyterian, particularly, “not at all.” Wrong-o! Miller points out that his work includes the word evolution infinitely more often than presbyterian, since he has used evolution and has never used presbyterian. Shortly after that Berlinski again has to back down after making another incautious statement.

Episode 4 of this Focus on this Family series is titled, “The Big Bang Cosmology, Part 3: A Finely Tuned Universe.” Who wants to bet this is going to touch on the work of creationist astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and co-producer Jay Wesley Richards? A review is coming later. Read some more.

 

The Privileged Planet

This is a repost of an item that appeared in the November 2004 issue of The North Texas Skeptic. I should have put this up on the Skeptical Analysis blog a long time ago. That would have given the Illustra Media video and the book more of the exposure they deserve. I’m putting this up just now mainly because I want a handy link to it on this blog for another item I’m writing. If you’re curious about what the other item is then go to the search window above and enter “Eric Metaxas.” In the mean time, if you’re not already bored to tears reading this stuff, then forge ahead. Here it is:

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.

The book

The book

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.

A 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.

Ferris Bueller Gets Expelled

This is the fourth in a series of a review of the video Expelled, produced by Premise Media and featuring Ben Stein. The subtitle of the video (I am deliberately not using the word “documentary”) is No Intelligence Allowed, a reference to the pseudo science of Intelligent Design, which is the main topic of the video.

The previous post centered on the issue of astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who was supposedly expelled because he advocated Intelligent Design. The case presented in the video is that he had a promising career as a professor of physics and astronomy, but he was denied tenure at Iowa State University after he co-authored (with Jay Richards) the book The Privileged Planet and a video of the same title.

Gonzalez has asserted the denial of tenure was a result of his advocacy for Intelligent Design. Wikipedia notes:

Two years later, an article in the local newspaper The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported Gonzalez’ appeal against his denial of tenure and claimed he was “the unnamed target” of the ISU petition. The article noted that “Gonzalez won’t discuss the reasons for the tenure denial” but that he “noted, however, that he has frequently been criticized by people who don’t consider intelligent design as a legitimate science.” Comments from John West, the associate director of the Discovery Institute‘s Center for Science and Culture – with whom Gonzalez was a senior fellow – blamed the failure to secure tenure directly upon Gonzalez’ belief in intelligent design and compared it to a “doctrinal litmus test” typical of his native Cuba.

[Some links removed]

Typically a candidate for tenure at a college or university must pass review by his peers. Tenure is almost a lifetime assurance of employment and can be denied if your peers do not look forward to working with you. I have stated elsewhere that there are only so many times you can show up for the party with your fly unzipped before you are no longer invited.

Robert Marks

Shut up, you freak.

Shut up, you freak.

Ben Stein interviews Robert Marks, Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Professor Marks notes that he has tenure, and his position is secure. However, Ben Stein remarks, “A few months after this interview Baylor University shut down his research website once they discovered a link between his work and intelligent design.” The video shows a clip from the movie Planet of the Apes:

Julius: [Julius stops hosing Taylor briefly] Shut, up you freak!

George Taylor: Julius, you…

Julius: [He turns on the hose again] I said shut up!

This is a terrible way to treat a distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering. Information presented by the National Center for Science Education brings some clarity:

Robert Marks’s “Evolutionary Informatics Laboratory” website – touting intelligent design – was originally hosted on a Baylor University server. Concerned that the material on the website misleadingly suggested a connection between the intelligent design material and Baylor, administrators temporarily shut the website down while discussing the issue with Marks and his lawyer. Baylor was willing to continue hosting the website subject to a number of conditions (including the inclusion of a disclaimer and the removal of the misleading term “laboratory”), but Marks and Baylor were unable to come to terms. The site is currently hosted by a third-party provider.

Wikipedia has additional information on the website:

Marks did not seek permission from Baylor University to form the lab, but created a website for it on a server owned by the university. The website was deleted when Baylor’s administration determined that it violated university policy forbidding professors from creating the impression that their personal views represent Baylor as an institution. Baylor said they would permit Marks to repost his website on their server, provided a disclaimer accompany any intelligent design-advancing research to make clear that the work does not represent the university’s position. The site now resides on a third-party server and still contains the material advancing intelligent design.

After removing the site, the Baylor administration stated that it contained “unapproved research” and that university policy forbids professors from creating the impression that their personal views represent Baylor as an institution. Baylor has said that it will permit Marks to repost his website on its server, provided he (1) delete any reference to a “Lab,” (2) delete listing of any Baylor graduate students, and (3) post at the bottom of every page and the top of the home page a 108-word disclaimer.

[links removed]

Baylor’s action was apparently driven by its past experience with creationism. In 1999 creationist William Dembski established the Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor, and it was quickly identified, to the embarrassment of the science and other faculty, as a creationist activity:

In 1999, Dembski was invited by Robert B. Sloan, President of Baylor University, to establish the Michael Polanyi Center at the university. Named after the Hungarian physical chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), Dembski described it as “the first intelligent design think tank at a research university.” Dembski had known Sloan for about three years, having taught Sloan’s daughter at a Christian study summer camp not far from Waco, Texas. Sloan was the first Baptist minister to serve as Baylor’s president in over 30 years, had read some of Dembski’s work and liked it; according to Dembski, Sloan “made it clear that he wanted to get me on the faculty in some way.”

The Polanyi Center was established without much publicity in October 1999, initially consisting of two people – Dembski and a like-minded colleague, Bruce L. Gordon, who were hired directly by Sloan without going through the usual channels of a search committee and departmental consultation. The vast majority of Baylor staff did not know of the center’s existence until its website went online, and the center stood outside of the existing religion, science, and philosophy departments.

The center’s mission, and the lack of consultation with the Baylor faculty, became the immediate subject of controversy. The faculty feared for the university’s reputation – it has historically been well regarded for its contributions to mainstream science – and scientists outside the university questioned whether Baylor had “gone fundamentalist.” Faculty members pointed out that the university’s existing interdisciplinary Institute for Faith and Learning was already addressing questions about the relationship between science and religion, making the existence of the Polanyi Center somewhat redundant. In April 2000, Dembski hosted a conference on “naturalism in science” sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and the hub of the intelligent design movement, the Discovery Institute, seeking to address the question “Is there anything beyond nature?” Most of the Baylor faculty boycotted the conference.

A few days later, the Baylor faculty senate voted by a margin of 27–2 to ask the administration to dissolve the center and merge it with the Institute for Faith and Learning. President Sloan refused, citing issues of censorship and academic integrity, but agreed to convene an outside committee to review the center. The committee recommended setting up a faculty advisory panel to oversee the science and religion components of the program, dropping the name “Michael Polanyi” and reconstituting the center as part of the Institute for Faith and Learning. These recommendations were accepted in full by the university administration.

Despite all the creationists’ yearnings and despite all their assertions that science fails to answer important questions, science as a human endeavor long ago abandoned invoking the supernatural as an answer and also as a starting point for research. The supernatural answers no legitimate questions and provides nothing useful for serious research. It is the intellectual equivalent of conceding you do not know the solution to a problem and then making up an answer and putting that forward as the solution. This is a point the creationists can not or will not come to grips with.

Expelled features six individuals who were “expelled.” I have covered four of them. Next up is author and journalist Pamela Winnick.

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.