Thursday, 14 March 2013

Creation-Watch report - C4ID in Shetland

Here is the latest report in our Creation-Watch series of first hand accounts of Creationists in action in the UK.  This is our most northerly ever report from the Shetland Isles from a supporter who wishes to remain anonymous.
Amongst the usual vague assertions and tired old creationist arguments (from personal incredulity or from ignorance) we do get a glimpse into the mindset of Alistair Noble.  It seems he lives in a world were there is in fact a multinational, interdisciplinary conspiracy of scientists and theologians against his own particular view.  This kind of conspiracy theory approach is an effective recruitment tool, motivate his followers and helps to bind them together and has been shown to work very effectively in the USA.  
We also see that the C4ID is actively lobbying the BBC and other TV channels to try to get this propaganda piece aired, all in the name of fairness no doubt.

Unlocking the Mystery of Life?
On Saturday 23rd of February 2013 I attended an event at the Shetland Museum and Archives which, from the brief advertising I'd seen in a local newspaper 'What's On?' section, appealed to me as a final year university Life Sciences student. "Illustra Media presents 'Unlocking the Mysteries of Life' showing in the Shetland Museum Auditorium at 7pm, followed by a Q & A session with Dr Alastair Noble (Centre for Intelligent Design)".
I honestly had no idea what to expect. As a university science student intelligent design is something I was only vaguely familiar with, having seen snippets in the media about how in America it is threatening the future of science education in some states. I knew it involved something of a designer and had religious undertones. As an atheist the idea of a mystical higher power just 'creating' something doesn't sit well with me. I prefer to look to science for explanations. 
However, I do have an open mind (as well as an ability to critically evaluate information) and so I decided to go along to the event with a friend and see what they had to say.
I admit to having concerns about the possibility of there being an audience of only two due to very little advertising for the event, so imagine my surprise when the auditorium filled to capacity, whole families with children in their Sunday best filling the seats and sitting on the steps because there were no more seats available. 
We were warmly welcomed to the event by a smiling elderly man with friendly eyes. We were told that we were going to be watching a film which questioned evolutionary theory. A film, we are assured, which will explain the fundamental mystery of life's origins.
"Excellent!", thought I. Science hasn't managed to solve this complex problem yet and here I am, I'm about to be given the answer!
The film gives us a short history lesson on Darwin, his theory of natural selection, Darwin's finches and the fact he only visited Galapagos once, never to return again (I wasn't sure of the relevance of including this). The film then claims that natural selection only explains small scale change (such as beak size in Darwin's finches) and not the origin and complexity of life. It then goes on to use the bacterial flagellum and a mousetrap as examples of a new concept to me, irreducible complexity. From what I gathered this means that something with a certain number of parts assembled in a specific manner (using DNA as instructions) will not function if one of the parts is missing so it must have been designed as a whole, and not step by step increments as suggested by natural selection[1]. They claim that natural selection cannot explain the complexity of biological systems if they arose from random chance. Clearly, the evidence points to intelligent design (I wasn't sure at this point what evidence they were referring to).
The definition of this 'intelligent design' is somewhat ambiguous. Who or what are they claiming did this designing? The video doesn't tell you this, it just says the evidence points to it in a dusting off of hands, no more investigation required, we've solved it sort of way. 
They then go on to have a scientist build up and explain his theory of chemical evolution and biochemical predestination only to dismiss his own theory in the end and show support for intelligent design. Again I was unsure at the relevance of including this, was it to show that scientists can change their minds? It doesn't mean that they're right! Plenty of hypotheses get rejected in science, why choose this one? Cherry picking?
So far, so good. They were trying really hard to put forward a scientific argument although the soft out-of-focus slow-motion filming  started to grate after awhile.
Basically they were trying to disprove the current consensus of natural selection and evolutionary theory, claiming it doesn't explain how life originated. I'm inclined to agree. It doesn't explain how life started, but it explains how it evolved.  We just don't know how life started yet. There are a lot of things we don't know yet. Once upon a time people believed that lightning was caused by the angry god Thor throwing bolts down onto the people. Given a bit of time we found out the truth. No angry gods were involved.
Then their argument starts to get ridiculous. They have a few scientists confess that they've thrown out their original theories because they can't understand how else the information coded in our genome got there. We humans can instinctually recognise information created by intelligence. They use the examples of Mount Rushmore and Egyptian hieroglyphics to show us that we can clearly recognise that these works were created not by natural processes such as erosion, but by an intelligent mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that since information is coded in our DNA that an intelligent mind must have put it there.
That's it.
Done and dusted. Case closed.
Life began with intelligent design. All the scientific evidence points to this, should you chose to have an open enough mind to look at it.
Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Current scientific theory cannot explain in certain terms how life originated. There are gaps in our understanding and the theory of intelligent design fills this gap? Again, who did the designing? They haven't told us yet in the film. Aren't we back to square one? We still don't know.
At the end of the film I'm left feeling very disappointed. They haven't lived up to their claims at all. I didn't feel any mysteries had been unlocked or explained at all. I felt rather cheated. Clearly I was a minority in this considering all the nods of agreement from the devout audience.
Next came the question and answer session with Dr. Alastair Noble. He explained that he wanted to get this DVD on the television, preferably the BBC. It's been shown on television in America but there has been no uptake in the UK. All young people studying science and biology should see this DVD, so much so that an unnamed group has sent a copy to every secondary school in the UK[2]. It is a debate which should be promoted, he urges.
Noble then goes on to explain, when questioned by a member of the audience on the scientific explanation for irreducible complexity, that it "defies an evolutionary explanation" and that in a 'rare moment of scientific honesty' some scientist somewhere agreed with him. He then claims that at least 20% of practising scientists are open to the idea of intelligent design but if they publically admit to it then it can be career damaging or even career ending[3]. The number of scientist supporters is increasing in private, Noble says, but not in public.
Cut scene: another short video clip where Richard Dawkins is being interviewed and admits to the possibility of intelligent design [4].
Noble complains that science education in schools properly follows the current scientific consensus and that the Centre for Intelligent Design has not targeted schools specifically (he'd previously admitted that this had happened through a third, unnamed party), although some people believe that schools need to hear about intelligent design. 
Students should be aware of intelligent design, he claims, and they (the Centre for Intelligent Design) find it shocking that it isn't taught in science class. It is permitted in religious education class but not science [5].
Cut scene: some more unanswered questions from the audience.
Intelligent design is a process that points to theistic belief, we are told, but it does not compel it. Science grew from the work of theists, Noble continues, a claim challenged by a member of the audience who said that before the industrial revolution the only people who could read and write and afford books to learn with was the men of religion. Noble also claims that if science is only explained by natural means then 50% of the answers they get are wrong. 
Science probably points to intelligent design, but it is not essentially a religious argument and intelligent design should be considered "inference to the best explanation". The information contained in DNA is clearly put there by an intelligent mind, Noble states.
"How would you define an intelligent mind?" a member of the audience asks.
Noble replies, "Talk to theologians, philosophers and people of faith. Don't look to science to explain an intelligent mind."
Another member of the audience says, "It is said that intelligent design has nothing in the peer-reviewed literature." Noble replies, "There are over 50 published articles[6]. The peer reviewed process is set up to preserve the scientific consensus, not to challenge the existing consensus. "[6] So to circumvent this problem of having literature on intelligent design dismissed by leading academics they are setting up their own new journal with scientists sympathetic to their cause.
The Q & A session finished with the elderly man thanking Noble for joining us [massive round of applause] and he encouraged us to visit the local Christian bookstore and express our own interest in having Dr. Noble return for another talk to answer our many questions. This explains why The Centre for Intelligent Design was in Shetland, they were invited by the church-goers!
I don't feel Dr. Noble really answered anyone's questions. He talked, a lot, and very loudly, but there was no real substance to his words. Surprisingly no one asked "Who or what is responsible for this intelligent designing?". I wanted to but I did not feel comfortable enough to ask and Noble's previous lack of really answering anyone else's questions led me to believe he would not answer mine either. His loud confrontational tone of voice and his obvious contempt for real science really put me off.
Not once was a god mentioned, although there was a large display of Christian books available to buy.
I left with the same unanswered question. There was no 'unlocking of the mysteries of life' unless I was willing to believe some yet unnamed intelligent mind designed it based on inference. I felt the topic was shifted from the realms of science to another department entirely, the realms of religion.
Notes from Ed:
[1] A rather tired claim now.  It fails in a number of ways.  Firstly it ignores the fact that evolution can also work by removing parts from systems, or through changing function of parts, or by adding or removing of functions to parts or by the duplication or addition of several parts at once, all of which have been observed.  In these ways irreducibly complex systems can evolve.  Secondly it neglects to tell people that such systems were predicted as an expected outcome of natural selection by Muller in 1918.  Thirdly and finally it simply ignores the fact that the actual examples given i.e. the flagellum and the immune system both do function if parts are removed.
[2] That was the ironically named group Truth in Science, a group of young earth creationists pretending they aren't.
[3] A classic conspiracy theorist claim.  Think about it, not being able to provide any evidence for this claim can be held up as evidence for the claim!
[4] This dishonest trick has been widely condemned. It includes showing a clip of Richard Dawkins speculating about the fact that advanced aliens might be able to design lifeforms. It has been clipped to remove the him making the point that such aliens would have to have evolved. It is also at this point that you can pull the C4ID claims of being non-religious apart:  they claim that intelligence can't naturally evolve, we had to have been designed.  Obviously the designer is intelligent so if he wasn't designed then he must be supernatural - doh.
[5] Not really.  It is not permitted in publicly funded schools if presented as a valid scientific position.  Full stop. Now why wouldn't Noble want to tell his audience that?
[6] Again a wildly inflated claim that has been pulled apart many times.

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