22 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part I)

So last week was the big book-signing shindig and Discovery Institute Annual Convention at Biola University. I knew the DI spin machine would move quickly, and sure enough I've already been quotemined and utterly misconstrued. But my real weakness is research, lab meetings and new papers to present in lab meeting, so some of you had to wait. I'm okay with that.

1. Meeting students and faculty at Biola University

So the hyperbolic description of the event claims that the organizers "assembled a powerful group of credentialed critics of Meyer’s “Intelligent Design” position to let him have it with both barrels." That "group" consisted of myself and Art Hunt, a professor at the University of Kentucky and expert on RNA processing and genomics in plants. One of our major goals in participating in the show was to have the chance to meet each other (we have similar interests in undergraduate science education and in the control of gene expression), and we spent quality time discussing grant proposals and collaborative opportunities. In addition, Art had volunteered to give a lecture to students at Biola on Friday before the party on Friday night. I tagged along and enjoyed his lecture on small RNAs, given to an overstuffed room full of students and some faculty. We then enjoyed lunch with two smart and friendly young Biola science profs. My only regret from the trip is that it was Art and not me who had made this proposal (to visit the campus and meet students and faculty). Biola is a member of the CCCU, a consortium that includes Calvin, and although I decry Biola's eager support for the vacuous agenda of the Discovery Institute, I see its faculty as colleagues and potential collaborators in Christian higher education. Props to Art for his outreach and to Biola's faculty for hospitality. Nice place!

2. Meeting Paul Nelson

Only for a minute, but Paul is close by (in Chicago) and claims to want me to write more here on the blog. Nice guy. I've long wanted to propose some collaborative work (perhaps on protein evolution) with some young-earth creationist scientists. He'll hear from me soon.

3. The Event: Preliminaries and Meyer's talk

So the big show started with some super-slick introductory stuff and then a preview of a new DVD called "Darwin's Dilemma," from the same outfit that brought us other ID filmreels from the culture-war front. It's about the Cambrian Explosion and I thoroughly enjoyed the animated depictions of Anomalocaris with all the loud scary music.

The whole thing was projected as it was being broadcast, with fancy graphics already added (e.g., where to Twitter your questions). Really slick. I mean, I'm a biologist wearing jeans and boots. I didn't even redo my hair or buff my earring. Sigh.

Meyer's talk was exactly what I expected, which is sad. Because I haven't blogged on the key chapters yet, I can't explain in detail how the book ends up making its case, but here's the basic idea.

  • DNA and genetic control systems exhibit an ill-defined trait called "specified complexity." Basically, DNA contains coded information which bears similarity to computer programs and other suitably impressive systems.
  • Origin-of-life theories have not explained the origins of genetic information systems.
  • But when we look, today, at things that contain coded information which bears similarity to computer programs, we can always trace the origins of such things to a mind. A programmer, for example.
  • Since we have no complete explanation for the origin of genetic information systems, and we know that minds can and do create "specified complexity," we can and should conclude that a mind directed the development of such systems (at least). In other words, we should embrace intelligent design.
Now, I probably shouldn't have to point out the weakness in this line of argument. Namely, the second assertion is seriously misleading. It's true, undoubtedly, but it's misleading. It may be the case that we don't have a complete account of the origin of life, and it's certainly true that we don't have a complete account of the origin of genetic information control systems. But such an admission implies nothing about whether such an account is possible or even likely, and that's where Meyer would have to do his philosophical work in order to help his case. In other words, to assert that "we haven't explained X" is most assuredly not to assert that "we cannot explain X." Think about it: there would be no such thing as science if this were the case. Scientists are all about asserting that "we haven't explained X," then proposing a way to change that.

Anyway, Meyer spent a lot of time explaining why it matters that certain origin-of-life postulates are ineffective, but he never bothered to show that the current theories are in fact ineffective. What he did instead was attack a strawman (random flying-together of biological structures) at length, then erect a second one (a crude caricature of self-organization ideas) and attack it more briefly. Current thought focuses on the RNA World, and Meyer completely omitted any discussion of it. He meant to mislead the audience, and I think he was successful.

I find it both sad and alarming that the audience was willing to laugh out loud at serious scientific ideas that have been proposed by intelligent and informed scientists and thinkers. As I'll relate in the next post on the Q&A session that followed Meyer's talk, we had little time to address errors and omissions by Meyer, in the book and in the lecture. But here's what I would have said to the audience if I'd had the time.
You were just induced to laugh scornfully at a set of ideas that have been seriously entertained by scientists and other theorists over the past few decades. Specifically, you were told that this set of ideas was little more than a textbook example of question-begging, exhibiting errors so basic that only a fool would seriously entertain the notions that were proposed. Dr. Meyer induced you to conclude that scientists who think about the origin of life are mostly idiots.

You are unwise to think that such ideas are so easily dismissed or that the people who study origins are so easily written off. Consider how unwise it would be for you to wander into any other area of serious technical inquiry and laugh at the conclusions of its practitioners. Consider how foolish it would be for you to assume that the ideas of an entire scientific discipline can be discredited with a single paragraph of rhetoric from a speaker without expertise in that discipline. The point, friends, is not that you should believe every scientific theory, or accept every scientific pronouncement, merely on the basis of the expertise of the speaker. The point is that you should be suspicious – very suspicious – of someone who tries to convince you that such theories and claims can be idly and effortlessly dismissed. Dr. Meyer took advantage of you tonight, and there are at least three people in this gymnasium who know that.
Next posts, Parts II and III, will deal with the Q&A session, first with the exchange that the DI is trumpeting as some kind of weird concession on my part and then with the revealing behavior of Steve Meyer when asked questions about the scientific predictions and ideas that have been spawned by ID.

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