28 July 2008

Of course there's a double standard!

Bilbo has become a regular commenter here, and he is a very welcome addition. He is a semi-regular contributor to the ID blog Telic Thoughts, and I've had the pleasure of meeting him in person. A layman who is willing to acknowledge his limited understanding of evolutionary science, he's thoughtful and direct.

I'll address his comments and questions regarding Michael Behe's The Edge of Evolution in a separate post. Here I'll tackle his peevish accusation that I employ a double standard when I lambaste the punk Dembski but (allegedly) give a pass to the Atheist Ayatollah PZ Myers. The reference is to Crackergate, the brouhaha surrounding Myers' effort to desecrate a Roman Catholic communion wafer. (Greg Laden put together some good links, and the good folks at the Boar's Head Tavern are discussing the saga and its recent conclusion.)

First, it's not true that I haven't been critical of Myers' behavior. Over at Clashing Culture, where I blog on science and belief with three others, Mike (who also blogs at Tangled Up in Blue Guy) started a discussion of the then-unfolding dustup, focusing on the juxtaposition of Myers' offense with the death threats he subsequently received (one of which cost someone her job). The ensuing conversation was quite interesting, I thought, and included three comments by me. I didn't re-post them here, for various reasons, and I don't think it's necessary to do that (in full) now, especially since some of the references to other comments will be confusing. Instead, I'll just summarize with some excerpts.

On why PZ's "desecration" is not mere "criticism" or even "ridicule":
If PZ’s behavior is notable at all, it isn’t notable for being critical or dismissive of the beliefs of others. In fact, I would be opposed to an ethos that discouraged the critical appraisal of “beliefs” or that considered any kind of “desecration” to be somehow anti-social or hate-inspired. Some of the things I believe are nothing short of outrageous in the eyes of certain other kinds of believers. No, there’s nothing notable about attacking religious belief.

What would make PZ’s statements disturbing would be if it was apparent that he wasn’t aiming to attack or criticize ideas – or at least not solely intending such – but was plainly hoping to hurt people. [...] I’m afraid that I found PZ’s words to look too much like hate, too much like the kind of thing that is specifically and solely intended to cause harm. That the harm is not physical in nature is only relevant when comparing it to, say, a death threat...

It’s a fact that PZ’s denunciations occasionally veer into territory that is reasonably construed as hate speech, and his lusty participation in the Culture War (TM) necessarily leads him into questionable conduct. Truth, after all, is the first casualty of war, and Crackergate is incomprehensible outside the framework of Total Culture War.

On why mere unbelief can't justify desecration:

What’s worse, a death threat or a desecration threat? The answer is obvious, but the question is a lot more interesting than it appears, because (in this crowd, so far) the combination of transubstantiation and sanctification of mass-produced wafers is considered to be ludicrous. [...]

But let’s change the sacred cow, and see what happens. Let’s try a picture of Dr. King, or an account of his legacy, or a transcript of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and let’s do our desecration on his birthday, on the spot where he was assassinated. Or let’s try a Holocaust memorial, or a Jewish graveyard in Poland. Don’t worry: we’ll use water-based spraypaint for the swastikas so the desecration will be temporary. And of course no one will be injured. Can you think of anything else? I sure can.

On why, specifically, I thought PZ's stunt was reprehensible:
...my problem is with the occasional lapse into something more plainly destructive. PZ’s proposed desecration was not designed to “ridicule” an idea. It was meant to enrage, to hurt, to do damage. It wasn’t merciless criticism. It was hate. It wasn’t aimed at an idea. It was aimed at Catholics. People.

Now, for the record, I’m a Christian and I think transubstantiation is codswallop. I think it’s incorrect, and I could even explain why I think it might be a non-innocuous incorrect belief. If I had the time or inclination, I could write a lot of things about the Catholic eucharist that would be scandalous at best in the eyes of a good Catholic. If I was in a bad mood, I might ridicule the idea - I certainly don’t give it high regard.

None of those things, in my view, is even comparable to the stunt that PZ was discussing.

Mike, the vast majority of PZ’s brutal criticisms of religion are legit. They’re the kind of bare-knuckled roughing-up of ideas that I think is not just tolerable, but welcome. But every now and then, he steps in it. It’s one of the hazards of Culture War. The only way to win…is not to play.

So yes, Bilbo, I did condemn PZ's actions, and I was quite specific about why. I should add that PZ's recent post in which he announces the "desecration" (and shows the results) is worth reading. The desecration, in my opinion, was unnecessary and ultimately contemptible. But Myers' commentary is illuminating. As I've said before, the critiques and attacks of the New Atheists are good for the church.

But much more importantly, I assert that it doesn't matter whether I ever said boo about Crackergate. Because Bilbo, there is indeed a double standard, and the moral distinction I see between Pharyngula and Uncommon Descent is hard to exaggerate. (Not to mention the scientific difference: Myers has recently posted superb summaries of snake segmental development and evolution, and of epigenetics; UD just put up a hilarious pseudonymous post in which the writer extrapolates from a misattributed abstract about fruit fly gene formation to a calculation about how "man" could have "evolved from the monkey." Just posting the link is savage mockery.) Briefly:
  1. As DarwinCatholic has already noted, the bloggers at UD are largely (if not exclusively) Christian, and Dembski is a professor at a Baptist seminary. These folks aren't just Christians; they're public Christians and apologists. PZ Myers is an atheist. Does anyone need a list of proof texts for why I think Christians should be held to higher – much higher – moral standards than pagans?
  2. The sickest crap at UD isn't the usual dishonesty and shoddy pseudoscholarship. It's the religious propaganda, a toxic mix of normal everyday bullshit (about "Darwinism") and the pearls of our lives as Christians: scripture, our confessions, even the name of Jesus, the chief cornerstone. What's worse, I ask: Myers' desecration of a piece of matter that he reckons a mere cracker, or Bill Dembski's malicious use of Christ as a lame polemical device? I'm sure you already know where I stand.
Uncommon Descent is a moral cesspool, a festering intellectual ghetto that intoxicates and degrades its inhabitants. Kudos to you, Bilbo, for denouncing Dembski's idiotic post, but let's have no more talk of "double standards" when it comes to criticism of the ID movement's pervasive pathology. I'll see you at Telic Thoughts.

20 July 2008

Why one should wash thoroughly after visiting Uncommon Descent

My foray into the land of Intelligent Design partisans last month was both interesting and frustrating. I was able to explain a little of why I will never embrace the sad, sick movement, and I learned a little more about what's under the hood of that wrecked vehicle. My conversation with Thomas Cudworth and a few others went fine, I thought, despite the fact that many of my comments met nearly invincible incredulity regarding my flat axiomatic rejection of the claim that "random" or "natural" means "unguided" or "out of God's hands."

Some of the participants asked some of the usual questions, with some of the usual attitude, and I think I'll use the questions as the basis of a few posts in the next month or so. In the meantime, I've visited Uncommon Descent a few times in the past couple of weeks, which is a big change from my prior refusal to go anywhere near the place. (It's like visiting Pharyngula, but with far less wit and even less science.) (It's also like those gory movies they showed us in Drivers' Ed -- weirdly fascinating for a few minutes, then tediously nauseating after that.)

Well, today, I was reminded of why I can't stand the place, or most of the movement it represents.

Last week, Olivia Judson (writer of the evolution-themed blog The Wild Side at the New York Times) wrote a superb piece on the term "Darwinism," in a series on Charles Darwin and his influence/legacy. The series has been excellent, and the piece on "Darwinism" was superb. (Recommendation: If you can't stomach Bill Dembski, just go read Judson's post and don't bother reading the rest of mine.)

Here is Judson't simple point:
I’d like to abolish the insidious terms Darwinism, Darwinist and Darwinian. They suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed. (The science would be in a sorry state if one man 150 years ago had, in fact, discovered everything there was to say.) Obsessively focusing on Darwin, perpetually asking whether he was right about this or that, implies that the discovery of something he didn’t think of or know about somehow undermines or threatens the whole enterprise of evolutionary biology today.
Now, even if we didn't have anti-evolution propagandists employing the term "Darwinism" for the purpose of sowing confusion and fomenting religious opposition to science, the term would be "insidious" for the reasons Judson cites. Ditto for "Darwinist." In the case of "Darwinian," though, there is ample scientific precedent for using the term to indicate evolutionary changes (or mechanisms) specifically associated with selection, as opposed to other known forces (such as random genetic drift) that lead to evolutionary change, and "darwinian fitness," synonymous with reproductive fitness of a genotype, is a fairly standard term in genetics.

But Olivia Judson is right. After all, we don't call genetics "Mendelism," we don't call neuroscience "Cajalism," we don't call molecular biologists "WatsonCrickists," and no one accuses astronomers of being "Copernicans." The term is silly, and to a certain extent so is the overemphasis on Darwin and his birthday.

So, how is Olivia Judson's piece discussed at Uncommon Descent? With a barbaric comparison of Darwin, the "cornerstone" of evolutionary biology, with Christ, the cornerstone of Christian faith. Here's my response to Dembski's weird little rant:
Judson is right on in every way in her piece. We don't call genetics "Mendelism" or molecular biology "WatsonCrickism," and the abuse of the term "Darwinism," a specialty of this rancid blog, is just one reason to dispense with the term.

The sickest part of your post, Mr. Dembski, was where you mangled Judson's use of term "cornerstone" and then associated it with our Christian references to Christ himself. Judson's reference, of course, was not to Mr. Darwin but to "several of his ideas," which she and others note don't even originate exclusively or completely with him. Christ, on the other hand, IS the cornerstone of our faith. To link Darwin's place in evolutionary theory with Christ's place in the kingdom of God is really sick.

The quote from Jerry Coyne is pretty good, and funny thing: it doesn't mention Darwin at all. Coyne may be an a--, but if you think he worships Darwin, then you'll have to do some better quotemining than that.

Come on, guys. There's just no way this blog can be taken seriously as a place to defend and discuss design as long as it is characterized by twaddle like this.
The comment went up this evening, and lasted something less than an hour, probably closer to 30 minutes. It resulted in my immediate banning and much mirth on my deck (where I was relaxing with the laptop, enjoying the fireflies and feeding the mosquitoes). And there's already an obituary, which hilariously opines that I was "going out of my way to be negative." If that's negative, then what on earth does he call Dembski's swill? I call it sick. I think I already mentioned that.

Uncommon Descent is a cesspool. I'm eager to discuss design and evolution with Christians of diverse persuasions, and I know it can be done without the kind of desperate intellectual vandalism that characterizes Bill Dembski's writing at UD. But this much is clear: it can't be done at Uncommon Descent, as I repeatedly noted when I was there. It's hard to imagine a less apt forum for the serious consideration of Christian views of biological origins.

12 July 2008

Uncommon Descent conversation, part 7: the question

Below is another installment of my comments from two weeks ago on a thread at Uncommon Descent, which I've been re-posting here.

As the conversation wound down, I patiently endured the silly suggestion that my expressions of frustration amounted to my "reverting to a culture war mode" (huh??), then asked a question that summarizes one of my main objections to the ID movement: the arguments, all too often, add up to a debasing of "natural" processes in God's world. "Random" or "naturalistic" mechanisms are too frequently assumed – or even asserted – to be separate from God's real work, such that explanations that provide "purely" or "merely" natural accounts of biological phenomena are thought to "exclude God." Exposing and attacking this blatant error is one of the main goals of my blog.

Well, unfortunately, I don't think I made my question very clear, and Thomas Cudworth clearly didn't understand what I was getting at. We'll come back to it sometime, but here it is for QoD readers, most of whom should be able to see where I'm going.

Thomas @89:

I’ll be glad to leave the discussions of culture-war casualties behind. If you read my response to StephenB again, you might find that you have been too harsh in your judgment of my words. (In fact, I think your comment that I “reverted to culture war mode” is patently unfair.) But either way, I’m still committed to our discussion, and I will let your comments stand as they are, if that means we’re done with that particular diversion.

I’ll add that while I think you’ve been unfair in your characterization of my comments, I don’t think you meant to be rude or disrespectful, and I’m still glad to be a part of the conversation. I’ll also add that we should all work on being patient with each other: we have substantive disagreements on emotionally-charged questions of real import. We should expect each other to behave civilly, but we oughtn’t be surprised to see some sharp disagreement. I’m okay with that (or I wouldn’t be here), and I think you need to be okay with that.

I propose that we wrap it up, for now anyway, perhaps by looking over the previous installments to see if there are any questions we’d still like to ask each other. I’ll start, if that’s okay.

Do you see design in the processes of human embryonic development? (I do.) If so, do you think that a Christian developmental biologist who embraces naturalistic explanations of these processes should be expected to affirm that s/he believes that Psalm 139 speaks the truth?

This is not a trick question; I’m very curious about how the whole natural vs. God thing works out for ID thinkers when considering biological phenomena other than evolution.

Uncommon Descent conversation, part 6

This is a continuation of the exchange from two weeks ago. (I've been re-posting my contributions here for the benefit of those who (like me) don't read Uncommon Descent. The discussion ended more than a week ago, but I neglected to re-post my last few responses.) There's not much in this installment other than my attempts to drive home the simple points I made at the beginning of the conversation (hence my evident frustration). I'm responding (mostly) to a post by StephenB.

To StephenB @80:

I don’t think we’re going to make much more progress, since I don’t think I’m making it clear enough to you that I see God and His world differently than you do. You seem unwilling or unable to reflect on what I have already said and to account for my words in your responses to them. Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough on my position with regard to “pure Darwinism,” but I think it’s more likely that you won’t accept the fact that I don’t see “design” the way you do, and that I reject your preferred assumptions regarding “randomness” and God’s work.

I will offer these final thoughts in response to your post, and then you can have the last word if you wish. This does not mean that I won’t discuss other topics with you, or that I’m leaving UD for good, but it does mean that you have exhausted my patience on this subject.

1. I don’t know what an “internal principle” is, and at this point I really don’t care, but if you want to know what I think of “pure Darwinism” you can re-read what I’ve already written here.

2. There are multiple reasons why “Pure Darwinists” and “Miller, Collins et al” are hostile to ID. If you think your movement is controversial solely because it “implies the INTENT behind the evolutionary process,” then you’re wholly deluded. I am opposed to your movement, and I’m not a pure Darwinist. Unsuccessfully it would seem, I have tried to explain why.

3. I’m a pretty good Calvinist, so I believe that our world belongs to God and was created by Him. And so I do think that all things were brought into existence by His hand. Because I’m only a pretty good Calvinist (i.e., not a perfect one), I wonder about the idea of freedom and how it works out in creation. I am undecided about how exactly to explain or account for creaturely freedom, and I’m content to consider it one of many mysteries. For now, I am unwilling to commit to a puppet-show universe with no freedom, and equally unwilling to commit to open theology (as I understand it). As I hope you can see, my thinking on this issue does not lend itself well to the simplistic dichotomies that you seem to favor. That’s not my problem.

4. I didn’t come here to argue about what Francis Collins and Ken Miller believe or say. I came here to explain why I, a fellow Christian and practicing biologist, do not support your movement. Because our conversation went well, without any of the ugliness that characterizes the broader cultural confrontation, I now consider myself a fully-minted “friendly critic.” That’s a pretty big step, I think, but it doesn’t mean I have a whole lot more patience with the generally obnoxious tenor of this blog, or of the Discovery Institute, and it sure doesn’t mean that I will waste my time listening to a lot of whining about culture-war body counts. Count me as a friendly critic, perhaps even occasional defender, but not as a friendly audience for melodramatic portrayals of ID persecution, and certainly not as a scapegoat for the sins of whoever it is you can’t stand.

02 July 2008