Monday, January 15, 2007

J. Scott Turner Misses the Mark

J. Scott Turner, a professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, New York, has a this dumb opinion piece in the January 19 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since a subscription is required to read this (your university probably has a subscription), I'll excerpt a couple of the dumber remarks:

Also amusing is the spectacle of independent-minded scientists' running
to college administrators or the courts for help in defining what is
science and what is permissible discourse in their classrooms.

...

Faced with all that hue and cry, I almost want to say: "Friends,
intelligent design is just an idea."

...

The strain's very persistence invites the obvious question: If Darwin
settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back?
Perhaps the fault lies with Darwin's supporters. Rather than debate the
strain on its merits, we scramble to the courts or the political
ramparts to expel it from our classrooms and our students' minds.



"Intelligent design" may be "just an idea", but ideas have consequences. Exactly the same could be said about racial inferiority, or national socialism, or totalitarian communism, or a number of other concepts -- they are "just ideas", too. * Being "just an idea" doesn't mean it doesn't have destructive consequences.

"Intelligent design" is a science stopper. Once something is explained as "designed" by a disembodied invisible "intelligence", we can proceed no further in our inquiry. Intelligent design proponents themselves state that science is not allowed to pursue the identity or motivation of the designer.

Turner's claim that scientists are "running to ... the courts for help in defining what is science" seems wildly off base. Is he really not aware that the issue in Dover, for example, was not "what is science", but whether intelligent design was essentially an endorsement of religion in the classroom? The 1st amendment doesn't even mention science. It wasn't scientists running to the court, but parents who don't want fundamentalist religion shoved down their children's throats.

Turner asks, "If Darwin settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back?" The answer is obvious to me, but he doesn't even mention what is staring him in the face: the dominance and power of intolerant fundamentalist religion in North America. Evolution is a challenge to their beliefs. As James Watson wrote, "Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles."

Turner's answer to his question is that scientists are at fault. But if this is true, he has to explain why the creationism issue virtually doesn't come up in places where fundamentalists have little power, such as Scandinavia. With Turner's reasoning, it must be that Scandinavian evolutionary biologists have some superior explanatory power over their North American colleagues. My explanation better fits the facts.

As for not debating the issue, exactly what does he think we have been doing? Has he read Mark Perakh's book, Unintelligent Design? Or Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God? Or Why Intelligent Design Fails, where Wesley Elsberry and I contributed a chapter?

I'd give Professor Turner a C- for poor understanding of the issues.

* For the particularly dense reader let me state that I don't think that "intelligent design" has consequences as pernicious as those of the other ideas I listed. I give that list only to signal that saying something is "just an idea" is not terribly enlightening commentary.

20 comments:

Flint said...

From a synopsis of Turner's latest book:

"The Tinkerer's Accomplice. How Design Emerges from Life Itself will be published in Fall 2006. It is a book about design, the harmonious melding of structure and function that makes for a well-adapted organism. It is not about intelligent design, although I do start with the idea that design is a real problem in biology that Neodarwinism has not explained as well as everyone thinks."

Ritchie Annand said...

Turner's main point is breathtakingly inane. One wonders whether he would be as inclined to follow suit if there were a group that was all for cutting down all the forests, because to restrain ourselves in the slightest would be to "deny God's providence"?

Ideas alone do not have the life that religio-political agendas do. If all we were faced with were the "idea" of intelligent design, there would be no problem. It is not, after all, as though intelligent design is a new idea.

We are not facing an "idea". We are facing a propagandist movement with an ugly ideological ulterior motive. "Just an idea" doesn't force its way into cirriculum as the implied truth.

We would do the same if Mr. Time Cube got well-financed and was trying to get Time Cube taught as truth in physics class. Until then, it, too, is "just an idea".

To belittle the dangers of intelligent design is to ignore the lessons of history, and to make a mockery of those standing for honesty and ethical discourse in science, education and politics.

Mustafa Mond, FCD said...

Turner postures Intelligent Design as an honest, if perhaps mistaken idea. He completely overlooks that ID is a deliberate fraud, religion dressed up to look like science, for the explicit purpose of overcoming constitutional protections.

Miguel Garcia-Blanco said...

Turner has admitted that ID doesn’t quite measure up as credible science, so why is he against having it expelled from science class?

But perhaps Turner is not supporting ID per se, perhaps his motivations for stoking the fires of "the debate" are more mercenary than religious. I can't read the article, but does he disclose the fact that he recently released a book on "biological design"?

Randy W. Kirk said...

If you get two comments that say basically the same thing, I apologize, but I just upgraded Blogger, and I think it killed my first try.

I like what you are doing here, but would encourage the site to be friendlier to those who disagree. It kind of shuts down the desire to have a good debate.

I have started a debate over at http://godvsnogod.blogspot.com where it is my intention to invite the top players from both sides to give it their best. It is a major goal of mine to keep the threads on subject and on the topic, not personalities, attacks on intentions, etc.

I will probably add this site to the links. Maybe you would like to add http://godvsnogod.blogspot.com to yours as well.

Mustafa Mond, FCD said...

To the extent Turner has a point (not far at all), I think he may have been getting at teleology vs. teleonomy, such as is discussed by Allen MacNeill. Teloenomy, as I gather, is essentially "designer-less design", i.e. "design" arising from a process rather than instilled by a designer.

This does not exclude his cluelessness on ID. Did he sleep through the Kitzmiller v. Dover case like Rip van Winkle?

Mustafa Mond, FCD said...

In case Mr. Kirk slept through it as well, here is a link for the Kitzmiller v. Dover court case, including complete testimony, the decision, and links to additional documents.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Let's have a whip round to bring some Scandinavian evolutionary biologists over here, then. Problem solved!

Frank Visser said...

Rather than endorsing Intelligent Design, Turner’s work has opened up an exciting new scientific debate around the issue of design. If you were to read his book you would see that he has constructed a scientific argument that has nothing to do with fundamentalist religion or skyhooks or god but, rather, everything to do with the very real issue of “design” in evolution.
Turner’s article in the Chronicle is not an endorsement of ID in any way but rather he is saying that if we close off the possibility of design within evolution because of a fear of becoming God-pushing fundamentalist, it is exactly the same thing as imprisoning someone for having a non-religious idea back in the dark ages.
Your response to his article is a beautiful illustration of what Turner was saying. Trying to oppress ideas in the name of science makes you a scientific fundamentalist – as religious and close minded as any proponent of ID.

Jeffrey said...

Frank:

You seem to have a reading compehension problem.

1. I never said Turner endorsed intelligent design.

2. My blog post has nothing to with his book, but rather his piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

3. I never said we should "close off" the possibility of design.

4. How the heck do you "oppress an idea"?

secondclass said...

Turner and his ilk are basically saying that science classes in public schools shouldn't restrict themselves to established (or at least promising) science, as defined by the community of experts. It's easy to complain about the status quo, but how many of them have proposed an alternative? We can't cram every conceivable idea into a science curriculum. What litmus test would they have us use to determine what to include?

Steve Watson said...

To the extent Turner has a point (not far at all), I think he may have been getting at teleology vs. teleonomy....
...or perhaps something like Dennett's Design Stance. IMHO, the concepts of design, purpose, function and the like are subtle ones, and tricky to handle in the abstract. Turner's book might be good, but it does not bode well that the author manages to get his facts just about bass-ackwards concerning a well-publicized controversy.

analyysi said...

Jeffrey Shallit argued:

"Turner's claim that scientists are "running to ... the courts for help in defining what is science" seems wildly off base. Is he really not aware that the issue in Dover, for example, was not "what is science", but whether intelligent design was essentially an endorsement of religion in the classroom? The 1st amendment doesn't even mention science. It wasn't scientists running to the court, but parents who don't want fundamentalist religion shoved down their children's throats."

Jeffrey Shallit,
have you ever read Dover Decision?


The reason for my question is that one issue in Dover, in fact, was "what is science". If you want to see evidence, please read Dover Decision. The pages 64-89 of decision are just about what is science, and "Whether ID is Science".

And conclusion of Jones was:

"The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious,
antecedents."

analyysi said...

Jeffrey Shallit wrote:

Turner asks, "If Darwin settled the issue once and for all, why does it keep coming back?" The answer is obvious to me, but he doesn't even mention what is staring him in the face: the dominance and power of intolerant fundamentalist religion in North America. Evolution is a challenge to their beliefs. As James Watson wrote, "Today, the theory of evolution is an accepted fact for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles."

Turner's answer to his question is that scientists are at fault. But if this is true, he has to explain why the creationism issue virtually doesn't come up in places where fundamentalists have little power, such as Scandinavia. With Turner's reasoning, it must be that Scandinavian evolutionary biologists have some superior explanatory power over their North American colleagues. My explanation better fits the facts.


Hi Jeffrey, I'm from Finland. Finland is culturally closely related to the (other) Scandinavian countries. The weekly church attendance rate is about 3-4% (in Finland). If you think, that (neodarwinian) evolution theory is an accepted fact "for everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles", how do you think it is possible, that yet 27% of Finnish people has said, that the claim "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" is false?

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/313/5788/765

Jeffrey said...

Yes, I've read the Dover decision.

I'll happily concede that the issue of whether ID was science was discussed in that decision. But that was not really the main point, as the 1st amendment has nothing to do with whether subjects taught in school are science. The 1st amendment, for example, does not prohibit schools teaching music in science classes. The real issue, the one the suit was based on, was whether ID was religion.

Jeffrey said...

Analyysi:

Church attendance is not a reflection of religious belief. Many people hold religious beliefs but do not attend church, so I don't think your 3-4% figure for church attendance in Finland is really relevant.

Of course, religion isn't the only reason why people might reject evolution, although in my experience it is nearly always the most important one.

analyysi said...

Jeffrey Shallit:

The real issue, the one the suit was based on, was whether ID was religion.

It is easy to check, what was the real issue in Dover. I searched some words (from Decision). The word "science" is used 179 times. The word "religion" is used 70 times. The word "religious" 162 times, and word "scientific" 123 times. The real issue seems to be both whether ID is science, and whether ID is religion. And the question whether ID is science was discussed perhaps even more, than the question, if ID is religion.

Jeffrey Shallit:

But that was not really the main point, as the 1st amendment has nothing to do with whether subjects taught in school are science.

Hmm. Judge Jones himself wrote:

"we find it incumbent upon the Court to further address an additional issue raised by Plaintiffs, which is whether ID is science. To be sure, our answer to this question can likely be predicted based upon the foregoing analysis. While answering this question compels us to revisit evidence that is entirely complex, if not obtuse, after a six week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentations, the Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area. Finally, we will offer our conclusion on whether ID is science not just because it is essential to our holding that an Establishment Clause violation has occurred in this case , but also in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us."

Thus Judge Jones himself wrote, that whether ID is science was essential to his holding that an Establishment Clause violation had occurred.

*****

Jeffrey Shallit:

"Many people hold religious beliefs but do not attend church..."

Of course. But I didn't wrote about any "religious beliefs". We were talking about fundamentalists. ("everyone but a fundamentalist minority, whose objections are based not on reasoning but on doctrinaire adherence to religious principles.") I thought, that church attendance could perhaps correlate with number of fundamentalists. Just how one could be fundamentalist, if he/she doesn't even know, what his/her church teach?

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm, as a statistician and a person of, I hope, reasonable consideration, it appears that the evolutionists are the most threatened in this scenario. Turner may be mistaken, but my collegues on this post simply dismiss rather than discuss. Could it be, and this is coming from an agnostic, that the evolutionist is the threatened species here?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous Statistician:

By "evolutionist", I think you mean "evolutionary biologist". And by "threatened" I think you probably mean "annoyed by people who don't know much about evolution, but reject it".

With those corrections, you may be right.

Wesley said...

Sorry to have come across this so late. "analyysi" objects to the idea that the issue in Kitzmiller v. DASD was establishment of religion, saying that the decision discusses the topic of science a lot.

"analyysi" may be unfamiliar with the law here in the USA. The grounds for the complaint in KvD was indeed the establishment clause of the 1st amendment. The legal history will clarify why science is discussed at length in KvD. The Epperson v. Arkansas SCOTUS decision declared that one cannot prevent the teaching of science to privilege particular religious accounts, that science instruction has a valid secular purpose. Since Epperson, the religious antievolution movement has proceeded with a variety of dishonest efforts to characterize the same old arguments they usually make as science and to aid in this they offer new definitions of science. If they could convince a court that what they offer up for inclusion in a classroom is science, they would then have demonstrated a valid secular purpose in having it taught. And so in the KvD case you had the defense present lots of testimony from expert witnesses claiming that "intelligent design" was, indeed, scientific in character, at least as long as you allow them to also tweak the definition of science.

There are people who like to claim that Judge Jones could have completely ignored all the arguments made by the defense that ID was science and by the plaintiffs that, no, it wasn't. I think the decision would have been weaker if it failed to address an issue that both parties considered central to the suit. The reason that a discussion of the nature of science and whether ID meets criteria to be recognized as science appears in the decision is that both parties made it an issue and prior precedent made whether something is science an issue for determining whether something has a valid secular purpose in being taught. The point in law being addressed is still establishment of religion while the particular instance of argument concerned ID's lack of status as science.

Hope that clears that up for "analyysi".