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Michael Shermer on Evolution and Intelligent Design: "What a Disappointment"

[Note: For a more comprehensive rebuttal to critics of Ben Stein's documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, please see: NCSE Exposed at NCSEExposed.org]

Dr. Caroline Crocker, whose story was told in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, sent me the following report on a recent lecture by Michael Shermer, who also appeared briefly in Expelled to say that scientists who doubt Darwin are not discriminated against in academia. Dr. Crocker and others of course are proof that he is wrong.

I recently attended a lecture by Michael Shermer at the UCSD Biological Science Symposium (4/2/09). His title was, "Why Darwin Matters," but his topic was mostly religion. He started by defining science as looking for natural explanations for natural phenomena and said that his purpose was to "debunk the junk and expose sloppy thinking." So, I must go on to the content of the lecture--or lack of it.

What a disappointment! I was hoping to hear some reasoned thoughts, maybe even something to challenge my way of thinking. Instead we were subjected to

an evening of slapstick comedy, cheap laughs and the demolition of strawmen. Lots of cartoons, a film of the evolution of Homer Simpson, photos of the Creation Science Museum with lots of ridicule. I wondered if the 1500 people listening registered how their intelligence was being insulted since Shermer obviously did not consider them capable of logical thinking--only bully-like laughter.

Or, is it possible that Shermer actually is incapable of understanding what intelligent design (ID) theorists have been trying to explain for so long? His characterization of ID was that the theory says, 1) It looks designed, 2) We can't think how it was designed naturally, 3) Therefore it was designed supernaturally. (God of the gaps.) Okay everyone, laugh at the stupid ID theorists.

Shermer then went on to give the example of Sir Isaac Newton who assumed that the planets line up in a plane because God made things this way. Shermer told his audience that ID theorists do not talk about this because science has now discovered a natural explanation for this phenomenon.

But, is that what ID says? Not at all. Rather, ID says that it is possible to detect the action of intelligence in the world by the presence of two features: complexity and specificity. Our experience with the world shows that if something that is highly complex and ALSO conforms to a pre-existing pattern or contains information, then it designed by an intelligent being. Therefore, when we see these features in naturally-occurring objects, we posit that an intelligent being may have played a part in designing them. Science of course cannot speculate about the identity of this being. So, what about Newton's planets? Well, they do not exhibit much complexity and lining up is not exactly spectacular specificity. Perhaps this is why ID theorists do not talk about Newton's ideas?

Shermer then made a very quick foray into explaining away some of the concerns that ID theorists have with regard to evolution. The Cambrian explosion and lack of transitional forms in the fossil record were addressed by saying that the Cambrian period was actually quite long. Also many of the transitional forms had soft bodies--and anyway, we do have some transitional forms, like Ambulocetus. Irreducible complexity was quickly dismissed by a slide showing a bird with wings that are not used for flying and pictures of a mousetrap with fewer than all of its parts. He did not attempt an explanation of how it would work. Shermer did not explain specified complexity, possibly because he did understand the concept.

After this, Shermer began to air his philosophical and theological ignorance (yes, in a science lecture). I was astonished at how a Darwinist who complains about mixing science and religion spent most of his time at the Biological Science Symposium talking about religion. Especially when he made a point that he is not opposed to discussing religion, just not in science class. One is forced to wonder at the duplicity of his actions. Shermer repeatedly complained that his evaluation of the design seen in nature is that it is not intelligent. For example, why would a designer cause the eye to see upside down and backwards? Obviously, Shermer could have done it better. So, his argument, if I am understanding him, is that if something is designed badly, it was not designed. Hmm, does that apply to faulty appliances, automobiles, and even rockets? Those that malfunction were not designed but evolved?

Then Dr. Shermer came to the question that children always ask, "Well, if God made everything, who made God?" The answer they were hoping for was, "Oh, yeah, you're the first one to think of that. Hmm, guess He doesn't exist." But this is an age-old question, almost the pons asinorum of philosophy and theology. An immense sophisticated literature has been developed around the First Cause question, and Shermer acted like he'd never heard of it.

Some of my more astute readers may have noticed that this is definitely not science, as Shermer defined it, but he did not seem to realize. He said that all good scientists would ask who made the designer, and who made him and so on, seemingly forgetting the first few sentences of his lecture where he said that science looks only for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

And the lecture went on--from bad to worse. Now, Shermer began to throw in a few mistakes. For example, he claimed that all ID advocates believe in the God of Abraham and are motivated by wanting to share Jesus. His evidence? Shermer claims that after two beers all ID advocates admit that they are Christians (the closet variety I presume). Is it possible that he has never heard of Sir Anthony Flew who is no longer an atheist, but is certainly not a Christian? Or, what about Dr. David Berlinski, Ben Stein or Dr. Steve Fuller, none of whom would claim to be Christians, not all of whom are even theists. Of more concern is that it would appear that Shermer is saying that having a religious belief makes one unable to think scientifically. This is dangerous ground, Dr. Shermer, since atheism has also been defined as a religion (7th Circuit Court of Appeals)! My assessment of last night's talk is that Shermer's atheism (he calls it skepticism) is even evangelistic.

The talk was concluded with a consideration of the Anthropic Principle or the fact that the universe is fine-tuned for life. Shermer admitted that he has been given cause for thought by six key physical constants and the narrow range of values that enable our existence, but then went on to dismiss their significance by suggesting the possibility of parallel universes, which also "evolve." He admitted that there is no evidence for a multiverse, but claimed that since religion is "anthropocentrically absurd" we need to "climb to a higher plane of humanity and humility" and embrace "sciensuality" and buy his book.

Are you convinced? I am not.