Expelled! at the National Review: Steven Hayward On Intelligent Design

February 19, 2008

Over at the National Review’s Corner, PRI fellow Steve Hayward has been trading polite “can’t agree with you theres” with John Derbyshire over the Intelligent Design film Expelled!

Unfortunately, Hayward seems to have bought into the central message of the film without any evident reservation: the idea that scientists are indeed rushing to create blacklists and persecute intelligent design proponents merely for daring to ask questions. And while Derbyshire is giving his usual unabashed best on the subject, he seems to be mostly leaving this belief alone.

There are two important responses to this claim, both worth repeating.

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Intelligent Design Film Expelled! Gets a Positive Review

February 19, 2008

Of course, it’s from the American Spectator’s resident Intelligent Design author Tom Bethell, who is hardly one to bite his own hand, which feeds him. His review is the usual mantra of half-truths and bizarre characterizations. He even manages to slander religious scientists like Kenneth Miller by claiming that they put “diplomacy before truth” in their acceptance of evolution.

As we all suspected, this review confirms the use of Stein touring Holocaust death camps, pawning his Jewish heritage to pimp Intelligent Design:

In the movie there are somber moments, as when Stein visits World War II death camps and traces the Nazi philosophy back to the godless Darwinian world in which fitness must prevail and everything is permitted.

With statements this confused, it’s always difficult to know where to start.

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Don’t Listen to Ellen Johnson: Atheists Should Vote

February 18, 2008

Over at the Friendly Atheist, Hemant highlights a recent bit of incoherency in the positions of American Atheist leader Ellen Johnson, who apparently decided not to vote in the recent primary elections.  Hemant does a good job of defending what I assume to be his favored candidate, Obama, from Johnson’s cynical call to sit out elections.  There is little doubt that Obama and Clinton, and the presumptive Republican nominee McCain, are all religious, but bemoaning the lack of an atheist candidate at a national level is just sour-grapes bigotry, not savvy politics.

Rational people should understand how representative democracy works, instead of pretending that its something its not.  Our election systems are based on forced compromise, end of story.  In order for us to all live together as one big, ideologically diverse nation, there’s simply no logical way that every subgroup can get 100% of what it wants. If ever we wanted such a dictatorship, it could only work for one interest group at a time.  Comfort yourself over your compromise by recognizing that nearly everyone in the country has to compromise just as much, if not more, when they cast their votes.  That’s just how the system works.

And frankly, I find a lot of the atheist kvetching over God-talk amongst the Democrats this year to be overblown.  PZ Myers let his vaunted rantism overcome his reading acuity in his recent screed against Obama’s supposed “ghastly exercise in self-delusion and post hoc justification of religious bigotry.”  The fact that a religious person thinks that religious values are worthwhile to a public debate could be a jumping off point to deride non-believers as inferior, with less to contribute.  But when someone like Obama clearly goes out of his way to show that this is not his message, accusing him of the implication anyway just seems petty, not principled.  When candidates could easily safely ignore the non-believer vote, credit where credit is due for politicians that never fail to put in a compensatory good word for the unchurched.

Anyway, one more reason for me to give an eye-roll to the endlessly clumsy and tone-deaf group American Atheists.  If any regular people think that Ellen Johnson is Queen of All Atheists, no wonder they aren’t impressed.

No Free Speech or Debate Allowed on Intelligent Design’s Expelled!

February 16, 2008

This deserved its own post: one of the few people who have seen the creationist film Expelled! and haven’t been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements was Colorado Confidential’s Dan Whipple, who panned the flick back in December.

He’s now written another article on the peculiar press junket that the Expelled! folks have taken on the road to promote their film. It’s well worth a read, but the long and the short of it is that these folks, who call biologists hypocrites for not acting out the things they observe in nature, seem to have some real blinders on when it comes to their own message of “freedom of speech.”

In short, only carefully pre-approved questions are allowed at their events, and virtually all are from religious and right-wing “family” organizations. No critics allowed. And any viewers of their film are, of course, required to sign an agreement purporting to waive their right to free speech about the film!

That’s not exactly the sort of commitment to a “marketplace of ideas” you’d expect from people that claim that this is their one true rallying cry.

And then there’s this embarrassing exchange between Stein and his PR straight-man:

Paul Lauer: You mentioned that Darwinism appears to be lacking on certain fronts. From your research, and your travels, and interviews with many different scientists, what are some of the areas that scientists are, perhaps, increasingly saying are problematic with the theory of, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?

Ben Stein:Well, just a couple of them, I’ve already hit one is: Where did life come from? Second one is: How did the cell get so complex? Third one, which I think is overwhelming, and just sort of blows the whole theory of Random Mutation out of the water, is, at least, let me say, raises big questions, that is. Assuming it all did happen by Random Mutation and Natural Selection, where did the laws of gravity come from. Where did the laws of thermodynamics come from? Where did the laws of motion and, of heat come from? Where, I guess that’s the same as thermodynamics. Where did all these laws, that make it possible for the universe to function, where did they all come from? Why isn’t all just chaos and everything collapsing in on itself and killing everything? I think that`s where the universe works. Who created these perfect laws, that keeps the planet in motion, keeps the blood pumping through our bodies? So, I think, all these are giant questions that need answers. (emphasis added)

Biologists don’t even claim that biological history or even evolution “all happened” by random mutation and natural selection. The idea that the origin of the universe is an unanswered question for “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” is just downright daffy. It’s like claiming that the big unanswered question within the television series Lost is how the television network ABC that produces it got its start. If Stein wants to believe that the laws of the universe were written by God, then evolutionary theory contains no conflict whatsoever with this idea. He would, in my opinion, be jumping to a rather unwarranted and deeply misinformed conclusion, but deeply misinformed about physics and philosophy, not biology.

Expelled Producers Expell More Intelligent Design Slime: Lies and Nonsense A’hoy

February 16, 2008

Marking “Darwin Day” (and also the original release date of their film), the producers of Expelled have penned yet another smirkingly amateur tirade against evolution on their official blog. They seemed to have discovered that Darwin’s Origin of the Species has a sub-title that includes the word “races” though they bizarrely then seem to agree that this word had nothing to do with human races, but was the 18th century term for “varieties.” Nevertheless, they include this as if it were some sort of shocking hidden secret in biology, despite the fact that every scientific or historical minded person on the planet already knows about it, and most have discussed it at length. And then it’s into a sanctimonious tirade about how they like Lincoln more than Darwin.

PZ Myers calls it a solid wall of lies and nonsense and gives it a pretty darn thorough debunking.

The gist is that highlighting the fact that Darwin was a man of his time, and shared the same racial prejudices as everyone else, is irrelevant to the validity of his science (which rests on the evidence for or against), irrelevant to the validity of evolution today (what Darwin thought is irrelevant except as historical and biographical interest), and deeply misleading to boot, at least as a comparison to Lincoln. Darwin and Lincoln BOTH shared the same racial prejudices (and not only them, but everyone of their era, including most of the African-American leaders of the nascent civil-rights movement like W.E.B. Du Bois). Myers quotes Lincoln to drive the point home, and it’s really worth a full read:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.

The important thing for both Darwin and Lincoln is that while they both held these prejudices, and were lesser men for it, they were also far more progressive on race than most everyone else of their era, including many of the ancestors of the very religious right that’s behind Expelled. Darwin, in fact, may have been more progressive than Lincoln, in that he opposed slavery far more bluntly and directly, and did believe in some measure of political racial equality.

Of course, all of this, in this day and age, is pure posturing. Both men are dead. Both had ideas that were historically important to the development of our nation and our science, respectively, but neither is any sort of final or even current authority on anything. And no one pretends that they are… except for creationists.

The other big goof the Expelled Producers make is in trying to slam Dawkins as a supposed “hypocrite”

In his “The Ancestor’s Tale,” he posed the Welfare State as a challenge to Darwinism. When asked by an Austrian journalist in an interview (Die Presse -July 30, 2005) how he would justify that challenge?

Dawkins: “No self-respecting person would want to live in a Society that operates according to Darwinian laws. I am a passionate Darwinist, when it involves explaining the development of life. However, I am a passionate anti-Darwinist when it involves the kind of society in which we want to live. A Darwinian State would be a Fascist state.”

Or, in other words, “I really don’t want to think about it!”

Nonsense. There is a crucial and unavoidable distinction between describing what is, and proscribing what ought to be. It is the producers of Expelled that seem utterly blind to this distinction. What they see as someone like Dawkins not following through on “true” evolution is simply someone not following through on a deeply confused caricature. The argument here is as profoundly stupid as claiming that since physicists do not oppose the use of airplanes or hot air balloons, then they haven’t “really” thought about the theory of gravity.

The only question that remains is whether this movie will succeed in spreading these sorts of profoundly silly misconceptions far and wide, or whether viewers will reason right through them.

Demons Among Us: Exorcism Revival in Europe

February 11, 2008

Exorcism, in all its goofy glory, is making a comeback.

“People don’t pray anymore, they don’t go to church, they don’t go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it,” Amorth said in an interview. “There’s a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus.”

Amorth and other priests said the resurgence in exorcisms has been encouraged by the Vatican, which in 1999 formally revised and upheld the rite for the first time in almost 400 years.

Because as we know, people that don’t go to church inevitably drift towards worshiping a demigod in the pantheon of a random theology that they don’t believe in.

Jankowski cited the case of a woman who asked for a divorce days after renewing her wedding vows as part of a marriage counseling program. What was suspicious, he said, was how the wife suddenly developed a passionate hatred for her husband.

“According to what I could perceive, the devil was present and acting in an obvious way,” he said. “How else can you explain how a wife, in the space of a couple of weeks, could come to hate her own husband, a man who is a good person?”

Well, clearly, only mystical demons waving their googly invisible fingers can explain such a thing as minor marital strife!

This sort of logic strikes me as an embarrassingly naive Satan-of-the-Gaps gambit. How does the priest know that the husband is a “good person” anyway? Can he really rule out the possibility that he’s done something awful to his wife that she resents but doesn’t want to talk about? Or that she’s just gotten annoyed by the guy, as just happens sometimes? Or that she’s just a jerk?

But, as I’m always interested in the technical details of these sort of phenomena (which often seem to get made up on the fly), this article actually does provide a bit of insight:

Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons — which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench.

Ah, so people can be partially possessed by demons. That makes things much more interesting.

But how do priests know this, exactly? Did they stumble upon a demonic livejournal documenting the halting progress of some illict supernatural relationship? How can they tell partial possession from just a really smart demon who knows better than to act up too much when priests are lurking around with their ghostbuster equipment? What’s going on with a “partial” possession anyway? Are demons in control of some neurons in the brain, but not others?

Or, if you want to insist that “souls” are involved, then maybe you could explain how this works, exactly. Do souls have little labeled levers that demons can tug at?  How do souls “work” such that these behorned-goatypants-ghosts can actually manipulate them?  What functional inner workings of a soul are demons subverting, exactly?  What functions are they seizing from the operator?  How does the conflict work? Come on, tell me.

Again, the thing with “reality” is that there are tangible details to true explanations, and the details matter. The thing with “stuff someone makes up as they go along” is that the details don’t matter: demons act however they need to for the belief in them to continue to fit the story being told. Or maybe there’s no grounds for any sort of explanation. It’s a “supernatural” explanation, which means, basically, no explanation at all.

And, yes, yes.  You heard it here first: demons are to blame for Smelly Body Odor. But only if their voodoo powered soul-squatting or whatever is “complete.”  

Exorcists said they are careful not to treat people suffering from mental illness, and that they regularly consult with psychologists and physicians. At the same time, they said, conventional medical therapy often neglects spiritual ailments.

Perhaps it does.  But I’d really like to know how one would diagnose a spiritual ailment.  Doctors, for instance, diagnose problems by knowing generally how the symptoms are connected to an underlying cause.  They can often even provide some sort of testable plausible model that gives reliable results. What’s the similar process here? Is there one?

By the definition of these guys, I probably have a pretty darn serious “spiritual ailment” in my atheism: how come I don’t smell like sulfur or recoil at red wine that’s been duly blessed?  How come I’m not blowing through cartons of underarm deodorant a day?  Savvy defenders might, I suppose, excuse my lack of demonic influence by the excuse that demons have no need to trifle with the already fallen.  But why is there no consistency to any of these things other than whatever the priest declares, ex posterio, is going on?

And is “spiritual ailment” just a religious gloss on the far more mundane “upset and unhappy,” perhaps with a little theological angst tossed in? It sure seems like it is.

Still, it must be nice to believe that ones bad thoughts and impulses are the work of some sort of covert act of sabotage, and that by waving a ball of incense around, you can block the transmissions of the CIA…. er I mean, Satan. But no no, seriously, these people aren’t mentally ill. No similarities there at all.

“My remedy is based on spiritual means, which cannot be replaced by any pharmaceutical remedies,” said Trojanowski, the priest who is overseeing plans for the new exorcism center. “I do not stop at the level of just treating symptoms. I’m very much interested in the soul of a person. As a priest, I keep asking questions a doctor will never ask.”

Because I know how always frustrates me when my doctor won’t consider the possibility that elf curses are making me gain weight.

Seriously though, what the priests are ultimately doing here is making upset, confused, and possibly deranged people feel better by telling them that they are using their mystical powers to cure them. For all their pretensions about curing a “soul,” what they are doing here is no different than what any psychologist tries to do: trying to make people feel better and deal with their problems by talking to them.   The priests simply toss in a bit more ceremony.

And while any medical doctor could do the same sort of thing with a physical ailment, they don’t. And why not? Because in the case of the doctor, just telling patients that they are curing them and then making some cryptic hand signals is fraud and malpractice, not medicine.

Until priests can actually describe the specific working mechanism of souls, explain how in particular they are subverted by fallen angels, and show how the priest’s interventions work to treat the condition, I think the sanctimonious scorn for the limits of western medicine is a teensy bit premature.

Busy. M’kay?

February 5, 2008

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately.  It turns out that everything has been perfect and reasonable and nothing has been deserving of criticism the last few days, which really, comes as quite a relief to all of us.

Unfortunately, with everything from the Florida creationism fight to the release of Expelled! to NewsTarget’s (now “Natural News”) continued existence, this spell of sense and sanity surely cannot last.