ID Champion William Dembski Declares War on Christians, Children

June 13, 2008

Ok, so I’m not exactly the Onion when it comes to headlines. But what else to make of this post on Uncommon Descent, where Dembski basically demands that all Christians swear loyalty to his partisan movement, or else be labeled as traitors and atheist collaborators? What else to make of his following strategy for “defeating” his enemies:

What’s our strategy. The strategy is multipronged. Let me just give you one prong: WIN THE YOUTH. The release date for Miller’s book is June 12th. I’ve got a book titled Understanding Intelligent Design: Everything You Need to Know (co-authored with youth speaker and high-school teacher Sean McDowell) whose release date is July 1st. It is geared specifically at mobilizing Christian young people, homeschoolers, and church youth groups with the ID alternative to Darwinian evolution. (emphasis added)

Given the highlighted text, it seems like Dembski and crew have pretty much given up on trying to convince the bulk of scientists (both religious and non-religious) of their ideology by, say, penning and publishing some positive evidence for their claims. A simple mathematical proof of Dembski’s various information theory claims would be a nice start. But, as filthy Simpsonian beatniks used to say: they’ve tried nothing, and they’re fresh out of ideas! And now they’re going to take it out on the children instead.

As referenced in the quote above, what’s got Dembski so outraged in particular is Ken Miller’s new book, entitled Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (out now!). After all the kvetching over people judging Expelled before seeing it, Dembski now seems to agree that advance copy is good enough to gab about, and he’s royally pissed about the book jacket’s implication that ID is crippling science education as well as impoverishing the theological imagination.

Fair enough, though Dembski doesn’t seem to actually be inclined to respond to those accusations at present. Instead, he’s prepared to simply dismiss their concerns and arguments based solely on to what degree Richard Dawkins might agree with them.

And as James McGrath points out, there’s something deeply… well, silly about trying to one-up someone else’s book endorsement from Human Genome Project-leader Francis Collins with his own endorsement from… Ann Coulter, a woman whose own readership was apparently so troubled by her use of complete sentences and paragraphs that she had to publish a book of random quotes to mollify them.

In any case, we’ll have to wait and see what Dembski’s Pied Piper act is all about when his book comes out in July.

Myself, I’m highly looking forward to sitting down with a copy of Miller’s new book this weekend. And I suspect that the dustjacket is about as far as Dembski will ever want to venture, given Miller’s track record for solid, evidential smackdowns of Intelligent Design claims.


Anti-Evolutionary Expelled Falls Off the Radar?

May 13, 2008

4 weeks in, and Ben Stein’s anti-evolutionary expose Expelled appears to be petering out on its run. Last weekend it only took in 0.3 million from its remaining 402 theaters, bringing its total haul to a respectable $7.2M It’s still not clear how much the film actually cost to make (probably not too much), or how much it cost to promote (probably quite a lot, considering the pricey markets they bought ads in), and thus whether Premise Media will ultimately break even.

More notably, there doesn’t seem to be any signs as of yet that the film has become the sort of cultural sensation its producers had hoped: no students raising their fists in biology classes, and aside from the pre-orchestrated “academic freedom” bills (many of which seem to have lost some steam themselves), little political impact. The movie’s blog hasn’t been updated in 3 weeks.

So what more is there to say at this point? Intelligent Design has a new corporate ally on the block, and for its opening salvo, it butted heads with the mainstream media and scientists, and mostly just ended up replaying the same old battles one more time. All without anyone having much new to say or any side accomplishing much.

Other than that, I really can’t think of anything. The larger debate goes on, unabated, with yet more bad blood between the participants. C’est la vie, I suppose.


Best of Pharyngula: Praise for the Platypus

May 10, 2008

Whatever you think of PZ Myers, his writing on biological topics is indispensable when it comes to correcting common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about evolution. His latest article, dissecting the newest draft of the platypus genome and its implications for evolutionary taxonomy, is a must read.

The platypus used to be a favorite of creationists: it was a supposed chimera of different animal kingdoms and supposedly a startling mystery for evolution’s picture of common descent. These days, however, creationists have mainly given it up as a lost cause: getting exposed as so wrong, so many times, gets humiliating. Instead, it’s the modern news media, always awash in its rarely updated panoply of stereotypes and clichés, that still gives us breathlessly confused descriptions of the platypus as a “part bird, part reptile and part lactating mammal.”

Understanding what the various “strange” features of the platypus really are and how they fit into the larger history of mammals is essential for anyone who wants to understand how evolutionary biology really works.


Office of Special Counsel Raided by FBI: The Expelled Connection

May 9, 2008

It might otherwise go without notice that the FBI recently raided the Office of Special Counsel, an agency created in the 1970s to protect federal employees from political retaliation for doing their jobs (which includes acting as whistleblowers on government misconduct).

What’s the core issue under dispute? That director Scott Bloch ran the Office of Special Counsel itself as a highly partisan machine: quietly soft-pedaling investigations of political allies, selectively ignoring or betraying the very whistle blowers the agency supposedly exists to protect (most prominently any and all claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation), and issuing fact-free accusations of misconduct against political enemies.

One of the latter cases involved none other than Richard Sternberg, Expelled’s cause célèbre. In that case, the OSC, despite having no jurisdiction (since Sternberg was not a federal employee in the first place), issued a letter claiming that they could substantiate Sternberg’s claims of persecution. Ed Darrell (who alerted me to this story) notes how that one played out:

The mackarel by moonlight in that story (both shining and stinking at the same time) was a letter from the Office of Special Counsel which, while claiming to have found unspecified evidence of wrongdoing [in the Sternberg case], said that OSC was the wrong agency to prosecute wrong-doers (OSC had an obligation to turn over any evidence of wrongdoing to the right agency, but Stein doesn’t mention that; there never was any evidence turned over to anyone). (emphasis added)

Bloch is currently in hot water because he was part of the apparent Bush administration “coincidence” involving the illegally deletion of millions of e-mails and other computer records, which critics suspect might have contained embarrassing or incriminating evidence. The FBI has focused on Bloch in particular for basically doing to his own employees what his own agency supposedly exists to prevent.


Kenneth Miller’s Editorial on Ben Stein’s Anti-Evolutionary Expelled

May 8, 2008

Kenneth Miller, author of “Finding Darwin’s God,” and the very sort of religious scientist that Expelled’s producers avoided like the plague, has an editorial out today, lambasting the film and Ben Stein’s recent comments that “science leads to killing people.”

Good read from an important voice in this debate. And his new book, “Only a Theory,” which I’m quite excited to read, comes out next month!

HT: Gospel of Karen


Finally: My Own Expelled Review Extravaganza

April 27, 2008

So, I went to see Premise Media’s Expelled. I paid my way (though matinée), sat alone in an empty theater, and took notes. And now it’s finally time to parse things for your pleasure.

Just as a framing device, I’ll pose some questions as a way to setup and organize my thoughts about various aspects of the film.

I should also clarify at the outset that I’m going to be treating figures who speak unopposed throughout the movie, people like Steven Meyer, David Berlinski, and so on, as if they speak for the film. I think, given how the film played out, this is perfectly fair. They are in some ways more the voice of the film than Stein, who basically is there to nod along and agree with them, or prompt them with leading questions. Indeed, aside from the bookend footage of Stein traveling to meet them or speaking at Pepperdine, I could just as easily imagine the film’s credits listing Berlinski, Meyer, Sternberg, and others as the opinionated hosts interviewing Ben Stein and trying to convince him of their position.

Anyhow, off we go:

Read the rest of this entry »


Report on Expelled Soon, Mark Mathis Shocks and Goons

April 24, 2008

Been quite a busy couple of days for me, but I hope to have a final report on Expelled soon. The only thing I can say at this point is that it all almost seems redundant. We’ve been over this stuff, so, so many times. Seeing the film simply was and is not a way of engaging in the larger debate in any substantive fashion.

But in the meantime, don’t miss this astoundingly telling tidbit from Real Detroit Weekly. With no jumplink right to the article, you’ll have to scroll down to the bottom of the page, but it’s well worth it. Unless the reporter is badly misrepresenting things, Mathis comes off as unbelievably ignorant about the very subjects his film is supposed to be an informed critic about, reciting boilerplate creationist canards and then crumbling away from those bold claims by insisting that it doesn’t matter.

As I’ve noted many, many times, the movie’s entire premise relies on pretty much avoiding the question of whether ID really is sound, testable science. As RDW notes “But it’s not a question of censorship—it’s a question of classification.”

And if largely dodging that absolutely unavoidable issue in the film wasn’t bad enough, RDW portrays Mathis as not really even understanding the basic idea to begin with: evolution is falsifiable? Speciation is observable? All, astonishingly, news to Mathis. Like Stein, Mathis seems to have pumped himself up with the standard quiver of creationist claims, but is utterly baffled to find that they doesn’t hold up to even a few seconds of critical analysis.


More Wisdom That Kevin D. At Dean’s World Learned From Expelled

April 22, 2008

Dean’s world blogger Kevin D, fresh from his weekend viewing of Expelled, has been busy putting what he learned from the film to good use. First there was his screed about the importance of free debate, after which, without any apparent sense of irony or self-parody, he immediately disabled commenting and response.

In his latest post, he tosses in a generous helping of the endlessly tiresome “see, I told you you’d all disagree with me, and the fact that you did just goes to show I’m right!” followed by one of the central fallacies of the film: that we could have any sort of sensible debate over whether ID is mistreated in academia… without ever seriously exploring the actual scientific merits of ID itself.

No no, says Kevin: if anyone tries to debate that issue, game over. Apparently, in order to critique the same arguments ID proponents have been making for decades, we now must all first pay 10$ to an evangelical film outfit for the privilege of listening to them repeat these very same accusations on screen. Then we may sensibly comment on the controversy and claims again, or respond to the claims made by the producers and reviewers such as Kevin.

But the best part of his latest is when he deploys one of the kookiest arguments I’ve encountered in a long time: basically, ‘how dare you try to respond to my assertions about the film’s claims without having seen the film: don’t you know how potentially unreliable I am?

And no, I’m not making that last one up:

You’ve not seen the documentary but feel compelled to tell us all how it’s wrong. Or, in Mr. Kirwin’s case, how Ben Stein is wrong about connecting Nazism to Darwinsim but not taking into consideration that perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Stein. Instead he chides Ben Stein anyway rather than doing the responsible thing, seeing the film for himself, and then writing his opinion. So, Scott Kirwin doesn’t correct something stated in the documentary he heard for himself, but goes off half-cocked based upon the very definition of hearsay. If this is the way Scott treats people he claims to like I’d hate to see how he treats people he doesn’t like. (emphasis added)

Kevin’s not always the clearest of writers (a sin I’m all too familiar with myself), but if I’m following his logic correctly, I’m pretty sure that he’s implying that it’s irresponsible to listen to what he [Kevin] has to say.

Point taken, I guess?


Expelled’s First Weekend: Was Ben Stein Hot or Not?

April 21, 2008

So Expelled has had its first big opening weekend: huge success? Crushing disappointment? I really have no way to tell, though it certainly doesn’t seem to have done what the producers were promising.

Deadline Hollywood Daily suggests that the film has underperformed so far, and despite the huge influx of recent viewers I’ve had gloating about how the film really stuck it to those dastardly evolutionists, it doesn’t look like the film opened big enough to match the major marketing mojo spent on promoting it. Nor does the free publicity of the pro-science side’s harsh response to the film seem to have amounted for much.

Still, if i had to guess, the film is likely to be a slow burner in the theaters (i.e. stick around for a while, albeit on a smaller scale) and ultimately make huge backend bank on DVD sales.

Me, despite being a pretty unabashed critic, I’m happy whether it does well or not. While less widely celebrated propaganda is probably a good thing, I think by and large more attention given to a subject like evolution balances out the bad information that gets people excited. The film also drives a pretty nice nail into the coffin of the “the ID movement has no religious agenda” argument, and the claim that evolution, in contrast, is a similarly atheist enterprise is so weakly and selectively supported by the film that its not likely to hold up in the places it would matter.

I’ll hopefully get a chance to catch it sometime this week, and I won’t feel in the least bad about handing the producers some extra money. They can have all the cash they want to make as big of a fuss as they want.

Meanwhile, Randy Olson, producer of the “wake up scientists, creationists are better at mass communication than you” film Flock of Dodos, is bemoaning the lack of similar projects on the mainstream science side. I’m not sure I disagree with any of his points, quite, but I’m just not sure I see where he thinks such efforts would come from, how they would be organized, and so on.

It’s quite true that creationists have lots of money and media strategies and PR firms and so forth on their side, whereas most scientists and science advocates have little money for PR and even less interest in the debate. But I’m just not sure what it buys creationists over scientists other than a lot of confused, ranting fans. Broader public support could certainly create a lot of headaches for biologists and educators, but when it comes down to brass tacks a whole lot of perception still isn’t going to recreate scientific reality.

Update: The second weekend’s estimated results are in. It doesn’t look like most theaters will have much to specially justify keeping Expelled in past the standard two weeks, but honestly, this is pretty much the standard trajectory for most documentaries (few of which ever open this wide to begin with). While it came nowhere close to the official hype, this certainly seems like a modest, not tanking, take for a documentary on its own terms. For the producers, it really all comes down to how much they spent on promoting and marketing the film (apparently quite a lot: national ad buys on some of the top rated cable shows?).


Transplanted Lizards Evolve New Traits in Just 36 Years?

April 21, 2008

Science Daily reports on a new study in which a species of lizards, transplanted to a new island, evolved a number of new traits in just 36 years. As is often the case with Science Daily, I’m a little skeptical of the reporting. If the transplanted lizards experienced morphological changes, how could they be genetically “identical” to the source population? And no matter how rare these “cecal valve” structures are in lizards, the fact that they are known in other lizards should at least suggest the alternative hypothesis that they are an environmental reaction rather than a genetic change (though it could also be a very simple and common mutation that only takes hold in certain environments).

In any case, rapid evolutionary change in response to a new environment is actually nothing new. Many previous studies have transplanted species into a new environment, and then observed morphological changes (the unit of measure here is charmingly called a “Darwin“) happening that are orders of magnitude faster than the fastest changes observed in the fossil record.

Findings like these are part of why the incredulity of most creationists about the power of evolutionary change is hard to square with the known realities of biology. If anything, one of the big mysteries in evolution is not how large changes can possibly happen quickly (or happen at all), but rather just the opposite: why change seems to have happened so slowly in the past compared to the potential for speedy change that we observe in the present.


Lessons that Ben Stein Taught Kevin D.

April 21, 2008

Seems like the target audience for Expelled is already picking up on the basic tactic of the film. To paraphrase one evangelical blogger:

How dare people be close-minded and not allow debate!

(…comments disabled)


Anti-Evolutionary Doc Expelled to be Turned into 8 hour TV Miniseries? Anti-Abortion Sequel?

April 18, 2008

I somehow missed this bit of news, but apparently that’s what someone was told at a recent screening.

HT to Turn the Clock Forward.