Friday, October 16, 2009

Casey Luskin, Darwin's Dilemma and the First Amendment

Casey Luskin has a piece on the "brouhaha" that has erupted over the canceled presentation of the ID-promoting film Darwin's Dilemma at the California Science Center, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. He makes a case that the "Darwinian Thought Police" swooped in and made such a stink that the center canceled the event.

In the process of giving us some background, Luskin tells us what, at this point, can only be called a lie about the Cambrian explosion. He writes this:
There are two ways that modern evolutionists approach the Cambrian explosion, or what has been called “Darwin’s dilemma”:

A. Some freely acknowledge that the Cambrian fossil evidence essentially shows the opposite of what was expected under neo-Darwinian evolution.

B. Others deal with the Cambrian explosion by sweeping its problems under the rug and trying to change the subject.

Succumbing to pressure from Darwinian elites, the California Science Center chose option B.
If Luskin had done any research about the Cambrian explosion, he would know that this isn't true. I have posted about that here, and here. There is also a good post at Pharyngula about it. P.Z. Myers characterizes it thus:

But another important lesson, and one that creationists like to hide, is that while this was a sudden event in a geological sense, it wasn't actually all that rapid in human terms. The evolution of the canonical Cambrian forms was drawn out over tens of millions of years. They didn't just come out of nowhere, either; while individual lineages are cryptic, we see a slow aggregate increase in the complexity of multicellular animals in the fossil record that culminated in the flowering of large-animal diversity in the Cambrian.

I've had many creationists try to use the Argument from the Cambrian Explosion as a fait accompli against evolution (most recently, just this week). It's actually an argument from ignorance, though, since the data certainly does not fit a sudden creation by divine or alien fiat. It does fit with the idea of the appearance of these animals as a product of prior history, though…even though there are many mysteries about the details, the big picture does not require miracles or the supernatural.

To put this time-frame into perspective, humans weren't even on the planet ten million years ago.

So, this little fact sort of hits Luskin's credibility while he is trying to make his impassioned plea. Onward. About the Smithsonian, he writes:
The California Science Center is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, which has a long history of opposing academic freedom for ID.

In 2004, a pro-ID peer-reviewed scientific article authored by Stephen Meyer was published in a Smithsonian-affiliated biology journal. Once the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) realized it had published a pro-ID paper, it repudiated Meyer’s article, alleging the paper “does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.” Of course the BSW cited no factual errors in the paper; they just didn’t like Meyer’s conclusions.
Well, no that's quite right either. This has since become known as the "Sternberg Peer-Review Controversy," and was featured in the movie Expelled! as an instance of academic censorship. The paper by Meyer was called The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories1 and was, according to Sternberg, peer-reviewed by himself and three other reviewers, although he has never identified who they were. A statement was released by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington disavowing the paper and its contents. Subsequently, it was criticized by a number of authors, one of which was Robert Weitzel, who argued that Meyer had improperly made use of William Dembski's specified complexity, a concept that has been roundly criticized (recently, in fact) as being both inappropriate for biological systems (here and here) and for being mathematically fuzzy. Common speculation is that Meyer's article would have not made it through the first round of review had it undergone the normal peer-review process. I have read this article. Like the recent Dembski/Marks article on specified complexity, it makes unwarranted conclusions about the nature of the data. Luskin is absolutely correct that they didn't like the conclusions of the paper. Unfortunately, he completely mischaracterizes why.

Luskin continues:
The story picks up in 2006, when a congressional staff investigation found that "Smithsonian's top officials permit[ted] the demotion and harassment of [a] scientist skeptical of Darwinian evolution.” The persecuted scientist was Smithsonian research biologist Richard Sternberg, who experienced retaliation for overseeing the publication of Meyer’s paper.

As the NCSE documents show, Sternberg was neither demoted nor harassed in this incident. He was an unpaid editor who resigned from his job six months before the publication of the article. As for ruination, his research associates position was renewed in 2006 for three more years.

For the rest of the article, Luskin asks why the center reneged on its promise and squelched freedom of speech. Interestingly, throughout the article, he never once mentions the event that might have triggered the reaction in the first place: the Dover/Kitzmiller trial. At the end of the trial, which was nothing short of disastrous for Team Intelligent Design, presiding Judge Jones addressed the concept of ID in the context of religious thought. Citing theologian John Haught, Judge Jones wrote:

Dr. Haught testified that this argument for the existence of God was advanced early in the 19th century by Reverend Paley and defense expert witnesses Behe and Minnich admitted that their argument for ID based on the “purposeful arrangement of parts” is the same one that Paley made for design. (9:7-8 (Haught); Trial Tr. vol. 23, Behe Test., 55-57, Oct. 19, 2005; Trial Tr. vol. 38, Minnich Test., 44, Nov. 4, 2005).The only apparent difference between the argument made by Paley and the argument for ID, as expressed by defense expert witnesses Behe and Minnich, is that ID’s “official position” does not acknowledge that the designer is God. However, as Dr. Haught testified, anyone familiar with Western religious thought would immediately make the association that the tactically unnamed designer is God, as the description of the designer in Of Pandas and People (hereinafter “Pandas”) is a “master intellect,” strongly suggesting a supernatural deity as opposed to any intelligent actor known to exist in the natural world. (P-11 at 85). Moreover, it is notable that both Professors Behe and Minnich admitted their personal view is that the designer is God and Professor Minnich testified that he understands many leading advocates of ID to believe the designer to be God. (21:90 (Behe); 38:36-38 (Minnich)).

Although proponents of the IDM occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members of the IDM, including Defendants’ expert witnesses. (20:102-03 (Behe)). In fact, an explicit concession that the intelligent designer works outside the laws of nature and science and a direct reference to religion is Pandas’ rhetorical statement, “what kind of intelligent agent was it [the designer]” and answer: “On its own science cannot answer this question. It must leave it to religion and philosophy.” (P-11 at 7; 9:13-14 (Haught)).

Further, William Dembski has stated that Intelligent Design "is just the Logos of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory."2

Therefore, the decision to not show the ID film Darwin's Dilemma might just as easily be seen as adhering to the First Amendment by not showing a film that is clearly religiously-based. It is certainly this fact that led to the protests in the first place.

CSC did not help itself in the matter by issuing no formal press release about the cancellation (at least none that I could find) although Jeff Rudolph, head of the center stated that the cancellation had to do with "contract issues, an argument that is echoed by Doc Bill over at (although you have to read around the sarcasm).

Either way, it is clear that this likely does not reflect a case of suppressing academic freedom as much as a case of the center acting prudently or in line with their signed contract. Luskin has blown this up way out of proportion and, in the process carefully bent the truth to suit the Discovery Institute's purposes.

1Meyer, Stephen C. (2004) The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239

2William A. Dembski, (1999) Signs of Intelligence: A Primer on the Discernment of Intelligent Design, Touchstone, July-August, 84.

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