Intelligent Design in the UK

Some days I am embarrassed to be British. Fortunately this is rare, but it does happen, the Big Brother farce was one occasion and today I found another. (Steve Fuller’s Strange Arguments)

During the US Intelligent Design trial in Dover, there was a UK based [sometimes referred to as “British” but I am fairly sure he is an American who lives over here] “Philosopher of Science” who was brought out for the defence (i.e. he was there to convince the Judge that ID should be taught as a science) called . Apparently he is a professor in the Sociology Department at Warwick University and was an “expert witness” as the result of specialising in the history and sociology of science. Now, I am going to refrain from commenting on the crackpottery which took place in the trial (of which Prof. Fuller was a prime example, sorry, I tried) but highlight some newer points he has raised. More worryingly he appears on a blog called ID in the United Kingdom which is what really shames me as a Brit but more later.

Prof. Fuller begins his blog post “I have never been a ‘religious’ person in the conventional sense, though I was a scholarship student in a Jesuit school before going to university” which I find strange to say the least. I think he and I must have a different idea of what “religious in the conventional sense” means. Maybe he means he was a devout Jesuit rather than Hindu or something.

To ensure that his bias is identified he mentions “Nevertheless, the experience left me with an overall positive impression of Christianity, especially as the source for modern secular conceptions of social progress” which is interesting as even in the UK, intelligent design tries to distance itself from being seen as a “religious” point of view. It seems to poor, humble old me, that Prof. Fuller’s defence of ID as a science is entirely based on his Christian upbringing and orientation rather than any actual scientific reasoning.

His lack of real scientific background (sorry to all the social scientists out there) is espoused by comments such as “Indeed, I have come to believe that the specific form of monotheism developed through Judaism, Christianity and Islam – whereby humans are said to have been created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ – best explains the West’s unique scientific achievement.” It is, basically, blithering nonsense.

However, Prof. Fuller is a historian of science, not a scientist per se so some leeway must be given and we can overlook what could potentially turn out to be nothing more than semantic arguments. Sadly, he doesn’t really do much better on the history (or sociological fronts either).

[talking about the founding of the US] The original British settlers, especially in what became the liberal northern establishment, were wealthy dissenters (including Catholics and Jews) who were prohibited from political participation in their homeland. Henceforth, all attempts to impose a religious orthodoxy would be prohibited – in the name of protecting religious freedom, of course.

Blimey. I have no idea where he got this from but the Original British settlers had very few Catholics amongst their number and as for Jews……… Is he really mad? This was followed by:

Thus, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the trial in which I testified, is classed as a civil rights case.

Thanks to Ed Brayton for pointing out this is not what it seems in that “that all cases involving a provision of the Bill of Rights are called civil rights cases. But Kitzmiller was an establishment clause case specifically, which means it does not require that someone’s civil rights have been violated, only that the government, in this case the school board, has acted outside its constitutional authority.

Now you would hope that a Historian and a Sociologist would be able to make themselves better informed before they started passing judgements on the cases in which they were involved. Sadly it seems this level of background research and objectivity is beyond Prof. Fuller at this time. He continues with this gem:

It is not the first time a moral panic has broken out over the prospect that some religiously inspired views might make their way into state-supported schools. The legal response has been characteristically thuggish. Thus, the American Civil Liberties Union bulldozed its way into Dover, Pennsylvania, just as it did eighty years ago in Dayton, Tennessee to turn the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial into an international sensation.

At which point, to be honest, I largely lose interest in anything more he has to say. This is not an argument, and it is not an assessment of fact nor history. It is, simply, as Ed Brayton puts it so well, nothing more than an ugly insult.

There is a hidden implication that ID must be legitimate because the ACLU bulldozed the Scopes trial. This is dripping in fallacy and, shamefully, the rest of Prof. Fuller’s post is as well. I will stop trying to deconstruct it here though, as the Dispatches from the Culture Wars blog does it very efficiently and I don’t see the point in continuing to repeat what is said there, here. Oddly, Fuller seems to feel that the subjects taught in schools should be at the discretion of the taxpayer (which is odd, as surely professional teachers should decide?) rather than the current US system – which smacks of following the argument that science can be determined by debate. I found that quite strange.

Before I move away from Fuller, part of his conclusion contains the following: (emphasis my own)

[on the future for ID] Its proponents lean too heavily on the evidence against evolution. They too quickly reach for God and don’t make enough of the idea that ‘design’ is a concept indifferent to the life/non-life distinction. People (mostly younger ones) who generate virtual realities on computers and biotechnology in laboratories are quite happy to blur the life/non-life distinction, imagining themselves in a God-like capacity. They are a natural constituency for ID, and should be cultivated.

First off, “they too quickly reach for God” because ID is an offshoot of religionist dogma and belief not science. This is the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of ID being science. It is a shame that Prof. Fuller seems to miss that point.

More disurbingly the last sentence above speaks not of science, and the expansion of knowledge, but of simply indoctrinating the young. Religious organisations have regularly targetted the young (smacks of brainwashing but…) and this is just more of the same. I still find it scary when things like this are said in such “reasonable” tones.

More importantly though, the whole Intelligent Design in the UK blog makes me sad, and ashamed to be British. I have said in the past that the Australian government should demand the money it has paid to schools back and now it seems the UK is in the same boat.

On the blog there are posts which are “neutral” (in that they do not imply the blog authors are insane or genius), such as the comments on the Heaven and Earth program about an ID debate. Entertainingly in this case, the director of the Wellcome Trust says Evolution is backed by science and the counter argument seems to be “ID has a history which goes back to the ancient Greeks.[Dr Alistair Noble]” Blimey. How is that for a solid, scientific rationale.

Then there are some which bear the mark of crackpottery. In the post titled “Intelligent Design and Evolution have the same status as scientific theories” we see the Royal Holoway University of London falls into the trap of Science By Consensus in that Prof Fuller is having a debate with (FRS). What ever the outcome of debates like this, it is meaningless.

The mark of crackpottery (for me) is “Given that we have a rationalist debating a secular humanist this hardly looks like a standard religion versus science debate!” Well possibly, but I doubt it. Fuller pretty much produces the standard religionist arguments, so I doubt this would be any different.

More of the same follows (2nd law of thermodynamics vs abiogenisis etc) and it is all fairly humdrum fare. All the bits I looked at are well established fallacies so it seems this site is not adding anything to the ID cause and is probably just repackaging the same nonsense for a new audience. The Talk.Orgins website has an excellent dismissal of nearly all the points made.

Before I stop on this topic (for now), there is a post about 12 “prominent” academics who have written to the PM asking ID be taught in schools [using the incredibly disingenuous term “Truth in Science”]. The post goes on to list eight of them (what was wrong with the other four?) as follows:

  1. Norman Nevin OBE, Professor Emeritus of Medical Genetics, Queen’s University of Belfast,
  2. Antony Flew, formerly professor of philosophy at Reading University;
  3. Terry Hamblin, professor of immunohaemotology at Southampton University;
  4. John Walton, professor of chemistry at St Andrews University,
  5. David Back, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool;
  6. Steve Fuller, Professor of Sociology at Warwick University;
  7. Mart de Groot, Director, Retired, Armagh Astronomical Observatory;
  8. Colin Reeves, Professor of Operational Research at Coventry University

Now, without doubting any of their scientific credentials, it is interesting that only three are in fields really related to Evolutionary Biology (which seems to suggest there is a false authority fallacy taking place here). This is debated in the commentary on that page, with counter-counter arguments such as this:

[in reply to some one pointing out there are not 12 promient academics mentioned and most are in unrelated disciplines] relevance?

The signatorees didn’t say that evolution was irrelevant to an undersanding of the origins of life, and they didn’t call themselves experts in evolution, either. They are arguing for an alternative to be taught alongside it. So all your cut-and-paste documentation is worthless.

This is a lovely, scathing comeback, isn’t it? It is draped in the ID cloak of fallacies and insults. ID is not an alternative theory to evolution, it is a belief structure. It is not science. This is like asking school children be taught alternative theories of Gravitation, or electromagnetism. As they are in fields unrelated to evolutionary biology, they may well not be aware of what science supports evolution. Using them as “prominent academics” who support ID is nothing more than false authority.

Typical IDers I suppose.

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