Friday, 6 May 2011

An encounter with the Centre for Intelligent Design – debating creationism, ID and Holocaust denial

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

What follows is a guest post by Keith Gilmour, a secondary school Religious and Moral Education (RME) and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) teacher from Scotland who recently had an encounter with Alastair Noble, director of the Glasgow-based Centre for Intelligent Design, an organisation that science education campaigners have been watching closely since it was founded in the autumn of last year. For an insight into the frustrating experience of arguing with proponents of Intelligent Design, as well as the position from which the C4ID appear to be operating, I urge you to read on.
On Wednesday 20th April, I spoke at an event organised by the Humanist Society of Scotland for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The topic was "The Threat of Creeping Creationism in Scottish Schools". This took place in the University of Edinburgh's Informatics Forum.

As a secondary school Religious and Moral Education (RME) and Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies (RMPS) teacher, I began my contribution with a summary of my school's curriculum, before going on to highlight some of the unsolicited ID and creationist material (books, DVDs, etc) that have been sent out to our school. Some had been addressed to the head teacher, some to the science department, and some to my own.

I next went on to explain that, to any teacher objectively exploring the existence of God with teenagers, evolution is a lot like the Holocaust – neither “disprove” the existence of God but both present significant challenges to traditional theistic beliefs. From the RMPS perspective, it is the responses that are worth considering. Theists can either add one or both of these unpleasant realities to the many other objections to the faith position and abandon their belief in God, or they can find ways of reconciling them with their belief in a loving Creator ("This may be the best of all possible worlds", "Part of a Divine plan", "God shares in the sufferings of His creatures", and so on).

Creationists and Holocaust deniers offer a third option. However, by requiring the rejection of overwhelming scientific/historical evidence, they rule themselves out of any serious discussion and neither should be invited into schools to talk to pupils. And they exclude themselves further through everything else that they have in common. Both object that a minority of highly educated people reject what 99 per cent of scientists/historians accept, and that this fringe group will eventually be proved right. (For Holocaust deniers see, for example, Paul Rassinier, Robert Faurisson, Arthur Butz and The Institute for Historical Review). Both are notorious for quoting experts out of context (to give the misleading impression their crank view has some serious support), for mischaracterising scholarly debate over details as a failure to agree even on the basics, and for seizing upon any mistake (however minor) to argue that the entire field of study is riddled with incompetence, ignorance and deception. Both rely on a kind of “book disproved by its missing pages” reasoning and are forever demanding “caught in the act” evidence before they'll believe a single thing (though usually only in this area of life). Both groups imagine themselves to be victims of a massive conspiracy that shuts them out of some imagined “debate” and both accuse their critics of misunderstanding them (like we think Holocaust deniers imagine no killings took place at all and evolution deniers believe nothing has evolved, anywhere, ever).

During the Q&A that followed the final speaker's talk (I had been on third out of four), Dr Alastair Noble, director of the recently-founded Centre for Intelligent Design, raised his hand and rather angrily informed me that many “scientists” defend Creationism and ID and that it had therefore been outrageous of me to liken creationists to Holocaust deniers. I responded by rhyming off a similar number of “historians” who can (and should) be labelled as Holocaust deniers, and again asked why either fringe group should be thought to have much in the way of credibility.

At this point, the Q&A moved on to other questioners, issues and speakers but, once outside, I intercepted Dr Noble and handed him a two-page article from BBC Focus Magazine entitled "Unintelligent Design". He stuffed this into his case, telling me he was most unlikely ever to read it and again how outrageous it had been of me to compare creationists to Holocaust deniers (a comparison I first came across in Michael Shermer's 1998 book, Why People Believe Weird Things). I raised many of the questions reproduced below, receiving satisfactory answers to precisely none of them. Dr Noble had been particularly irked by the panel’s one or two references to "ID-Creationism" and by my own insistence that ID was just William Paley’s “Argument from Design” for the 21st century – plus much bad science (and some mad conspiracy theory scepticism) thrown in for good measure.

As I understand it, creationism is based on an unwillingness (or inability) to move too far away from a literalist interpretation of scripture. Proponents of Intelligent Design claim not to be starting from this point, while continuing to work hand in glove with their creationist ancestors/cousins/fellow travellers. In contradistinction, they claim to be basing their attitude to science on the complexities it uncovers. Were it not for the company they kept and the tactics they employed, and if they could content themselves with letting science teachers stick to the facts unearthed, this would be respectable enough. Science teachers might even venture that some sort of fine-tuning intelligence or intelligences (aliens, perhaps) may or may not be responsible for all this complexity (DNA, the Goldilocks enigma, life from nonlife, the birth of the universe, etc) – that is, after all, the mainstream theistic view. But ID proponents cannot stop there. They want pupils to be told that "an intelligent designer" is what the evidence points to. And they do not want to accept that they have wandered from science into theology and philosophy. But no matter how furiously they insist otherwise, all that they are really doing is putting forward an updated version of the Argument From Design (i.e. that complexity implies a creator). The only change is the fact that they talk now about the complexity of computer software, instruction manuals and megacities, where Paley relied upon the complexities of a pocket watch.

The reason creationists and the ID crowd want this in a science class is that they presumably wouldn't, in that context, feel obliged to follow it up with the inevitable philosophical objections – "Who designed the designer?" (or, if you prefer, "Who programmed the programmer?"), "Why imagine only one designer?", "Why imagine the designer knows/cares we're here?", "How do we know the designer's not dead?", "Why the dithering, delays and design flaws?", "Why all the waste and horror?", "Isn't the Goldilocks planet just a lottery winner?", "Where is all this going, exactly?".

Following my encounter with Dr Noble, I now have a number of questions for him:
  • As well as being a proponent of Intelligent Design, does he also (perhaps separately) consider himself a creationist? Although they are coming at things from different angles, there is no reason he cannot be both.
  • During our post-debate discussion, Dr Noble objected to my suggestion that Intelligent Design growing out of Creationism was akin to the BNP having grown out of the National Front. Instead, he claimed a better analogy would be the IRA and Sinn Fein! Does he stand by this? And, if so, who is meant to be which?
  • Does he consider himself to be in 'coalition' with creationist groups?
  • Roughly what percentage of his beliefs does he imagine he might share with the average creationist?
  • If supernatural explanations can be considered suitable for Science classes, why not also History, Geography and Modern Studies?
  • Why does his website refer to both ID and Creationism as "theories"?
  • Does he agree with Michael Behe's definition of Science (shown, in court, to encompass astrology)?
  • Does he condemn the ludicrous 'Atlas of Creation'?
  • In what sense is "a supernatural designer" the "best explanation"? Or any explanation at all?
  • Dr Noble told me that the mind and the brain are not the same thing. What did he mean by this?
In addition, I would also appreciate answers to the questions raised, that same night, by my friend and colleague Professor Paul Braterman:
  • Why is the Centre for Intelligent Design promoting creationist materials such as Explore Evolution and Uncommon Descent?
  • Why is C4ID hosting the creationist Jonathan Wells as a summer school instructor?
  • Can Dr Noble honestly claim that his organisation's core mission has nothing to do with Creationism?
In summary, teenagers studying science in secondary schools simply do not need to be confused by the introduction of a theological/philosophical argument revamped by a pseudoscience (ID) quite happy to smuggle in nonsense like “irreducible complexity” while leaving the door open for the even more ridiculous pseudoscience of creationism. We would not invite a Holocaust denier into schools to address our pupils and nor should we be inviting creationist speakers (or allowing ID and/or creationist materials) in to undermine our Biology teachers. Pupils are too easily taken in by conspiracy theories as it is.
Alastair Noble's report on the event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival can be found on the C4ID website.
blog comments powered by Disqus