Discovery Institute: A Cornucopia of Chicanery

We’ve often mentioned our opinion that scientists shouldn’t debate with creationists. Our most recent post on that was here: Would You Debate Ken Ham? Permit us to repeat our basic argument, about strategy and tactics:

Writing letters and making speeches are fine things to do, but we have misgivings about live debates with creationists. It’s bad strategy, because the mere appearance of a respected scientist on the same platform gives creationism credibility and creates the illusion that there’s some kind of scientific controversy that’s worth debating — and that creationists are qualified to debate with knowledgeable scientists. It also generates press attention. Creationists are not deserving of this.

There is also a tactical reason never to engage in a live debate with a creationist: They typically use their time to make numerous and often erroneous claims, all spewed out in a rapid-fire barrage that is impossible to rebut in the time allowed. Live debates are fine for politics, but not for science.

We’ve found an excellent example of the tactical reason for shunning debates at the website of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids). We present to you, dear reader, some excerpts from A Mind, Even if It’s Just a Couple of Pounds of Meat, Is a Terrible Thing to Waste. The bold font was added by us:

The world is awash with charities. Most are quite worthwhile. For pennies a day, you can send a child in an impoverished country to school, and kindle a lifetime of learning. But there remain many unmet needs.

What about people living in ideological poverty?

We’re off to a weird start. Let’s read on:

We’ve all heard the stories. Materialist philosophers of the mind who deny that the mind exists. Full professors of evolutionary biology who misunderstand demonstrations of the existence of God that are routinely mastered by teenagers in Introductory Philosophy courses. Atheist authors of letters to Christian nations who excoriate religion and ignore the unparalleled atrocities of atheism. Unrepentant Trotskyites who scold Christians for adherence to a messianic ideology.

Some of our fellow men live in intellectual squalor.

Wow! Materialist philosophers “who deny that the mind exists.” We think the author means as something totally apart from the brain but we’ve dealt with that before. See: Mind-Body Dualism: It’s Back! Silly stuff. Then there are “Full professors of evolutionary biology who misunderstand demonstrations of the existence of God.” The Discoveroids have actual demonstrations? How fascinating! “Unrepentant Trotskyites”? Yeah, they’re out there. See: Creationism and Communism. But where is this Discoveroid rant going?

What follows is a large paragraph, virtually every sentence of which is a wild creationist claim that would require an entire essay to refute. This is a perfect example to illustrate the futility of getting into a verbal, one-on-one debate with such people where each side has equal time. It would take weeks to rebut that one paragraph.

The Discoveroids pay their people to blog. Maybe the author of this particular Discoveroid piece isn’t paid, but it doesn’t matter. Your Curmudgeon isn’t being paid, and there isn’t enough time to deal with all the misinformation in that Discoveroid paragraph. Imagine being on a debate platform when your opponent unloads such dung-cart on you. The best we can do is to pull out one or two sentences for a brief response:

There are materialist mathematicians who passionately assert that “survivors survive” isn’t a tautology.

That’s rather shabby. It’s about the endlessly-repeated creationist claim that “Natural Selection” is a worthless tautology. It can be made to seem so when it’s deliberately distorted and expressed in the form “survivors survive.” Yes, survivors survive. Well, duh! The Discoveroid author links to one of his earlier articles where he said it more explicitly:

A tautology is a statement that is true by its logical structure. ‘A is A’ is a tautology, and ‘survivors survive’ is a tautology. It’s logically true, and it cannot be false.

Yes, but “survivors survive” isn’t even close to what natural selection means, and we suspect that the Discoveroid blogger knows better.

In any breeding population, some individuals of the current generation will be more capable than others at tasks like finding food, attracting mates, resisting disease, and escaping predators. Those individuals are less likely to die young, and are therefore more likely to be the progenitors of the next generation, which will inherit their parents’ advantageous genetic characteristics. That’s the mechanism Darwin proposed to explain how inherited “individual differences” (he didn’t know about genetics and mutations) can eventually transform a species into one that is better adapted to its environment. That’s natural selection; it’s not terribly difficult to understand. Once grasped, it’s breathtakingly profound, and in Darwin’s day it was absolutely revolutionary. It describes a natural process which isn’t the least bit tautological.

Why do creationists continue to spew nonsense like “survivors survive”? Some are literally incapable of understanding what a tautology is, so they just cut and paste from sources like the Discoveroid blog. Others probably know exactly what they’re doing, but they’re paid propagandists, and they seem to relish their work.

Let’s pluck another sentence from the Discoveroid paragraph:

There are evolutionary biologists who announce that the latest fossil finally proves evolution, which they insist was already a fact.

Yeah, sure. Each new discovery proves we were lying before. Right. As for “proof” of evolution, we’ve already got an essay on that one. See: Where’s the Proof — Evolution’s “Smoking Gun”?

We continue with yet another sentence out of the Discoveroid paragraph from hell:

There are logically-disabled Darwinists who, without cognitive dissonance, assert that intelligent design is both untrue and untestable.

We’re glad this isn’t a live debate, because it would take far more than a few minutes to deal that that whopper. It could be the subject of an entire book. We can only briefly comment, as follows: First, ID is certainly untestable. It’s “truth” is therefore unknowable, and it’s a scientifically worthless concept. Every creationist claim that “X couldn’t possibly have evolved, therefore the magic designer did it” is the declaration of a negative proposition — “X couldn’t have happened.” Much of creationism consists of such propositions.

If a creationist makes an assertion such as “X is impossible,” then he has the burden of proof. How can that burden be met? Unless a proposition’s denial clearly contradicts something known to be true, negative propositions literally can’t be proven, because they require an infinite number of tests. They can be easily disproved, however, merely by proposing a plausible evolutionary explanation. It’s not necessary to show that a possible evolutionary pathway is what actually happened — just showing that such a possibility exists is sufficient to refute a claim that “it had to be designed.”

Besides, this game will never end. Creationists can always come up with yet another biological structure that — they claim — couldn’t possibly have evolved. Suppose some deranged creationist blogger claims that, say, the scrotum is irreducibly complex. Okay, perhaps it seems so to him. But so what?

Should a genuine biologist feel obliged to devote a few years of his career to exploring the evolutionary history of that organ? Why — merely because it’s the latest in a potentially endless series of similar creationist claims? Wouldn’t the biologist’s time be far better spent, say, exploring the mechanisms of viruses, in order to learn how to cure or prevent disease? Who’s running this show — the scientists or the creationists? If we don’t drop everything to work on their latest whopper, does that mean they win? Let ‘em have their whoppers. It’s all they’ll ever have.

Anyway, after that amazing paragraph with its long list of creationist goodies, of which we’ve only scratched the surface, the Discoveroid blogger says:

It’s enough to make you cry.

Indeed. Then the article “progresses” to what might be a creationist attempt at humor — a discussion of a proposed charity to re-educate ideologically impoverished atheists who hold “Darwinist” beliefs. We suspect this “joke” is only half in jest, because they’d probably like to send us all to re-education camps. Observe that Discoveroids claim to be promoting a scientific theory, but somehow their adversaries are always described as atheists. Curious, isn’t it?

Go on, click over to the Discoveroid blog. Read the whole mess. Maybe you’ll be convinced. But it’s more than likely that you’ll agree with your Curmudgeon’s advice: Don’t get lured into debating a creationist. They don’t play fair.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “Discovery Institute: A Cornucopia of Chicanery

  1. Wow. Egnor is sure gonna feel stupid when I scramble his frontal cortex and his ability to control his impulses and other executive functions disappear…

  2. LRA says: “Egnor is sure gonna feel stupid when I scramble his frontal cortex …”

    No way. His mind is a totally separate entity. And that proves ID, by the way.

  3. The smarter cdesign proponentists — few and far between, perhaps — realize that the crux of their argument hinges on the improbability of the emergence of complexity through undirected variation and natural selection — not the impossibility of it. This argument is also a non-starter, but it requires a refutation beyond mere plausibility. Plus it involves math, which we all know makes it super-super sciencey. Who needs empirical testability when you’ve got probability theory?

  4. How bout I cut his corpus collusum and create two of him? LOL!!!

  5. (talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing!!! Ha!)

  6. Amusing yourself, LRA?

  7. Ha ha! Yes, absolutely! How about I apply a magnet to his right parietal cortex and give him an “out of body” experience???

  8. “How about I apply a magnet to his right parietal cortex and give him an “out of body” experience???”

    LRA, you’re assuming he has a magnetic personality. Or pehaps a will of iron. Steely determination?

    (Oh, forgive me, Lord, for I have sinned.)

  9. There are logically-disabled Darwinists who, without cognitive dissonance, assert that intelligent design is both untrue and untestable.

    ID is both. To paraphrase a well-known critical bon mot: “what is scientific about ID has been falsified; what hasn’t been falsified is not scientific.”

  10. John Pieret, you must be one of those “logically-disabled Darwinists” he’s talking about.

  11. If Michael Egnor thinks I’m logically-disabled, I must be doing something right.

  12. The reason that ID is not scientific is not that it doesn’t meet some criterion like falsifiability. It’s much simpler than that – ID does not have any positive substance to it. For example, when it refuses to show any interest in who did the intelligent designing, when intelligent designs take place, or even what sort of act intelligent designing is, that does not merely disqualify it from being science, it takes it out of the realm of descriptive prose.

  13. Probably everyone who comments here is aware that Michael Egnor exhibits incredible ego with an amazing lack (for a surgeon) of biological knowledge. Many people who comment on his creationist frothings have used the apt term to describe him: Egnorant.

  14. Carl S writes> Plus it involves math, which we all know makes it super-super sciencey. Who needs empirical testability when you’ve got probability theory?

    I leap at the chance to address my biggest peeve with ID!

    To apply probability theory requires a well quantified hypothesis, which they don’t have. Therefore what they have is arithmetic, and it doesn’t mean anything at all.

    If I were to be generous and allow that they have a hypothesis (which I don’t), they still improperly apply probability theory in a manner which can be used to prove that it is impossible to get out of bed in the morning. (Maybe that’s a bad example, because that does seem impossible some days).

    Halting the rant now, because I have to get up in the morning. :-(