Monday, February 14, 2005

The Strange Affair of the Intelligent Design Seminar

Last week, my mother faxed me an invitation to a "Lecture and Discussion" by an intelligent design proponent. She had found a couple of the invitation cards at her workplace, and thought I might be interested.

The talk was to be an overview of a book called The Origin of Life presented by one of its authors, Hugh Ross. Most of the invitation's text was taken up with a laundry list of Ross's credentials, starting with his Bachelor's degree! Ross has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Toronto. Today he is the President of Reasons to Believe, a California-based organization that claims that science proves the Christian worldview.

The event was hosted by a local husband and wife couple. Judging by the fact that the invitation card gave no street address for the restaurant, I surmised that this would be a small affair. I received the card after the RSVP date, but called the number on the card and was able to reserve a place anyway.

So, last night, I arrived in the presentation room and found rather posh place settings at each of seven round tables. Dessert and coffee were complimentary. This was a relatively big-budget event.

The first people I spoke with were part of the speaker's entourage. All in all there were four people accompanying the speaker, including the speaker's wife. When the crew started placing free copies of the book on each table, I feared I was in for a hard sell. Fortunately, there would turn out to be minimal sales pitching during the event.

Many of the attendees seemed to know each other or know the host and hostess. I mingled a little before the talk, and everyone I spoke to was both charming and polite. I suspected that most of the 30 attendees were members of the same local church congregation.

The Presentation
Ross's presentation focused on the fact that life arose early in Earth's history. The Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth and Moon would have liquefied the Earth's surface until about 3.8 billion years ago. The oldest signs of life occur in that same time period. Ross claimed that science has no explanation for how life could arise in a geological instant (though he omitted the word geological). He went on to mischaracterize space missions to Mars, Europa and Titan as last ditch attempts to find some place in the Solar System where life might have evolved instead of on Earth.

The spookiest parts of the talk were the political comments. He talked about Bill Clinton "dancing" at the discovery of the Antarctic meteorite ALH84001 that showed possible signs of life from Mars. Presumably, Ross believed that Clinton would jig at any evidence that contradicted fundamentalist opinion. He also talked about saving taxpayer money by cutting back research that he deemed wasteful in light of his "Biblical Model." I definitely got the sense that Ross was used to speaking to more conservative audiences who would be amused by such political commentary.

The main presentation was only half an hour long. Ross spoke eloquently and came across as a nice enough chap. However, he freely mixed real science with mumbo jumbo numbers in a way that would have been very misleading for anyone not versed in science. For example, he talked about the probability of all the atoms of a DNA molecule just happening to collide and form a double helix as being a number so small that it would take many times longer than the age of the universe to occur. Non-scientists could easily mistake such a straw man as scientific confirmation of Ross's views. The fact is that experiments such as the Miller-Urey experiment showed that fairly complex molecular building blocks would naturally arise in the primordial soup. More complex biomolecules would be constructed of these precursors, not directly out of their constituent atoms. Ross went on to construct several more such straw men.

Q & A
The first few questions from the audience were softballs. As I recall, the first question was asked by a person who said that he had read three of Ross's books, and was wondering why the media hadn't picked up on the Biblical model.

After three or four others had asked questions, it was my turn. I said I had two comments. My first comment was that the speaker had erroneously claimed that our planetary space probes were sent looking for alternative birthplaces for life because the scientific community felt that life couldn't have started on Earth. Disputing this claim, I said that the scientific community not only thinks that life formed on Earth, but that it formed so quickly and easily that there may also be life on other, less hospitable worlds.

My second comment was that what Ross proposed was not really science at all. The "Biblical Model" was not falsifiable. Ross et al had taken scientific facts and worked backwards to fit them into their biblical worldview. I pointed out that the Standard Model has about 20 physical constants in it. ID proponents would claim that the model is finely-tuned to produce a human-friendly universe. If tomorrow we discover a link between 11 of those constants, ID proponents would make the very same claims they do now about the 10 remaining constants. If we ever did find a "Theory of Everything" that had one physical constant and that required no fine tuning, ID advocates would still question why the laws of physics the way they are. That is, no scientific theory would ever be satisfactory for them.

Ross responded to my first comment with contradiction. He claimed that the astrobiologists at the most recent conference truly were depressed about not having a viable mechanism to explain how life could have formed so early.

His response to my second comment was the most interesting of all. He not only claimed that his model was falsifiable (I expected that), but that certain scientific results would be caustic and even fatal to his faith! That was a shocker, and I had to ask a confirmatory question about it. It seemed to me that Christians could always retreat to a Deist position. I think this rattled the audience a bit - they were probably less keen to tie their faith to empiricism once they realized that the game might not go their way.

Right after I asked my question, someone tapped me on the shoulder and whispered to me, "that was a really good question!" A few seconds later, the woman next to me quietly asked me how I came to be at the seminar. She introduced herself as the hostess, and said that the forum was by "invitation only." He he.

Anyway, after I spoke up, the tone of the questions became more critical. Someone posed the question "who created God," and another asked about the variation in bills of Galapagos finches.

During the Q & A, Ross expounded on some fairly bizarre ideas. He claimed that God was responsible for mass extinctions in order to eliminate those species not adaptable to the coming climate. Seems a bit redundant to me.

Ross also echoed the creationist view that evolution explained variation within species, but could not account for the new species. He claimed that when humanity arrived, speciation stopped because man had a soul, and God's work was done. So much for Neanderthal burial rites, thought I.

The speaker also stated that humans arrived just in time to make use of fossil fuels which had be prepared in advance by God. Wow! A plug for big oil. That was just plain freaky.

After the talk, there was a brief opportunity to mingle with the attendees and the entourage. Several people complimented me on my question. A couple of the people I spoke with admitted being evolutionists, though everyone I met was a committed Christian.

I had the opportunity to speak with the hostess and with the speaker's wife. Both were gracious and cordial.

Overall, I was thrilled that I attended. I had a great time, and I achieved my objective. I don't think anyone left the seminar without at least suspecting that science wasn't on Ross's side.


Peg said...

Sounds like a very interesting seminar and you definitely "posed" alot of questions that Ross needs a little more homeworking in his own beliefs!
Just wandered in to see how you were and I see you are still plugging away! It is good to see that convictions run deep.
I truly wish that scientist and God creationists could sit together and agree not to agree! (Although some have)
The world revolves in tune and is designed so intricately that it is amazing at all realms!
Good post!

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Peg,

I have been visiting Rob's College regularly. I just haven't been commenting much lately.

I can agree to disagree with creationists, just like I can agree to disagree with people who think the Earth is flat. That doesn't mean I should agree to let them teach kids that the Earth is flat in science class, or that 1 + 1 = 3 in math class.


Robin Zebrowski said...

This was a great read. It sounds like you did everything right, especially if others opened up a bit more once you started asking questions.

You are SO MUCH braver than I am. I get too terrified around people like that for long. (And I've had several of them in my classes, which occasionally left me unsettled!)

Doctor Logic said...

There were no pitchforks or burning torches present, so it wasn't very intimidating. In fact, everyone was exceptionally nice. Thinking back, my comments (very mild-mannered by academic conference standards) might have been the pointiest of the evening. At the time, I was concerned that I might be keeping too low a profile.