The faithful write in about my post on Intelligent Design

July 17, 2022 • 9:30 am

Nothing gets me more angry comments or emails than when I write about transgender women in women’s sports or take apart creationism or intelligent design. In the latter case, the faithful are out there in droves, and of course 81% of Americans believe in God. If you attack their arguments for God, they see it as you attacking both them and God Himself.

It’s not surprising, then, that when I critiqued the intelligent-design creationist Stephen Meyer in a recent post, “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading.” the faithful came for me—this time in the comments. Here are three that you won’t see on the post but that I’m highlighting here. I’ll let the writers know that this post is up, and you can reply below if you wish. (But please be courteous.)

Oh, and remember that Meyer’s three arguments for God from science are not new; they are the old chestnuts of the Big Bang, the “fine-tuning” of the laws of physics, and “intelligently designed features of organisms”—the old Behe argument—whose appearance apparently requires a miracle to explain.

Misspellings, poor grammar, and so on are from the original emails and aren’t typos.

Comment #1 from “Mike Cohen”:

Hmm. I wonder what caused these atheists to find it a life ambition to argue against the existence of G-d against the absence of an explanation of what caused the Big Bang. When they can prove that it is not G-d that caused the Big Bang, I will take them more seriously.

I have a Ph.D. In science and engineering, mastered thermodynamics, theoretical physical and the depth of mathematics from tensors to matrixes, to abstract mathematics. I believe in a power that causes the Big Bang. We are still in the process of reaching an equilibrium and life as G-d has designed is a transient of the process. Even people like Albert Einstein who is much smarter and more intelligent than I am by orders of magnitude believed in G-d.

To the atheists, please donate to Tom Cruises nonsense, or maybe you do belong to his church pimping a young and attractive money grabber.

My response:

Dear Mr. Cohen,

You are exaggerating when you think that atheists make it a “life ambition to argue against God and about what caused the Big Bang”. Sure, I spend time arguing about that, but only because creationists like you try to delude people with bogus arguments. Turning your words back on you, I will take you more seriously when you prove that it is God (why are you leaving out the “o”?) who caused the Big Bang? And, you know, we don’t prove anything in science; we make the best inference that we can from the evidence. That’s in contrast to religious people like you, who think God is proven because somewhere along the line they were either taught it or find the idea of God irresistible. As for your Ph.D. and lists of your studies, that don’t impress me much; they make you no more credible as a witness for God.

As for Einstein, he believed in God as a metaphor for the laws of the universe. As I show in my book Faith Versus Fact, he didn’t believe in a personal god at all, and certainly not the Yahweh you are touting above. Einstein said as much. Do a bit of research!

Finally, Scientology. It’s just another form of unevidenced delusion, like Judaism. And the beliefs of Scientologists, from Xenu on down, are just as ludicrous as the claims of the Old Testament. I’m not sure what you mean by “pimping a young and attractive money grabber,” but it’s a gratuitous remark—even a rude one if you’re implying that any atheists here belong to the Church of Scientology. I sure don’t. I’m assuming you’re a Jew, and my belief is that your own religion’s tenets are no more credible than those of Scientology.

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

**********

 

Comment #2 from “Constance”:

I found the smug responses illogical. I’m not a churchgoer, but since science can’t explain where the anti-matter is (and it’s the scientists that insist it has to exist) that opens the door for alternative explanations. Waxing poetic about how Genisis (a book written by a bunch of guys a couple thousand years ago) doesn’t perfectly match the Big Bang as evidence of no God is beyond silly.. First, that asserts that God is Christianity or bust, second it assumes humans having any concept of God has to match what God really is.

Pro & Anti based on this kind of illogical tripe may win a published article, but serve no one.

My response:

Dear Constance,

The responses were not “illogical” (where are the violations of logic?); I simply gave alternative and plausible naturalistic explanations for observations that Meyer says are irrefutable evidence for God. The mistake you’re making is arguing that when scientists don’t understand something, our ignorance must be evidence for God. That’s not a good argument, for the history of science shows, starting with evolution, that many once-enigmatic phenomena or processes that were once seen as evidence for God were found to have plausible (and, in the case of evolution, true) scientific explanations.  (Look at lightning, microbial infections like Black Death, and so on.) So I’m not particularly bothered by not knowing “where the dark matter is”. I trust that some day the physicists will figure it out.

As for the Designer being identified with the Abrahamic God or Christian God in particular, you obviously aren’t aware that I was responding to Meyer’s claim in his article that it’s not an “intelligent designer” but God himself who made the flagella spin and the blood clot. And Meyer, being a Christian, is clarly touting the Christian God. Further, As I noted in the post, Meyer mentions one scientist saying that the Big Bang and a “divine creation” matches the Bible as a whole:

Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery supporting the Big Bang theory, has noted the obvious connection between its affirmation of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses…[and] the Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.

Finally, you say we don’t know what God really is. You are correct, but I’d go further. We don’t have any evidence that God exists. Until we do, I prefer to group him with leprechauns and Santa Claus as appealing myths supported by—nothing. As Wittgenstein said, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.” Meyer can’t say anything about the nature of God, and he should have kept his gob shut in Newsweek. Because he didn’t, I replied to his fatuous arguments.

By the way, “Genesis” is spelled with one “i”, not two. Have you read your Bible lately?

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

**********

Comment #3 from “Lars”:

I am a fan of vigorous debate and I enjoyed reading the article. I am not a fan of name calling. When the author called the other side “wing nuts”, I truly thought that his name calling hurt his argument, as individuals from the other side would be alienated immediately by his words, and truly if the author is trying to make a point, one would hope he would try to convince the other side rather than insulting them.

My reply to Lars:

Dear Lars,

First of all, I did not call Meyer a wingnut. Here’s what I said:

Meyer has managed to con the right-wingnuts at Newsweek into publishing the article below. . .

I was referring to the editors at Newsweek who were conned, not to the “other side”, i.e., ID creationists. Can you read? Second, I made a number of arguments against Meyer’s claims, not calling him names at all. The people I was writing for are not those on “the other side,” as IDers and creationists don’t usually change their minds. I was writing for those on the fence, or those who need to know how Meyer’s arguments for God can be refuted by science. Those are the people for whom I wrote Why Evolution is True.

Finally, you’re clearly looking for any excuse to dismiss my article. Saying that I hurt my argument by calling the editors of Newsweek “right wing nuts” is a pathetic attempt to dismiss the many naturalistic arguments I advance in my post.  People who say, “His argument is bad/worthless/loses force because of name calling” are people looking for an easy way to dismiss something. I am sorry I hurt your tender feelings by using a bit of sarcasm, but you got its object of that sarcasm wrong anyway. And does our withholding of sarcasm also include Donald Trump, too, when people are attacking his policies? If so, then nearly every liberal op-ed columnist in America should get a letter from you. Get busy writing them!

Yours,
Jerry Coyne

Jason Rosenhouse’s new anti-ID book

June 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

I may have mentioned Jason Rosenhouse‘s new book before, but I just finished it and wanted to give it two thumbs up. The image below links to the Amazon site:

This book is a withering critique of the so-called “probabilistic” arguments against evolution promoted by Intelligent Design advocates like Michael Behe and William Dembski. Jason is ideally equipped to write about them as he’s both a professor of mathematics at James Madison University and a diligent reader of creationist and ID literature. An earlier book of his, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, describes his many visits to creationist meetings and gatherings and his attempt to suss out the psychology of anti-evolutionists without being judgmental.

In this book, though, Jason pulls no punches, analyzing and destroying the arguments the evolution simply could not have occurred because the probability of getting organisms, proteins, or “complex specified information” is too low to be explained by materialistic processes. Ergo, the ID arguments supposedly point to the existence of the Intelligent Designer, who we all know is God. (IDers like to pretend that it could be a space alien or the like, but it doesn’t take much digging to descry the religious roots of ID, sometimes described as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo”.) The real target of ID is not just evolution, but naturalism or “materialism”, as they sometimes call it. Their ultimate goal is to sneak religion into public schools and into mainstream science. But they’ve already lost.

Still, the religious motivations aren’t important when the calculations are wrong—or rather, can’t be made. Jason’s main point in this book is that although complex-looking mathematics is often invoked to show the improbability of naturalistic evolution, IDers lack information about probability space to plug into their equations, so they can’t come to any mathematically-based conclusions. (And when we do have information, like that bearing on the claim that evolution violates The Second Law of Thermodynamics, or that the evolution of chloroquine resistance to malaria is impossible, that evidence doesn’t support the IDers’ and creationists’ claims.)

In the end, all IDers do, argues Jason, is throw sand in the layperson’s eyes with fancy equations, and then simply assert, without actually making valid calculations, that evolution by natural selection is too improbable to have occurred.

Other arguments that are less mathematical, for example that bacterial flagella could not have evolved in an adaptive, step-by-step process, are also discussed, and Jason shows how they’ve been refuted.

Another admirable aspect of the book is that Jason writes very clearly and elegantly, so it’s easy to read. Here are two specimens of his prose that also make his main point:

What about specificity? Dembski’s theoretical development of this concept essentially required graduate-level training in mathematics. He helped himself to copious amounts of notation, jargon, Greek letters, and equations. Anyone unaccustomed to wading through prose of this sort could easily come away thinking it represented work of depth and profundity just from the level of technical detail in its presentation.

However, when it came time to discuss the specificity of an actual biological system, the flagellum in this case, all of the technical minutiae went clean out the window. For all the use Dembski made of his elaborate theoretical musings, they might as well never have existed at all. He just declared it obvious that the flagellum was specified and quickly moved on to other dubious claims. At no point did he attempt to relate anything in reality to the numerous variables and parameters he included in his mathematical modeling.

As Jason shows, the lack of parameters needed to show that evolution is too improbable to have happened in a Darwinian way is a ubiquitous problem for iD. One more quote:

This pattern, of introducing difficult mathematical concepts without ever really using them for any serious purpose, is ubiquitous in anti-evolution discourse, and this fact goes a long way to explaining why mathematicians an scientists are so disdainful of it. Professionals in these areas strive for the utmost clarity when presenting their work. Used properly, the jargon and notation permit a level of precision that simply cannot be achieved with more natural language. This might seem hard to believe, since a modern scientific research paper will be unreadable for anyone without significant training in the relevant discipline. But the problem is not a lack of clarity in the writing. Rather, it is just that the concepts involved are difficult, and experience is needed to become comfortable with them.

. . . In section 2.6, I remarked that anti-evolutionist arguments play well in front of friendly audiences because in that environment the speakers never pay a price for being wrong. The response would be a lot chillier if they tried the same arguments in front of audiences with the relevant expertise. Try telling a roomful of mathematicians that you can refute evolutionary theory with a few back-of-the-envelope probability calculations, and see how far you get. Tell a roomful of physicists that the second law of thermodynamics conflicts with evolutionary theory, or a roomful of computer scientists that obscure theorems from combinatorial search have profound relevance to biology.

You will be lucky to make it ten minutes before the audience stops being polite.

If you want a clear and convincing response to IDers’ (and earlier creationists’) claims that evolution could not have happened without God or a Designer because it’s simply improbable via naturalism, read this book.

It will convince you, as Laplace supposedly tried to convince Napoleon about astronomy, that science—in this case, evolution—has no need of the God hypothesis.

I get (creationist) email

June 3, 2022 • 8:30 am

I don’t trash many comments at the outset unless they’re either obtuse, uncivil, overly religious, or creationist. This one falls in the last class.  Actually, there were two attempted comments from someone with the handle “See Noevo; both were aimed at the thread after the post, “The intellectual vacuity of mathematical arguments against evolution.”  See was responding to an exchange with another commenter about Michael Behe.

See Noevo’s Comment #1: not posted.

My prediction is that one day evolution will be shown to ALL to be perhaps the greatest embarrassment and shame in the histories of science and of rational thought.

But I have to ask about
“An alternative approach is to flip all 100 coins, leave the ones that landed heads as they are, and then toss again only those that landed tails.”
I thought evolution was constant. Why is Mother Natural Selection keeping the heads as heads for, well, forever?

To explain: the metaphor was one way Jason Rosenhouse explained how a random process can be winnowed by a nonrandom process to produce the appearance of “design”. The randomness (mutational variation) was represented by the tossed coins, while the nonrandom process involves keeping the heads and re-tossing the tails.  Eventually you get to all heads, which is the analogy to an adapted organism.

My best interpretation of this comment is that “See Noevo” is pointing out out that evolution is always occurring, so the heads won’t be kept forever. Some of the coins will get turned over when evolution occurs over the long term. Ergo a seeming contradiction; ergo God Did It.

But DUH! We’re talking about the short-term build up of the appearance of design, not the fact that any one gene sequence will remain the same until the end of time. Nobody believes that.

At any rate, this evolution critic apparently doesn’t know what he/she/they are talking about, and I didn’t allow that ambiguous and obstreperous comment to appear.

But I did allow this comment to appear, and even answered it.

Here’s “See Noevo”‘s comment #2, posted:

In reply to whyevolutionistrue.

To whyevolutionistrue:

Do all first-time commenters have their post put into “awaiting moderation”?
How long should they expect to be in this state?

My response:

In your case, forever.

But he did get his say above. However, that’s the last thing he will post.  (I’ll assume “See Noevo” is a male.)

The intellectual vacuity of mathematical arguments against evolution

June 2, 2022 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Somehow I missed that Jason has a new book that expands on this problem (I didn’t see it on the Amazon site). Here’s the cover, and click on it to go to the site:

*****************

Jason Rosenhouse is a professor of math at James Madison University in Virginia and also a friend. Besides teaching and researching in his field, he’s also written a lot about applying math to popular culture, including books on Sudoku and the perplexing Monty Hall Problem. But to me his biggest contribution has been his series of books and writings about creationism. Jason has not only immersed himself in creationist culture, attending lots of meetings to suss out the psyche of anti-evolutionists, but also written about it in both books and articles (see his 2012 book Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line).

He’s just come out with an article in the Skeptical Inquirer (see below) in which he summarizes how Intelligent Design creationists use mathematical arguments to show that evolution is impossible, and then Rosenhouse debunks the tactics they use. Jason writes very well and very clearly, so this article is accessible to the layperson. It’ll give you a strarter background on the creationists’ arguments (yes, IDers are creationists), and why those arguments re misguided.

Click to read (it’s free).

Jason explicates and then demolishes two ID arguments against evolution. Quotes from Jason are indented, my own prose is flush left.

1.) The probability of evolution producing complex features, like bacterial flagella, is almost nil. 

The ID argument rests on the idea that if the probability of an amino acid in a protein, say tyrosine, being in a specific position is small, then the probability of getting a protein of 100 amino acids with tyrosine in the right position and the other 19 amino acids in the other right positions is effectively zero. (They simply multiply probabilities for each site together.) But, as Jason shows, that’s not the way that evolution works. Proteins are built up step by step, with each step adopted only if it incrementally improves fitness. The probability-multiplying argument is so transparently false that I’m surprised people believe it, but of course most people don’t have a decent understanding of probability.

Jason:

However, this argument is premised on the notion that genes and proteins evolve through a process analogous to tossing a coin multiple times. This is untrue because there is nothing analogous to natural selection when you are tossing coins. Natural selection is a non-random process, and this fundamentally affects the probability of evolving a particular gene.

To see why, suppose we toss 100 coins in the hopes of obtaining 100 heads. One approach is to throw all 100 coins at once, repeatedly, until all 100 happen to land heads at the same time. Of course, this is exceedingly unlikely to occur. An alternative approach is to flip all 100 coins, leave the ones that landed heads as they are, and then toss again only those that landed tails. We continue in this manner until all 100 coins show heads, which, under this procedure, will happen before too long. The creationist argument assumes that evolution must proceed in a manner comparable to the first approach, when really it has far more in common with the second.

That’s a very good explanation.

IDers, however, have made the argument a bit more sophisticated:

Let us return to coin-tossing. Suppose we toss a coin 100 times, thereby producing a chaotic jumble of heads and tails. It was very unlikely that just that sequence would appear, but we do not suspect trickery. After all, something had to happen. But now suppose we obtained 100 Hs or a perfect alternation of Hs and Ts. Now we probably would suspect trickery of some kind. Such sequences are not only improbable but also match a recognizable pattern. ID proponents argue that it is the combination of improbability and matching a pattern that makes them suspect that something other than chance or purely natural processes are at work. They use the phrase “complex, specified information” to capture this idea. In this context, “complex” just means “improbable,” and “specified” means “matches a pattern.”

As applied to biology, the argument goes like this: Consider a complex, biological adaptation such as the flagellum used by some bacteria to propel themselves through liquid. The flagellum is a machine constructed from numerous individual proteins working in concert. Finding this exact functional arrangement of proteins is extremely unlikely to happen by chance. Moreover, they continue, the structure of the flagellum is strongly analogous to the sort of outboard motor we might use to propel a boat. Therefore, the flagellum exhibits both complexity and specificity, and it therefore must be the product of intelligent design.

That is, natural selection, say critics like William Dembski, can’t create “complex specified design”. But we have no idea what organismal features would imply intelligent design (“specificity”) rather than selection. Further, as for “complexity”, Jason says this:

The argument likewise founders on the question of complexity. According to ID proponents, establishing complexity requires carrying out a probability calculation, but we have no means for carrying out such a computation in this context. The evolutionary process is affected by so many variables that there is no hope of quantifying them for the purposes of evaluating such a probability.

In summary, any anti-evolutionist argument based on probability theory can simply be dismissed out of hand. There is no way to carry out a meaningful calculation, and adding “specificity” to the mix does nothing to improve the argument.

2.) Because mutations are degrading processes, much more likely to make DNA coding for a protein less adapted to the environment than more adaptive, there is no way that new genetic information can be created. Ergo, complexity, much less adaptation, can’t increase. rgo God—the Creator of Complexity. In some ways this resembles the old Second Law of Thermodynamics argument against evolution: entropy must increase, and evolution appears to violate entropy by making matter less random.  Thus we need God to get the entropy down.

The problem with that is, of course, the Second Law holds only in a closed system, but evolution occurs in an open system: the Earth in its surrounding universe. Evolution is fueled by radiation from the Sun, which involves an increase in entropy, and any decrease in entropy produced by evolution is more than compensated for by the increased entropy produced by generating evolution’s fuel: solar energy.  Ergo, in the whole system, the Second Law is obeyed.

There’s already one way known whereby new genetic “information” can increase: gene duplication.  Sometimes due to errors in replication, a gene is duplicated, and we have two copies instead of one (there are always two copies in a diploid genome, but I’m talking about what happens when a gene on one chromosome duplicates in addition. When this happens, there is an opportunity for that new copy of the gene to diverge in function from the old one, for the old one’s still around doing its thing. The new copy can do a new thing. Ergo, new information.  This in fact has happened a gazillion times in evolution: all of our globins, for instance (alpha, beta, fetal hemoglobin, and myoglobin) were produced by gene duplication and subsequent divergence. In Antarctic fish, an enzyme used to digest food has, after duplication, evolved into a blood antifreeze protein to allow them to inhabit waters below the freezing point.

Jason mentions gene duplication (I’m just giving examples), and then goes into the “No Free Lunch” ideas of Dembski and others, showing that these ideas irrelevant to the possibility of evolution.  I’ll let you read that part for yourself (read the whole thing!), and will just give two more quotes from Jason:

Even if we accept everything Dembski and his coauthors are saying about these theorems, this whole line of attack simply amounts to nothing. Most of us did not need difficult mathematical theorems to understand that Darwinian evolution can work only if nature has certain properties. The search problem confronted by evolution arises ultimately from the laws of physics, but it is well outside biology’s domain to wonder why those laws are as they are. Dembski and his cohorts argue that the fundamental constants of the universe encode information of a sort that can arise only from an intelligent source, but they have no more basis for this claim than they did for the comparable claim about genetic sequences.

He finishes like this:

Everyone agrees that complex adaptations require a special sort of explanation. Scientists argue that actual biological systems show copious evidence of having resulted through evolution by natural selection. Anti-evolutionists reject this claim, but the ensuing debate, such as it is, has nothing to do with mathematics. This makes you wonder why anti-evolutionists insist on padding their work with so much irrelevant and erroneous mathematical formalism. The answer is that their literature has far more to do with propaganda than it does with serious argument. Mathematics is unique in its ability to bamboozle a lay audience, making it well suited to their purposes. But for all its superficial sophistication, anti-evolutionary mathematics is not even successful at raising interesting questions about evolution.

Jason knows whereof he speaks, as he knows both math and evolution.

A good anti-creationist tee shirt

May 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

While I’m writing a post on free will (up next), I thought I’d show you one of my favorite tee shirts that I chose to wear today. I can’t remember where I got it, but I’m sure you can still order them. It’s a funny one that makes fun of fundamentalist creationists, and I’ll let you figure out what it’s saying. It’s not hard!

“Teach the controversy” was, of course, the mantra of creationists after they failed to get creationism taught in public schools, either as Biblical or “scientific” creationism. They then started saying this mantra, hoping that teachers would think there was a real scientific controversy about whether evolution was true or not. Like all their other machinations, that one failed too.

I’ll leave the rest to you. This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt. I have an aversion to wearing new tee shirts, for fear that they’ll begin to wear out. But that’s stupid because I’m 72, have a gazillion tee shirts, and won’t be around before my collection even begins to wear out.

Anyway, enjoy. Maybe you’ll want one of these:

Eric Hedin beefs about being “canceled” at Ball State by the FFRF and me, but forgives me, showing a cat leading me to Jesus!

May 7, 2022 • 12:15 pm

You’d have to be a long-time reader of this site to remember the story of my interaction with Eric Hedin, a physicist at Ball State University (a public college) in Muncie, Indiana. It’s recounted in many posts here going back 2013 (see here and here, for instance).

In short, Hedin, a deeply religious Christian, couldn’t bring himself to leave God out of his non-major’s honors course at Ball State: “The Boundaries of Science”. I got hold of his syllabus, did some investigation, and realized that Hedin was teaching his students a form of Intelligent Design in a public university.  Much of the course was directed, as the title suggests, at showing why phenomena in nature could not be explained by science, naturalism, or materialism—implying that a supernatural God was responsible.

Now the 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, argued in a federal district court in Pennsylvania, ended in a ruling by John Jones (a Republican judge!) that intelligent design, being taught in the school, was “not science”. ID was instead, ruled Jones, a disguised form of religion whose teaching violated the First Amendment.

As Wikipedia notes,

On December 20, 2005, Jones issued his 139-page findings of fact and decision ruling that the Dover mandate requiring the statement to be read in class was unconstitutional. The ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science, and permanently barred the board from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring ID to be taught as an alternative theory.

Another happy ending: all eight of the school board members who had approved the use of an ID textbook in the Dover High School lost their election bids to candidates who opposed the teaching of ID. Further, the Dover Area School district had to pay over a million dollars in fines. Faced with similar outcomes and bankrupting of schools, no more cases like this were adjudicated. The defendants indicated they would not appeal, and since then teaching ID in public schools has been a legal no-no.

So, eight years later, when I saw that Hedin was teaching ID at a state University, I wrote to his chairman (and, as I recall, his colleagues), calling attention to this violation. I was blown off, but then the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved (Ceiling Cat bless them). Note that at no time did I call for Hedin’s firing or desired to damage his career; I simply wanted the school to stop teaching creationism as a form of science.

The FFRF wrote one of its official (and implicitly threatening) letters to the President and officials of Ball State, them that Hedin’s course was violating the Constitution. The President launched an investigation, and it transpired that Hedin was ordered to stop teaching that course. A rare victory for good science!

Hedin was later promoted to associate professor, a promotion I supported so long as he didn’t drag religion into his teaching. Still, he beefed all the while that he, a “young assistant professor”, had been hounded and harassed by the likes of an established professor (me) and the FFRF.

Hedin eventually gave up his job at Ball State and moved to teaching physics at Biola University in Los Angeles (the name comes from its former one: The Bible Institute of Los Angeles). There he apparently found a congenial niche, since it’s a private religious school and he can drag God and Jesus into any science course he wants. (I weep for the poor students subjected to this nonsense.)

Then Hedin went public with his “story”—the story of how a assistant professor just trying to do his job was canceled by the FFRF and a well- known professor. The implication was that the FFRF and I were trying to destroy Hedin—to “cancel” a man.

But he wasn’t canceled—his course was. The man was promoted, for crying out loud!

Hedin recently published a whole book about this dustup: Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See, published in February of 2021 by the Discovery Institute (presumably no reputable publisher wanted it). It didn’t sell very well, hardly got any reviews, and is way down there in the rankings of creationist books, many of which have sold well in the past (e.g. Darwin’s Black Box, and Signature in the Cell; the books, I suspect, are snapped up by the many anti-evolution and religious Americans who seek confirmation of their views).

I also suspect that the poor sales and lack of reviews of Canceled Science are the reason that the Discovery Institute continues to flog the book on its website (e.g., see here, and here), at the same time denigrating the FFRF and me for trying to “cancel” Hedin. I have to laugh when I see this campaign; nobody got canceled, for it was all about the separation of church and state. But it’s too late for Hedin to beef, as nobody’s interested, and his 15 minutes of fame are up.

Here’s the book:

Recently, the Discovery Institute taped a 45-minute lecture by Hedin on his book and his persecution (he sees himself in the tradition of Christian martyrs tortured for their faith), and I put the video below. Its YouTube notes:

Eric Hedin, author of Canceled Science, explains how he was canceled by the scientific establishment and reflects on the lessons he learned during the experience. He also discusses scientific evidence which points to a Creator. This talk was presented at the 2022 Dallas Conference on Science and Faith in January 2022.

You can listen to it if you want, though the “evidence” for ID, filtered through a physicist rather than a biologist, is even more risible than usual. The reason I’m putting it up is because reader Beth sent me the video link adding, “Eric Hedin drew a cartoon for you, showing you with a cat being invited by Jesus to “come Home” (22:47 in the video).”  Now how could I resist that?

Actually, it was Hedin’s wife who drew the cartoon, as a “picture for Jerry Coyne” as well as “offer of forgiveness” for me (in good Christian tradition, Hedin forgives all of us who “persecuted” him). And the cartoon is below, captured from a screenshot of a slide:

LOL! Well, I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hedin, but I ain’t coming home to Jesus, and neither is any cat: it’s well known that all cats are atheists.

Now that you’ve seen that, you may, if you wish, listen to Hedin’s talk, heavily larded with references to God, Jesus, and the Bible. (As I said, he’s found a good home at Biola.)

If you want to skip the self-serving and humble beginning, I’d listen to the last 20 minutes, beginning at 24:40 (before The Picture), and listen to Hedin tick off the things that science can’t ever explain and therefore prove Jesus.

Here are a few of Hedin’s “failures of naturalism”:

  • It can’t explain the beginning of the Universe, and thus of space and time, using principles of physics within space and time. You have to go outside that stuff—i.e., you have to invoke God.
  • The existence of complex living things can’t be explained by naturalism. Hedin apparently sees evolution as a “random” process, and has forgotten about natural selection, which acts to order random changes in the DNA into well adapted organisms.
  • Materialism can’t explain the “information barrier”: the suggestion that if there are more ways for a process to go wrong than right, then the process will go wrong. Thus there can be no increase in “information” under evolution. No anteaters, dandelions, or humans. That takes God. But this is wrong. Of course there can be an increase in information over evolutionary time; there’s just no decrease in entropy. 
  • Materialism can’t explain the ability of humans to think rational thoughts.

I won’t waste my time rebutting this all in detail; Google is your friend here. All I can say is that, as a physicist, he makes a damn poor critic of evolutionary biology. Years ago I wrote a critique of ID, “The case against Intelligent Design,” which appeared in the New Republic and is now reprinted on the Brockman Edge site. If you want my views on ID, see that.

One of the most telling statements by Hedin occurs at the end of his talk, when he confesses that his Christianity is based not on evidence, but on “faith”, euphemistically called “the witness of the spirit”:

“I’ve written a lot more about evidence for design in my book and I’ve even made the connection with my own faith there. I believe that what we see in nature can strengthen our faith, but that my faith is really based is really based on my relationship with God: through the witness of the Spirit in my inner being.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, here’s the video of Dr. Hedin, a man of soft manner and amiability, showing how he’s become the modern equivalent of Christians thrown to the lions. (I’ve recently read, however, that the Roman scenario of lions and Christians is false.)

Start 24 minutes in, and then you have to listen for only 20 minutes:

h/t: Amy

Dawkins keeps his cool when surrounded by irrationality

January 25, 2022 • 1:30 pm

I would never have been able to keep my cool as well as Richard Dawkins does on this Australian television program where he’s faced with a group of creationists (who refuse to admit what they really believe) as well as religious sympathizers who demand “respect and tolerance” for their views.  All the usual criticisms of atheists come up, and I’m impressed with how well Dawkins handles them. My favorite is his answer to the accusation, “Isn’t your strident atheism like going around and telling children that there’s no Santa Claus?” I would have been stymied for a bit, but his answer is a few short words that stops the argument cold.

Isn’t it odd how atheists are supposed to show respect and tolerance for the palpable nonsense that people embrace, while those same people get heated and strident when faced with those who don’t buy their palaver?

Now if you can watch this and still argue that Dawkins is a “strident atheist”, then you’re engaging in deliberate misrepresentation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

August 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers not to go after religion very strongly (though he has on rare occasions), believing that if you diss somebody’s religion, it prevents them from accepting the science you want to purvey—especially evolution. And he’s probably right, at least if you try to cover both subjects in a single lecture. The result is that Tyson is soft on faith, as you can see in the video below.

This video was put on YouTube last year, but I don’t know the venue or the title. Tyson shows a ranking of 34 countries and the degree of acceptance of evolution of their inhabitants. It’s well known data, but Tyson cherry-picks it to try to show that “religious” countries can be relatively high in accepting evolution, touting accommodation and giving us “hope in the world”. At least that’s how I understand his aim. Examples he adduces are these:

a). Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.” (That was centuries ago, and Britain is no longer so religious!)
b.) Likewise in Germany, where Protestantism was born under Luther, acceptance of evolution high as well. Ditto with Catholic Italy.
c.) Eastern bloc countries are low on religion, as you might expect as they were largely atheistic countries under communism, but fall in the middle on accepting evolution

Tyson finds this “hard to understand”, presumably because religion is supposed to be inimical to accepting evolution. He gives an anecdote about sending people who question the absence of God in the AMNH’s Big Bang exhibit over to the “human evolution” exhibit, concluding that the AMNH’s evidence for evolution is much stronger than the Big Bang in buttressing acceptance of evolution (he doesn’t mention physics). I grant him that, but so what?

Tyson then boasts about how he bested Dawkins in a panel discussion, showing a video of their verbal fencing. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve faced. Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and then goes on to give his own anecdote. In the meantime, Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off, but implicitly arguing that you can’t criticize religion if you want people to accept evolution.

The answer that I give is that you can be both an antitheist and a promoter of evolution—you just don’t do it at the same time. Does Tyson think that Dawkins should simply take off his antitheist hat and never criticize religion at all? That idea neglects the fact that the downside of religion goes far deeper than merely preventing acceptance of evolution. Look at what the Taliban does, for instance, or how Catholicism has led to all kinds of inimical restrictions on sex, to the terrifying of children, and to pedophilia. Look how hyperorthodox Jews turn women into breeding stock.  Religious wars and disputations have led to the death of millions. Next to that, creationism is small potatoes.

So no, Dawkins shouldn’t shut up. After all, The God Delusion was one of the best sellers of our time, moving more than a million copies.  And as the old Dawkins site “Converts Corner” attests, it helped dispel the religiosity of many people.  So Richard’s antitheism was instrumental in helping drive people away from faith and towards rationality—and science. (Note how many people in the Corner link the rejection of religion with the acceptance of science.)

At the same time, with his evolution books like The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (my favorite), The Blind Watchmaker, Richard not only educated people about science, but got them to accept evolution and its marvels. How many people have attested that it was Richard’s writings that brought them to accepting evolution and appreciating science?

So while Tyson may be right about dissing religion and selling evolution in the same lecture, Dawkins has been inordinately successful in not only helping drive religion from our world, but in getting people to accept and love science. You can say that without the first activity he would have been more successful at the second, but Dawkins, like me, has more than one goal in his life.

By the way, if you analyze the data Tyson presents in his talk above, it actually provides some support for the incompatibility of science and faith. What I did in the Evolution paper below (click for free access) was to correlate these 34 countries’ acceptance of evolution with their religiosity. And the correlation was negative. (As President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, which publishes the journal, I got the privilege of publishing one article, and I wrote this one. As you can imagine, it took some trouble to get it accepted, but the journal did print it!).

If you take Miller’s data shown in Tyson’s talk, and correlate it with the religiosity of the 34 countries, with each dot representing a country, you see a strong and significant negative correlation: the more religious a country is (moving right on the X axis), the less likely its inhabitants are to accept evolution (moving down on the Y axis). Here is that plot with the caption from my original figure:

Figure 1. The correlation between belief in God and acceptance of human evolution among 34 countries. Acceptance of evolution is based on the survey of Miller et al. (2006), who asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (Original data provided by J. D. Miller.) “Belief in God” comes from the Eurobarometer survey of 2005, except for data for Japan from (Zuckerman 2007) and for the United States from a Gallup Poll (2011b). “US” is the point for the United States. The correlation is −0.608 (P = 0.0001), the equation of the least-squares regression line is y = 81.47 − 0.33x.

Now this shows a correlation, not causation, so it may not show, for example, that belief in God makes people resistant to accepting evolution. Another interpretation is that acceptance of evolution is the causal factor, and that leads people to become atheists (this may be true for some folks). But I think, as I said in the paper, a third factor is in play here that leads to the correlation: human well being. For if you plot either various indices of well being, like the UN’s “Happiness Index” or the “Successful Societies Scale” (a measure of social support) against religiosity, you find out that the happiest people, and the healthiest societies, are the least religious. (See my paper for the evidence) And if you lose your religion because your society, as a healthy and happy one, makes religion superfluous, you naturally begin to accept evolution. (As I always say, “you can have religions without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) In support of the idea that low well-being makes one religious, I often cite the full quotation from Marx (most people leave out all but the last sentence):

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

At any rate, I believe Tyson distorts the data by cherry-picking individual points.

Therefore, my explanation for the correlation above, including social causation, is this, written in my Evolution paper:

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

If you’re interested, read the paper, for it’s written not for professional evolutionary biologists but for the educated layperson.

By the way, the correlation between acceptance of evolution and religiosity also holds strongly for the 50 American states as well. I couldn’t get the data for religiosity of individual states, but in my lecture on the incompatibility of faith and science, I do show a slide in which I there is a bar graph depicting the acceptance of evolution in each state. I found separate data for the ten most religious states (red arrows) and the ten least religious states (blue arrows), and put the arrows next to the states in the bar chart.

As you see below, all the blue arrows are above all the red ones. That is, every one of the ten least religious states has higher acceptance of evolution than all of the most religious states. Why? I think the reason is the same as for the correlation among countries.

 

Thus endeth today’s sermon. Praise Ceiling Cat, and may fleas be upon him. Amen.

Eric Hedin is back, now asserting that there is zero chance that life originated through natural processes, so God must have been responsible

August 13, 2021 • 11:30 am

I’ve tried to avoid writing about this, as Intelligent Design advocates really love getting publicity from me, and I’m tired of the muddleheaded lucubrations of Discovery Institute flacks like Michael Egnor and David Klinghoffer. But I have to call attention once again to Eric Hedin, ID advocate and former professor of physics at Ball State University, a public school.

Way back in 2013, I discovered that Hedin was teaching a general science class to nonmajors that not only promoted intelligent design, but religion itself. That was a violation of the Constitution, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation and I informed the school’s President that they were breaking the law. The result: Hedin’s class was ditched, as it should have been. I never called for him to be fired or not promoted (he was subsequently given tenure), but I didn’t want him teaching creationism as science, which the courts have repeatedly forbidden. I didn’t try to get the man dumped or permanently demonized, which is what cancellation is about.

This site has a gazillion posts over several years on the fallout; if you want to see some, go here.

As I wrote a short while back, Hedin is now trying to cash in on this incident by claiming he was canceled: he’s published a book called Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You To See. I’m apparently one of those atheists, for the Amazon blurb says this:

Eric Hedin was enjoying a productive career as a physics professor at Ball State University when the letter from a militant atheist arrived and all hell broke loose. The conflict spilled first onto the pages of the local newspaper, and then into the national news. The atheist attack included threats from the Freedom from Religion Foundation [FFRF], which targeted Hedin after learning his Boundaries of Science course exposed students to an evidence-based case for design and purpose in cosmology, physics, and biochemistry. Canceled Science tells the dramatic story of the atheist campaign to cancel Hedin’s course, reveals the evidence the atheists tried to bury, and explores discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the nature and origin of matter, space, and even time itself.

I am indeed the militant atheist (see below), and for my part in this “cancellation” the Discovery Institute named me “Censor of the Year” in 2014, an honor I’m quite proud of. Meanwhile Hedin’s new book isn’t selling very well, and never did (it was published by the Discovery Institute in February and now ranks about 17,000 on Amazon). In the meantime, Hedin moved from Ball State to the Christian college Biola University (formerly the Bible University of Los Angeles), where he can teach all the Jesus he wants as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and also Chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Engineering. The Lord works in mysterious ways, eventually leading Hedin back to Home.

BTW, whenever I’m called a “militant atheist”, I remember this cartoon, which is great:

Perhaps to boost his sales, Hedin just gave an interview to the right-wing college-monitoring site The College Fix, which to its discredit has a palpable dislike for evolution, and makes the following claim (click the screenshot to read):

Hedin’s argument is familiar: it’s the “fine-tuning” argument, which claims that the laws and parameters of physics are too “fine-tuned” for life to be an accident, so God must have tuned the parameters (as for the rest of the Universe where life doesn’t exist, well, that’s just collateral damage). Further, the universe hasn’t always existed, and its finite time and space make it even unlikelier for life to have originated “by accident” (it wasn’t an accident, of course: life requires both accident and then natural selection). I’ll quote some of his argument, but I’ve argued before against this nonsense many times and am not in the mood to do so again:

As the title of your book suggests, what is it that atheists don’t want us to see?

Evidence that points to something beyond nature as being responsible for major aspects of our universe, in particular the origin of the universe. The laws of nature all seem to be finely tuned to a value that of course allows life, but there’s some razor sharp or knife-edge tuning to these parameters that really can’t be explained by saying, “Oh, it’s just luck.” The level of biological information that is within the cell far exceeds what can be attained by any natural process we can think of, and actually there are laws of physics that claim that natural processes cannot generate that level of complexity that is functional, specific, information-rich, resembling machines, architecture and coding. There’s also the esoteric aspects of human nature: a mind, a consciousness, emotions, a spiritual sense. These go beyond what can be explained by appealing to random interactions between particles guided by the push-pull forces that we find in nature. We see the universe, we look at it, we study it, and we find evidence of intelligent design. The more we study nature, the more evidence for something beyond nature comes into the picture.

He keeps citing “randomness” as an unlikely explanation for consciousness, emotions, and the like, but why does he leave out selection? And why is he so damn sure that these features couldn’t arise either as a direct product or a byproduct of selection? This is the ID argument: we can’t explain it now, so God must have done it. But is it really God? Yes! See below. First, though, more argument:

Do people who have not studied this issue in depth truly understand the mathematical enormity of the fine-tuning argument? It’s not just “the chances are low” that life arose by chance.

Honestly, as a physicist I would be willing to say the physical reality chance of life originating on its own by natural processes within this universe is zero, not just low. It’s because the universe is not infinitely big. There is a finite universe. We don’t have an infinite amount of time, the universe has a finite age, roughly 13.8 billion years. That limited time, limited spatial extent of the universe means that there’s a limited amount that any natural randomness could generate. The probabilistic resources of our universe fall short of what is necessary to develop even one large functional protein molecule that would be just one of tens of thousands of different protein molecules that are needed for human life to exist. It’s almost to me desperate to keep trying to think that this could have happened by chance.

I do not think that these people know what “enormity” means. But at any rate, 13.8 billion years of Universe and 4.5 billion years of Earth, combined with a gazillion gazillion gazillion planets suitable for life—that seems like a lot of opportunity for me. And why did God wait so long between the stromatolites and the appearance of humans?. But Hedin, who makes no calculations, just says that the fine-tuning and limited-time-and-space arguments convince him that God Did It. And yes, it is God:

The intelligent design movement does not endorse a particular religion per se, just that all this could not have happened by accident, correct?

That is the main thrust, although my own personal conviction is that the designer is the God of the Bible. That comes through in a few places in the book but I don’t start with that.

No of course not. He wouldn’t want to reader to think his book is tendentious!

Finally, why do so many scientists reject Hedin’s claim that life absolutely proves the existence of God? He has an answer: atheists are religious!

It’s been said that it takes more faith to be an atheist. Why do your peers in the scientific community ignore all the evidence that points to design in life and nature?

Atheism has some similarities to a religion. The teaching of evolution and the teaching of naturalism is ingrained in the sciences and the educational system. There are people who want to keep it that way because they know if it didn’t happen naturally, then it’s happening supernaturally, and that opens the door for a divine designer and they are very opposed to that. A lot of times they think, “Well, we just need to keep studying and we will find some, almost vital force, some emergent system of complexity that explains it all naturally, even though what we already know dictates against that.” That was why I called my course at Ball State “Boundaries of Science.” There are boundaries to what nature can accomplish naturally.

You can see why Hedin’s course at Ball State was a violation of the First Amendment.  And he doesn’t explain why religious scientists like Ken Miller or Francis Collins are firm adherents of evolution. In fact, there are a fair few religious scientists who accept evolution. I guess Hedin would say they’re just conforming to the predominant view to be able to get along. But if you know Miller or Collins, you wouldn’t say that!

Meanwhile, over at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News, Klinghoffer touts the interview and Hedin’s book:

Physicist Eric Hedin talked with Jennifer Kabbany at The College Fix about Hedin’s recent book, Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See. She asked him to estimate the chances that life originated without intelligent guidance. His answer: a bold zero.

. . .  As Kabbany points out, Hedin was “canceled before the term cancel culture was even coined.” Atheists led by Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago meddled with Hedin’s department at Ball State University in a pretty despicable power play. Read the rest at The College Fix.

Despicable power play my tuchas! All I did (along with the FFRF) was call the University’s attention to a potential legal violation of its academic program. Ball State and its President did the rest.

Arkansas creationism bill fails—but narrowly

April 22, 2021 • 11:00 am

by Greg Mayer

Following up on Jerry’s post about a bill to allow the teaching of creationism in public schools, the bill has failed, on a 3-3 vote in the state’s Senate Education Committee. The bill was introduced, and passed overwhelmingly in the state House, with knowledge that the bill is unconstitutional, but in the explicit hope that the strengthened conservative majority on the Supreme Court would reverse McLean v. Arkansas.

The bill was very short; here’s the core of it:

a) A teacher of a kindergarten through grade twelve (K-12) science class at a public school or open-enrollment public charter school may teach creationism as a theory of how the earth came to exist.

(b) This section is permissive and does not require a teacher to teach creationism as a theory of the earth came to exist.

Thankfully, it has died—for now. If history teaches us anything, it is that creationism is a phoenix, and, to mix mythological metaphors, its heads must be continually lopped off.

Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education has the details here.

h/t: Brian Leiter