A Skeptic in Washington

by Bob Ladendorf

While the April cherry blossoms were blooming cheerily in Washington, D.C., the White House was surrounded by scores of police in cars and horses in the middle of the street behind the President's home. Metal gates blocked off tourists from even entering the street at Lafayette Park, just a few blocks from the Capital Hilton where I attended a Council for Secular Humanism conference. It was sad to see that the White House, which I toured many years ago, had to be such a secure compound. But we're in the Age of Settling Scores and in the middle of a war, so that security is certainly a necessity.

During the three days I attended the One Nation Under God? Secularism. Society and Justice conference April 11-13, I also saw an antiwar, antiracism protest rally near the White House. On Saturday, I also caught a glimpse of the march that emerged from the rally as the protesters trekked around our hotel peacefully.

It was almost a surreal moment, and a triumph of free speech and freedom to assemble in America, as I watched the protests and then heard conference speakers and panelists, such as author/columnist Christopher Hitchens, critical of worldwide religious fundamentalism but supportive of the Iraq War just a few blocks from the home of the architect of the doctrine of preemptive strikes. Other speakers condemned Islam for its negative impact, among other things, on science. Next door to our discussions at the hotel, Iran held a conference that was attended by its foreign minister. Every so often, I could hear the sirens of police escorts as they carted dignitaries around Washington. I wasn't "in Kansas" anymore!

The conference was sponsored by the Council, which was started by Prof. Emeritus Paul Kurtz and is one arm of the Center for Inquiry group with CSICOP as the other distinct arm. There were elements of the conference of interest to skeptics, primarily regarding secular education and creationism. A panel discussion about the new threats to secular education included Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE); Massimo Pigliucci, author and associate professor if ecology and evolution at the University of Tennessee; Taner Edis, assistant professor of physics at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri; and Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Of particular interest was Edis's presentation, "Intelligent Design: Bad Science, Bad Philosophy, or Both?" Prof. Edis's new book, The Ghost in the Universe, won the Council's award for best science book of 2002, and he received the award at the banquet Saturday night.

In conjunction with a Power Point presentation, Edis proceeded to criticize Intelligent Design (ID). "We say creationism is not science -- not just creationists do not practice science, but that the very idea of supernatural design is out of bounds for science," Edis said. "We say creation is an essentially religious or at least metaphysical notion. Science is all about natural explanations for natural phenomena." Thus, ID should not be taught in science classes.

However, Edis went on to say that there is nothing wrong with ID in biology as a hypothesis. He said that philosophical ID supporters that attack methodological naturalists as wrongly excluding ID are correct. The better view, Edis continued, is that "naturalism is the most successful, best-supported broad description of the world" and that "we expect that to continue."

As Edis went on to say, "ID could be scientifically correct. It just happens to be wrong."

In dealing with complexity, Edis emphasized the "bottom-up naturalism," namely that physical science finds no "life force" or "molecular soul." Particles and forces in physics give rise to molecules in chemistry and then to life in biology. "Complexity is built up on the simple," Edis said.

Chance and necessity, and combinations thereof, are the components determining the course of life. Complexity is explained through self-organization, computation, evolution, and others, Edis said. "All are related, and all do their work through chance and necessity."

As for ID, it's a separate principle, and a "revolution." Promoted by leading theorist William Dembski, ID is an "irreducible form of explanation, distinct from chance & necessity."

According to Edis, Dembski claims that "both designed artifacts and organisms exhibit special order: specified complexity (SC)," and that "chance and necessity cannot generate SC, or information."  Therefore, intelligence is a separate principle, blind mechanisms (like those of Darwinian evolution) cannot explain life, and Artificial Intelligence is impossible, Edis adds.

Edis goes on in more complicated detail to discuss chance and necessity, creativity, game theory, and testing for design. He concludes that ID cannot work. "We know what is beyond mechanisms. Not flexibility, not creativity, not specified complexity. Intelligence itself must be built out of chance and necessity. Not a separate principle!" He goes on to say that biologists have solved the problem of how randomness gives creativity. "The Darwinian mechanism does exactly this -- creates information. Our own intelligent designs are enabled by Darwinian processes taking place within our brains!"

What then are Dembski's mistakes? He thinks, Edis said, that evolution is a solution to a preset problem. "Evolution is no such thing. What is 'fittest' continually changes, depending on the organisms themselves. There is no preset or final goal." In addition, he adds, "ID is completely out of touch with today's science concerning complexity."

In the end, Edis concludes, creationism is futile.

(For a more detailed explanation of his argument, visit Taner Edis's Web site at www2.truman.edu/~edis)

NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott's talk, entitled "Using and Misusing the Law to Promote Creationism," reviewed some of the efforts over the years that states tried to get creationism taught in public schools. She referred to the 1987 case that struck down the teaching of creationism.

For readers unfamiliar with the case, the NCSE Web site provided this key information:

"In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court held unconstitutional Louisiana's 'Creationism Act'. This statute prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools, except when it was accompanied by instruction in 'creation science'. The Court found that, by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind, which is embraced by the term creation science, the act impermissibly endorses religion. In addition, the Court found that the provision of a comprehensive science education is undermined when it is forbidden to teach evolution except when creation science is also taught. (Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) 482 U.S. 578)."

Since that time, creationists have been creative in their descriptions of their hypothesis.

"Now we have 'abrupt appearance' theory, 'alternative theories,' and 'arguments against evolution,'" Scott said.

After reviewing some of the recent efforts by creationists, she added that there is viewpoint discrimination, but, after all, "the nature of science is discrimination" of ideas.

For more information about the NCSE, see its Web site at: www.ncseweb.org

The next morning, Michael Newdow, a medical doctor and attorney who is best known as the plaintiff in the suit that resulted in the 9th Circuit Court decision in California declaring the 1954 legislation about the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, spoke to the group after playing a blues song he wrote about the Pledge. Strumming a guitar and using a harmonica, the multitalented Newdow made the audience laugh with his inventive lyrics. He then proceeded to criticize televangelist Benny Hinn for his negative impact on people that is rarely shown. At one time, as an emergency room doctor, he saw a woman who had a heart attack and died on the stage. People like this needed medical attention instead of a reputed faith healer.

Other notable speakers at the conference included Nat Hentoff, columnist, author, and free speech advocate; actress and comedian Julia Sweeney -- best known as "Pat" on Saturday Night Live -- who tried out a comedy routine as an ex-Catholic for an appreciate audience; Susan Jacoby, former Washington Post report and author of an upcoming book on the demonization of secularism; Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; Pervez Hoodhboy, professor of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Ibn Warraq, author of several books including Why I Am Not a Muslim.

Conferences like these are intellectually stimulating and, as Julia Sweeney commented, help "galvanize" you knowing that there are many other like-minded individuals out there supportive of critical thinking and fighting against the purveyors of the paranormal and pseudoscience.

The only problem with such a conference is the tendency to continue conversations with speakers and friends made at the conference until 2:30 a.m., which I did. When the next morning's session begins at 9 a.m., surely not to be missed, then you just resign yourself, of course, to being tired.

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