Monday, August 29, 2005

Midwestern Sensibility

I have to confess that I often watch The McLaughlin Group (TMG). I know it's vaguely masochistic of me, and my wife thinks I'm crazy, that I'm trying to spite her ("the shouting match" she calls it), but I find the loud, friendly banter strangely soothing at the end of the week. (Maybe it's because it reminds me of a radio program I used to listen to in Portugal -- Flashback, which later became the TV program A Quadratura do Círculo or Squaring the Circle.) However, last Friday, I was driven, for the first time, to turn off the TV in the middle of "Issue Two" (it was either that or throwing the thousand-odd page A New Kind of Science at the the lot of them).

The issue in question was ominously titled "Bible vs Biology" by John McLaughlin. His opening statement set the tone:
The debate between the Bible and biology is raging. Was man created full-blown by God, or did the human race develop from primates, as followers of Charles Darwin evolution theory say? Today's debate in America's public schools is a re-run. This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," the historic legal battle in which a Tennessee court threw out Tennessee's law against the teaching of evolution.

Over the years, the United States Supreme Court has also ruled against teaching Bible-based creationism in public schools. What's different today is the "intelligent design" theory. Those who believe in intelligent design say public schools should also be able to teach that man is far too complex to have evolved from primates. Many scientists and educators scoff at the intelligent design theory as a leaner, meaner form of creationism.

Intelligent design supporters say that Americans are open to other ideas besides Darwinian evolution. And poll numbers back the intelligent designers. When asked, 54 percent say they don't believe that human beings did develop from an earlier species. And a whopping 64 percent in the same poll believe that, quote, "human beings were created directly by God," unquote.
Where to begin? "Intelligent design" is not a "theory". "Many scientists" doesn't even begin to do justice to the situation: "the vast majority of scientists" would be closer to the truth. And since when do scientific questions get settled by opinion poll? How many Americans even understand what evolution is?

McLaughlin then asked Eleanor Clift: "Question: Is evolution a scientific theory or a scientific fact?" The answer, of course, is that evolution is both a scientific fact and a scientific theory. The theories that populations of organisms change over time, that new groups successively split from earlier groups, and that all life on Earth has descended from a single common ancestor, are all as well supported as the theories that the Earth is approximately spheroidal and that it revolves around the Sun, and are, therefore, accepted as facts by the vast majority of scientists. The mechanisms of evolution, such as mutation, natural selection and genetic drift, although well established, are still widely referred to as theories. (As happens with other major scientific theories such as general relativity and plate tectonics.) Intelligent design creationism (ID), on the other hand, is neither a scientific fact nor a scientific theory. Therefore, ID should not be taught in schools.

Although Eleanor Clift did not say this, exactly, she did manage the only sensible intervention of the whole segment:
I believe there is enough scientific evidence to support evolution. And the fact that we have an American president challenging evolution and suggesting that intelligent design belongs on the curriculum along with science is absolutely absurd. Intelligent design is a nice religious theory, and that's where it belongs, in a religious class.
Spot on! McLaughlin and Tony Blankley then exchanged a few words of wisdom:
MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think we're descended from primates? Of course we are!
BLANKLEY: I've looked monkeys in the eye and I see a relative. (Laughter.)
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, those words may come back to haunt you.
BLANKLEY: They all do.


MCLAUGHLIN: You know, the problem with primates, that is an order, and in that line or order there are apes and monkeys and related simians. Does that make us a simian?
BLANKLEY: It makes us a hominoid.
MCLAUGHLIN: So we're all simians in the line, and arguably, if you believe that it is an order, then we are part of that species, are we not?

Now, it is hard to convey to a non-biologist just how painful this exchange is. The level of ignorance of basic science displayed by McLaughlin is so egregious, that if it were in the area of politics or foreign policy he would not invite himself to the show ever again. By this point I picked up the remote and started debating whether I should go to bed and read NKS. Then Blankley said this:
Let me make a point. A theory in science is a proposition supported by scientific evidence. I think Eleanor is right that evolution --
Wrong! Supporting evidence counts for very little. (Of course, this is particularly ironic given that there is no supporting evidence for ID whatsoever.) All kinds of pseudo-scientific ideas, from astrology to psychoanalysis, can marshal supporting evidence. The hallmark of science is testability or falsifiability. "A theory in science is a proposition" for which one could, in principle, find evidence that would disprove it. Evolution is a scientific proposition (for example, finding human fossils in the Cambrian would disprove it). ID is not. But it gets worse:
MCLAUGHLIN: Empirical evidence?
BLANKLEY: Scientifically measured evidence.
MCLAUGHLIN: That's empirical.
BLANKLEY: I believe that there is sufficient evidence to support aspects of evolution. Now --
MCLAUGHLIN: Is it overwhelming? Is it overwhelming?
BLANKLEY: Within a species, it is overwhelming. As between species, there are lacunas in scientific knowledge.
BUCHANAN: Exactly.
(Curiously, I'm beginning to find this amusing in writing. A bit like reading the scripts of a Monty Python's episode.) Yes, the evidence is empirical. Yes, it's overwhelming. And yes, it's for both evolution within and among species. Now Blankley decides that we have already heard enough about evolution:
BLANKLEY: The intelligent design people make two points. One, they say the theory doesn't explain itself sufficiently scientifically. That's a valid debate to have on the scientific basis.
BLANKLEY: The second piece they argue is that the explanation is intelligent design. That's an attempt to do Thomas Aquinas's argument number five. And I think that is, in fact, theology.
Actually, Blankley was not nearly as bad as I feared (maybe it's his British background...). However, he just let through the first bogus argument for ID! Even if there are "lacunas in scientific knowledge" in evolutionary biology -- and name an area of science where that isn't true -- it absolutely does not follow that the lacunas are to be filled by some mysterious "designer". How pathetic would that be?

Clarence Page, however, was much, much worse than I expected:
MCLAUGHLIN: Does intelligent design mean to you that Adam and Eve as described in Genesis are literally true and that full-blown human beings were brought into existence quickly without the passage of any serious time?

PAGE: No. Intelligent design is not the same as creationism. You're describing creationism, and we should not use those two interchangeably. We fall into that danger, especially in the -- 

MCLAUGHLIN: All right. What is intelligent design?

PAGE: Intelligent design is really what we were taught when I was growing up in southern Ohio -- maybe it's in our Midwestern sensibility -- but that is that there is evidence to support evolution, as Tony 
said. There are also questions about whether or not intelligence may have been involved at some stage in this --

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, why -- 

PAGE: -- whether it explains everything, as what you described --

BUCHANAN: John, let me get in on this.

PAGE: -- or whether it merely describes, say, you know -- to go back to "Star Wars," "May the Force be with you," that there's some intelligence out there that got it all started.

MCLAUGHLIN: Why -- are we not really in semantics, rather than we are in concept? (Cross talk.)

PAGE: Hopefully not in semantics, John. (Cross talk.)

MCLAUGHLIN: You can concurrently have intelligent design managing evolution. Correct?
Halfway through this I went to bed. Perhaps PZ Myers can explain what the Midwestern sensibility has to do with any of this. It went even further downhill from here. As you can see at this point Pat Buchanan was dying to get in. No prizes for guessing what he wanted to say:
There is no -- you're exactly right. Does the universe manifest intelligent design? Of course it does. It works like a clock. 

And to dispute Tony here, Aquinas was not talking theology there. He was talking natural law and reason.

From then on they interrupted each other a lot, Buchanan repeated "It's reason!" a few times (where is Pirate Mode when you need it?), Clift squeezed in another sensible comment, and Page concluded with:
PAGE: I believe the president said there ought to be room for discussion of it, which sounds pretty benign. Maybe it was pandering. Maybe it was a sincere expression of his belief. But -- I'm not opposed 
to discussion, but if you say that "Hey, this is definitely true, and you've got to believe this," then I'm opposed to that.


Intelligent design, as described by the host of this program a few precious minutes ago --

PAGE: Yes, sir. (Chuckles.)

MCLAUGHLIN: -- if he meant that, he's perfectly okay. 

Again, I have no idea what any of this means. They talked and talked and didn't even address the substance of the president's comments.

As usual with these exchanges, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Here I lean towards the latter. After all, these are supposed to be this nation's intellectuals, and yet they are scientifically illiterate. Could you imagine sports commentators being so ignorant about their subject?

Update: What did I say about sports commentators? For more idiocy from the media, we have Larry King, Deepak Chopra, the LA Times, ... And it's not only in America: there's also Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times (London). Help!