Saturday, November 18, 2006


Body Found Crammed in Tiny Opening

MCLEAN, Va. - Local police are investigating the gruesome discovery of remains mangled beyond all recognition by having been stuffed into a tiny gap. The local authorities are asking that anyone with any information about this incident to please contact the police. The Police Chief of McLean said that they are particularly interested in the whereabouts of Pauley "The Crunch" Nelson, who is described as "a person of interest" in the case. Nelson is reputed to be a member of a shadowy organization known as "The DI," the members of which have been implicated in such finds in the past. Law enforcement sources say that this technique for disposing of victims is a trademark of the DI.

Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute, variously described as a "Christian professor of science and religion" and a "a Biola professor and apologist," (if you take the first word and the last, you've got the picture) recently appeared, appropriately enough, at "a three-day apologetics conference at McLean Bible Church."

Let's get straight to the real news, as reported by the Christian Post:

I want to remind you that you don’t need a theory of design to know that is design. The reality of detecting intelligence doesn’t require a theory. A theory is a nice thing to have, certainly if we are going to apply this to biology, but design inferences are sound and stable even if we don’t have a fully articulated theory.
Of course, having a theory is not merely "nice" if you are going to do biology or any other science, it is essential. Without a theory you have no basis to do the testing which is the hallmark of science. Thus, Nelson joins, if less straightforwardly, Phillip Johnson, who recently said:

I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.

But perhaps even more tellingly, Nelson went on, according to the article, to not only urge the audience "to ignore philosophical rules" but to say outright:

The intelligent design debate has nothing to do with the evidence. It has everything to do with what we are going to let that evidence tell us.

And if that evidence is telling you something you don't want to hear, just ignore it. "Truth," to Nelson, is malleable and reality can be safely ignored.

The particular gap he was stuffing his God into that evening is the issue of ORFans, "orphan Open Reading Frames," stretches of DNA that appear to code for real, functional proteins but which have no sequence homologs in other genomes. Although I won't pretend to understand the science involved, I sure recognize the nature of Nelson's argument and why he wants people to ignore the rules of philosophy. Those interested in the science can go to Ian Musgrave's piece at the Panda's Thumb, "An argument is ORFaned," or to the article by Yanbin Yin and Daniel Fischer, "On the origin of microbial ORFans: quantifying the strength of the evidence for viral lateral transfer."

As the Yin and Fischer article says, "[b]ecause of the lack of homology to other proteins, the origin of ORFans entails an evolutionary puzzle." In science puzzles invite investigation but, to Nelson, it is merely a place to hide what is left of a God so unsubtle and so clumsy, that Nelson cannot imagine that He might not leave any fingerprints for finite creatures like us to find. The final touch is to firmly cement Him in place by demanding totally unreasonable standards of proof before He can be dislodged from His gap:

Nelson said that if the theory of evolution were completely true, then there "must" be a way to reconstruct evolutionary history of every gene and protein and we would not expect so many unknown genes or proteins.

One can only hope Nelson never sits on a jury. By that standard of proof, the police would have to show each and every place where a suspect stepped going to and from the murder scene, even if it was over pavement that a million people have walked on since, before he would convict.

Comparing Nelson's approach with that shown by the Yin and Fischer article is instructive as to the difference between science and the kind of apologetics that Nelson is engaged in. Faced with that evolutionary puzzle, scientists don't throw up their hands and say "That's it, we'll never know the answer to that one." Instead, they dig in and look for evidence that might support or refute possible explanations for the problem. In other words, they test those theories Nelson says he doesn't need. One of the myriad suggested explanations for ORFans (see Musgrave's article) is that these sequences resulted from lateral genetic transfer from viruses. Right now, the evidence is not looking good for that particular explanation but the authors suggest other possible lines of investigation.

But, that's not what Nelson is after. If you stuff God in that little crack in our knowledge and [cough] wedge Him in real tight, you can successfully put your brain in idle so it can't be disturbed by anything as dangerous as a doubt. The only thing Nelson wants to let that evidence tell him is that his fingers are still firmly stuffed in his ears. He's right that you don't need a theory for that.

But not only isn't that science, it's not much in the way of theology either. Compare Nelson's God, who only creates the things we can't explain ... yet ... to the one Rabbi Natan Slifkin worships, who does not limit "His appearance in the universe to the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting system." You don't have to be a theist to see the differences in the grandeur of those views of life.

The God of the IDers in some ways reminds me of Harvey, the six foot three and a half inch tall white rabbit; a "pooka" that "appears here and there - now and then - to this one and that one - a benign but mischievous creature - very fond of rumpots [and] crackpots."

And how are you, Mr. Nelson?

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