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Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

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October 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Exposing the Straw Men of New Atheism: Part 5

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the fifth installment in a series inspired by exchanges with Jerry Coyne. Readers might want to read the first in the series for orientation.

The fourth straw man I want to look at in this series is the claim that religion represents a fossilized set of ideas that only reluctantly change in the face of overwhelming pressure from science. This straw man has two faces: 1) the claim that religion does not and indeed cannot change on its own; and 2) the claim that forcing religion to change represents some kind of “triumph” of science over religion.

I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world. Galileo and Darwin showed this only too clearly, even if it is completely lost on Ken Ham and Al Mohler. If it were not for science we would still be living on a globe we thought was flat, stationary, and 6000 years old. Kudos to science for trumping religion on those claims. But the ongoing progress of science doesn’t just trump religious ideas; it also trumps other scientific ideas.

In the first part of the 20th century Einstein dethroned Newton in ways that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier. But discovering that the venerable Newton got a few things wrong was not the wholesale undermining of the scientific enterprise, even though it showed that a secure and settled science had been in error for more than two centuries. Einstein’s revolution was a glorious and appropriately celebrated advance for science, albeit one not understood by most people. Such unambiguous leaps forward are rarely considered to be damning judgments on the ideas being set aside. And few scientists would say that the overturning of past ideas automatically renders current ideas suspect, since they may meet the same fate.

But is there not a strange double standard here? Theology and biblical studies move forward as well in dramatic and revolutionary ways but New Atheist critics dismiss this progress because it is not acknowledged by lay people on Main Street or in intellectual backwaters like those where Al Mohler and Ken Ham paddle about. This is a gigantic blind spot for people like Richard Dawkins, on par with failing to acknowledge that electricity has changed the world in some important ways just because there are some villages in Tibet go without it.

In The God Delusion Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.

Traditional religious views on slavery, women, and divorce have all changed dramatically, and in response to theological, moral and ethical reflection—not scientific advances. The old views still circulate on Main Street, but then so do Newton’s old ideas about motion. Two hundred years ago many, if not most, Christians in America believed that slavery was a part of God’s ordained social order. Now almost none of them believe this. And this revolution in thought was generated largely from within by informed Christian abolitionists.

How is it that "science" is allowed to toss its historical baggage overboard when its best informed leaders decide to do so, even though the ideas continue to circulate on Main Street, but religion must forever be defined by the ancient baggage carried by its least informed? To insist that the authentically religious are defined by their inability to move out of the past is to create a straw man.

I am not equating scientific and theological progress. They are very different enterprises. Christianity is rooted in unique historical events that were recorded by the early church as they tried to make sense of their encounters with the risen Christ. This was a unique and mysterious event that will never be “understood” within the explanatory framework of science.

Theologians from the first century into the present have reflected on the meaning of this defining event. Christianity is anchored, in many ways, to this history that constrains change. But Christianity as a religious tradition also involves an ongoing conversation with a changing larger world, an internal dialog constantly being refreshed, and continual reflection on the received wisdom. This conversation is dynamic and, like the scientific conversation, important changes occur from time to time.

Dr. Karl Giberson is a physicist, scholar, and author specializing in the creation-evolution debate. He has published hundreds of articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. Dr. Giberson has written or co-written ten books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age. He is currently a faculty member at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, where he serves as the Scholar-in-Residence in science and religion.

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Ray - #38047

November 2nd 2010


You claim to have studied probability theory three years in a row (If I was being snarky, I might suggest it was the same class all three times, but I mostly believe your claim as you meant it), and yet, you deny Bayes’ theorem. That tells me all I need to know.


Gregory - #38056

November 2nd 2010

I wonder how many of those trap doors (“all I need to know”) you’ve got there, Ray. Bayes’ theorem may be the best of its kind right now. But the ‘progressiveness’ of science suggests there will be new kinds of theories, non-Bayesean too.

You may not have been, as a nearby participant or observer, around a ‘scientific revolution’ in-action in your days. Dembski claims to have been deeply impacted by chaos theory and the ‘revolution’ that it supposedly caused in the field. It is not uncommon for someone on the leading edge of research or theory in any new field or even an unnamed field, to perplex many colleagues. I just don’t accept the dichotomy is as strong as Dembski makes it to be, btw ‘chance’ & design’ or between chaos & order. & I prefer to keep my science anthropic & thus address real designers, not implications.

I am certainly *not* a Dembskian & personally don’t think there can be, in principle, a ‘mathematical theory of intelligent design.’ But Dembski has said he aims for one. So I guess we’ll see what he can come up with in years to come.

You might want to consider opening some of those trapped doors of ‘scientism’, Ray, to have an ear when something supra-scientific is knocking.

Rich - #38057

November 2nd 2010


Incorrect.  I did not deny Bayes’ Theorem.  Nor did I deny that it might be useful in calculating the probability of evolutionary pathways.  What I denied was your misapplication of the theorem, in asserting that no calculation of the probability of Darwinian evolution could be valid without bringing in prior probabilities about the intelligent designer.  This is not true.  If you are calculating the probability that an artiodactyl could evolve into a whale in 9 million years *via neo-Darwinian means*, you’ve by definition ruled out the involvement of any designer (since the whole purpose of neo-Darwinism is to explain evolutionary change without reference to a designing intelligence).  Prior probabilities about the designer are irrelevant.

I suspect that you were working from the whale end, and, taking the transformation as *fact*, trying to calculate the comparative probabilities of design and chance as causes.  But I deny the premise that would allow you to work from the whale end; I deny the certainty that the event occurred.  So you must start from the artiodactyl end, and ask:  could random mutations do this in 9 million years?  That can in principle be calculated independently of design hypotheses.

Ray - #38065

November 2nd 2010

Rich, Rich, why must you tempt me like this.

You’re still wrong on Bayes’ theorem, (the probability of Darwinism given what we observe is not the same as the probability of what we observe given Darwinism) but I can overlook your mistake and still tell you why Sternberg (I assume this is the argument you’re itching to tell me) is wrong on whales.

What Sternberg calculated was not the probability of the whale transition given the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He calculated the probability of the whale transition given BOTH the neo-Darwinian synthesis and the EXTREMELY dubious assumption that the transition could not have occurred without a specific pair of mutations that are individually deleterious (not neutral) but are beneficial in combination. What’s the number he calculated, 10^-50. If so, it’s swamped by the much higher probability that his ancillary assumption was bogus.

Et tu Gregory. Well. I guess I’ll add two ID Creationists to the list of Christian posters here who have advocated regressive views (by the blogmaster’s exacting standards—whether ID is regressive or not, I’m sure Karl Giberson thinks it is.) Some strawman.

Rich - #38069

November 2nd 2010


I wasn’t actually referring to Sternberg; I came up with the same general argument long before I heard of him.

You have a B.S. in Math and Physics.  Sternberg has two Ph.D.s in Biology.  What makes you think you know enough evolutionary theory to adjudicate his work?  A little presumptuous, aren’t you?  And where are you getting your information about how Sternberg did his calculation?  For months people here complained that he didn’t give the basis of his calculation.  Do you have access to his data and detailed arguments?  How about sharing this information, rather than declaring him wrong in a private trial of your own?

At least Sternberg had the diligence and the courage to attempt some sort of calculation.  If the Darwinists don’t like the results, let them get off their speculative backsides and provide their own calculations (for the first time in 150 years).

True to atheist form in these debates, you descend to throwing around the word “creationist.”  In fact, both Gregory and I have vigorously criticized the creationists here.  I defended you from one of them.  I feel like the Buddhist monk stung trying to rescue the drowning scorpion.

P.S.  If Klinghoffer is too pious for you, try Berlinski.

Rich - #38071

November 2nd 2010


Technical note:

“the probability of Darwinism given what we observe is not the same as the probability of what we observe given Darwinism”

Exactly my point.  I think that when you were talking about Bayes’ theorem, you had the former in mind, whereas I have never been talking about anything other than the latter.  And my language has been clear enough all along that you should have known that.

Of course, by “what we observe” I mean only “whales formerly did not exist, but now do”; I suspect that by “what we observe” you mean “the artiodactyl turned into the whale”; and as I already said, that’s not an observation but an inference, and therefore calculating “the probability of Darwinism given that the artiodactyl became the whale” is illegitimate—if you are trying to convince someone who doesn’t treat your inference as a fact.  The only calculation capable of persuading someone like that is “the probability of the generation of the whale from the artiodactyl if the means are restricted to Darwinian ones.”  If it’s .5 or higher, I’ll sign on to Darwinism tomorrow.  Even if it’s .05 I’d be impressed.  Unfortunately for atheists, however, that 5 is likely preceded by a much longer string of zeroes.

penman - #38075

November 2nd 2010


I understand, then - correct me if I’m wrong - that your definition of design in nature is “the apparently purposeful arrangment of parts”.

That raises a couple of new questions. Again, forgive me if I’m sounding obtuse. I honestly find it hard to get a handle on what the EC-ID controversy actually is.

First, what does “purposeful” mean? Maybe “cooperating towards the production of some effect”?

Second, does this mean that there is NO design in nature, where we do not see this apparently purposeful arrangment of parts? I’d find that problematic, since I see God’s sovereignty at work everywhere - but let me not second-guess your thoughts.


Rich - #38080

November 2nd 2010


1.  Yes, we legitimately infer design when we see a purposeful arrangment of parts.  Of course, we can sometimes be in error about what is purposeful.  Some functional arrangments might have come about by accident or some natural necessity, rather than through intelligent planning or agency.  (Four fallen tree trunks might spell the word “IN”.)  Thus, we might be looking at only apparent design, rather than real design.  Still, the principle is sound, even if not always easy to apply.

2.  No, it does not follow that there is no design in nature simply because we cannot rigorously establish design.  This is an argument often used by TE/EC people against ID, that if God designs only some things, and other things are left undesigned, that would be theologically incoherent.  But ID does not divide God’s creation into the designed and the not-designed.  It distinguishes between things that are *detectably* designed and all other things, which may well be designed but cannot be established as such.  This is compatible with believing that God’s design extends to every last particle of the universe, and in fact most ID people probably believe that God’s design extends that far.  So that criticism is misguided.

Ray - #38087

November 2nd 2010


You assert that IF you have calculated that the
“probability of transition X, granting Darwinian causality alone, falls below level Y”

you can conclude
“it is very unlikely that Darwinian causality alone was operating.”

Your premise is a statement about the probability of what we observe given Darwinism, your conclusion is a statement about the probability of Darwinism (given what we observe presumably.)

How on earth do you think you can get from one to the other without Bayes’ theorem?

Then you say—“by ‘what we observe’ I mean only ‘whales formerly did not exist, but now do’; I suspect that by ‘what we observe’ you mean ‘the artiodactyl turned into the whale’”

This just makes things worse for you. The former is always true when the latter is true, so the probability of *what we observe* given Darwinism can only be higher that what you hypothetically calculated (the probability of the *transition* given Darwinism).

Ray - #38088

November 2nd 2010

On Sternberg:

I got my information from his own lecture. It was a while ago, but I think it was this one: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4165203/whale_evolution_vs_population_genetics_richard_sternberg_phd_in_evolutionary_biology/

I had to watch a couple of times to find the problem, since he threw out so many red herrings, but it seems I was right, since the dubious assumption is the first thing mentioned in the summary below the video. His source is Behe—incestuous lot these ID theorists.

“You have a B.S. in Math and Physics.  Sternberg has two Ph.D.s in Biology.  What makes you think you know enough evolutionary theory to adjudicate his work?”

upwards of 90% of PhDs in Biology think Sternberg is wrong, so I either have to adjudicate against their work or his in order to resolve the conflict. I spot errors in Sternberg’s work, I don’t spot errors in the likes of Miller and Dawkins (well, he misprinted a few isotope half-lives in TGSOE.) That said, given a 5% chance Sternberg made an incorrect assumption in his calculation (it doesn’t necessarily have to be the one I spotted) he still hasn’t demonstrated design, even to your standards.

penman - #38091

November 2nd 2010

Teasing out what you’ve said…

I am guessing that “apparently purposeful arrangement of parts” is not actually your definition of DESIGN per se. It would have to be your definition of DETECTABLE design. Otherwise we could rightly conclude absence of design where there was no apparently purposeful arrangement of parts. But in fact all we can conclude is absence of detectable design. Is that correct?

I’m still hazy on the content that is being put into the word “purposeful”. Can you spell it out?

Once again, apologies for being so “Noddy Goes To Toytown” basic. The EC-ID warfare genuinely puzzles me. All clarification is welcome!

Ray - #38106

November 2nd 2010


I won’t speak to the motivations of the ID side, but here are a few reasons (most of which I agree with) that someone like Dr. Giberson or Ken Miller might object to the ID movement:

1) Theological: I’ve heard the argument that the only way God could truly allow his creation to have free will is to let the evolutionary processes He designed take their course without stacking the deck by inserting improbably beneficial mutations along the way. I’ve also heard the argument that, if God allowed himself this sort of meddling, he has no excuse for allowing harmful things like wisdom teeth in humans. Obviously, as an atheist and a compatibilist (I think determinism permits free will), I have issues with this point, but I figured I’d report it.

2)Methodological: People like Ken MIller have written at length about the same bad biological assumptions and mathematical mistakes in the work of Behe et al that I criticize above.

3) Political: Miller and Behe agree on a lot—the age of the Earth,  common descent, natural selection, the existence of SOME natural beneficial mutations, Catholicism of course.  Yet due to the DI’s “big tent policy” Behe would rather associate himself with a YEC like Paul Nelson.

Rich - #38116

November 2nd 2010

Ray (38088):

I have listened to the Sternberg video many times, and once again just now.

Your memory is faulty, and/or your listening is sloppy.  Sternberg’s source for the mutational numbers is *not* Behe, but a paper by two biologists who are *critical* of Behe, and foes of ID!!!  It thus comes from hostile witnesses!  Too bad, old chum.  The paper is:

Durrett R, Schmidt D.
Genetics. 2008 Nov;180(3):1501-1509.

Further, your object to his comments on two mutations shows that you have an incorrect memory and/or inadequate understanding of how he discusses the two-mutation question.  It also overlooks that he was being generous in allowing that as few as two mutations could have been responsible for the major change in the reproductive system he was discussing, and it overlooks that, as he points out, the whale needs many such major changes within 9 million years.

“upwards of 90% of Ph.D.s in biology think Sternberg is wrong” —argument from authority, has zero intellectual value.

As I suspected, your critique of Sternberg is fatally flawed and/or full of bluffing.  But that’s nothing new for Darwinian arguments.

Rich - #38118

November 2nd 2010


Do you need Bayes’ theorem to calculate the probability that a pair of unloaded dice will produce a string of 1,000 sevens in a row?

And if a pair of dice *were* to produce 1,000 sevens in a row, would one need to know any “prior probabilities” for non-chance influences on the outcome (e.g., loaded dice) before coming to the conclusion that some non-chance cause was much a more likely hypothesis than the hypothesis that the 1,000 sevens came up purely by chance?

Rich - #38122

November 2nd 2010


In genuine design you *always* have a purposeful arrangement of parts, by definition; but yes, obviously, if you are trying to *establish* genuine design where its existence in uncertain, that purposeful arrangement has to be formally *detectable*.  Hence, in cases of doubt, very careful studies of the relevant biochemistry, physiology, etc., must be done, and so must some math, to rule out (for practical purposes) “chance” explanations.

Note that no one would dream of demanding complex arguments or complex math to rule out chance explanations if we were talking about a machine whose parts worked together in complex ways, even if it were a machine found on another planet, a machine not made by humans and whose origin we had no knowledge of.  The most hard-boiled atheists would grant that the machine was designed without a moment’s hesitation.  It is only in the biological sphere, where we encounter apparent contrivance on a level far beyond that found in any machine ever built, that the same people demand “proof” of design, and find nit-picking faults with every number advanced and every argument made.  It’s worth thinking about all the possible reasons for this double standard.

gingoro - #38123

November 2nd 2010


Ray further on Rich’s comment
AFAIK while the majority of statisticians accept Bayes’ theorem when both operands are physical events only some allow scientific theories to have probabilities attached to them so that they can participate in Bayes’ theorem.  Those that do not allow probabilities to be associated with scientific theories are called Fisherians after RA Fisher the great statistician. Those that attach probabilities to scientific theories are called Bayesians.  AFAIK Dembski is Fisherian and since he sets the mathematical basis for ID, I suspect ID in general mostly uses Fisherian statistics.  Even before I understood the difference I was in the Bayesian camp.
Dave W

Ray - #38126

November 2nd 2010

“Do you need Bayes’ theorem to calculate the probability that a pair of unloaded dice will produce a string of 1,000 sevens in a row?”


“And if a pair of dice *were* to produce 1,000 sevens in a row, would one need to know any “prior probabilities” for non-chance influences on the outcome (e.g., loaded dice) before coming to the conclusion that some non-chance cause was much a more likely hypothesis than the hypothesis that the 1,000 sevens came up purely by chance?”

Yes. You need to know that the prior probability of non-chance bias towards rolling 7s is higher than (7/36)^1000. In practice this is almost always true, but, suppose you roll the dice 1000 times and get something else, apparently random looking. The probability of that exact sequence given fair dice is even lower than the probability of all 7s, but the prior probability that someone weighted the dice in a way that was guaranteed to produce that exact sequence is lower still.

Ray - #38130

November 2nd 2010

“Sternberg’s source for the mutational numbers is *not* Behe, but a paper by two biologists who are *critical* of Behe, and foes of ID!!! “

I didn’t say the numbers for the probability of a double mutation are wrong, I said Behe’s interpretation of those numbers is wrong. Classic bait and switch. Read the response to Behe by Durrett and Schmidt. The key passage is the last paragraph especially:

at least 20,000 genes in the human genome and for each gene tens if not hundreds of pairs of mutations that can occur in each one.


in the case in which the first mutant is neutral or mildy deleterious, double mutations can easily have caused a large number of changes in the human genome since our divergence from chimpanzees. Of course, if the first mutant already confers an advantage, then such changes are easier.

these two objections already account for more than enough orders of magnitude to render a large number of double mutations in the whale or human transition overwhelmingly likely. Further, I know of no peer reviewed research demonstrating that any double mutations were required for the whale or human transition in the first place. Can you cite?

penman - #38131

November 2nd 2010

Ray #38106

=I won’t speak to the motivations of the ID side, but here are a few reasons (most of which I agree with) that someone like Dr. Giberson or Ken Miller might object to the ID movement:
1) Theological…=

I think I’m in some third alternate reality here. I accept evolution (common descent with modification over deep time), but I see it neither as an autonomous process watched passively by a deist-type God, nor as peppered with miraculous interventions to get it to arrive at Humankind. In my Reformed theological tradition, everything is governed by the decree of God, but the mode by which that government is enacted is generally left undefined because unspecified in scripture. Theologians would distinguish Fact & Mode quite sharply. Fact - God’s decree governs all events. Mode - not revealed, but it doesn’t negate moral responsibility once moral agents are present. That line of thought looks distinct from the other two you described. Do you think it is distinct? Or if pressed, do you think it dissolves into one of the other two?

I’d punch above my weight if i commented here.

=3) Political=
But what is the PURPOSE of the big tent? What are Behe & Paul Nelson trying to achieve together?

Ray - #38132

November 2nd 2010

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