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ID advocacy at the 4th annual World of Skeptics Conference

On June 21st, 2002, "Intelligent Design" advocates squared off against representatives of evolution at the 4th annual World of Skeptics Conference in Burbank, CA.  The event was organized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).  The two ID advocates were William Dembski and Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promotes the teaching of intelligent design.  Representing evolution were Ken Miller and Wesley Elsberry.  Here, Wesley shares his comments on the day's events.

Massimo Pigliucci moderated this session from 9AM to noon on Friday, June 21st.  The evolution team, Ken Miller and myself, won the coin toss.  We decided to present first and third, with me taking the first position.

Massimo gave an overview of the history of intelligent design, starting with Plato and bringing the audience up through Paley to the modern ID movement.  There were a couple of minor problems in his otherwise excellent talk. Knowing that Paul Nelson's abstract made the claim that ID advocates were useful in keeping "their mainstream rivals honest", I made a note of these.

It was then my turn at the podium.  My initial nervousness was not helped by problems with the microphone. However, once I got started, things fell into place.  I pointed out that scientists made a habit of correcting each other, and thus noted that Massimo had an incorrect date for Paley's publication of "Natural Theology" and that the figures he showed of the "flagellum" were actually of the eukaryote cilium.  This gave a positive example of ID's "mainstream rivals" keeping each other honest. I then proceeded with my set talk.  It seemed to go over well with the audience.  I have a preliminary version online here, which I will update with more of the quoted material and links to sources as I get time.

Paul Nelson then gave his talk.  He didn't follow his abstract. Instead, he talked about naturalism and how adherence to naturalism prevented one from finding "intelligent design" in biology even if ID were true.  Kind of a "Give ID a chance" talk.

Ken Miller went next.  Ken proceeded to work over Behe's "irreducible complexity" and Dembski's "specified complexity" with biological examples.  For Behe and Dembski's use of the E. coli flagellum, Ken pointed out that parts of the flagellum had functional significance, as demonstrated by Type 3 Secretory Systems, and at least four other functional subsets of flagellum anatomy.  Ken again showed that the blood-clotting example used by Behe could withstand the removal of a part, as cetaceans lack Factor XII (Hagemann factor) and are still able to clot blood.

My favorite part, though, had to be Ken's use of my web calculator to apply Dembski's formula from NFL p.301 to the Krebs citric acid cycle.  Ken found by Dembski's calculation that the Krebs cycle has a probability of less than 10-440.  Ken then showed that biologists have published an evolutionary pathway for the origin of the Krebs cycle. This provides us with a false positive for Dembski's EF/DI.

Dembski presented last.  His talk was on "Prospects for skeptics unseating 'intelligent design' in the next 25 years".  Mark Todd, who was in the audience, said that the audience was in a good mood after Ken's talk, but that within seconds Dembski had managed to almost completely alienate the audience.  Dembski brought up polls to demonstrate that ID was a popular stance, and that skeptics would have a tough time displacing ID in the public.  Dembski did note that this could be considered an argumentum ad populum.  Dembski's talk was remarkably content-free.  He brought up little of his work on "specified complexity".

The panel then went into point-counterpoint mode.  Paul Nelson led off with a question for Ken Miller, claiming that the paper Ken depended upon for an evolutionary pathway to the Krebs cycle indicated that their work was incomplete, and that there was a "missing enzyme". Why didn't Ken make note of this inconvenient fact? I was watching Ken navigate through folders on his Mac laptop as Paul set up his question.  Ken asked to come back to the question in another five minutes in order to get some information from his computer.  Paul asked another question of Ken concerning negation of logical propositions and "empirical content".  I bought a little time with a discussion of Nelson's approach to this, such that he had extracted one clause of a logical conjunction for separate examination, and asked him how he justified that.  Ken then took up that question, while still prepping for the other one.  (Amazingly, none of the panel members - not a one of us - caught the very basic blunder in Paul's setup.  As Jan Willem Nienhuys pointed out to me the next day, Nelson had failed to apply de Morgan's law when he distributed the negation over the statement.  I spoke to Paul about this later, and he said he'll revisit that to see if he still has an argument left there.)

Ken finally got a PDF of the paper in question up, hooked up to display on-screen for the audience, and found the passage that Paul was referring to.  The paper did not have the phrase, "missing enzyme", but it did say that they assumed the development of an enzyme to alter succinyl CoA.  Ken then estimated the size of such an enzyme as about 300 amino acids, and pointed out that Bill Dembski's calculations would show that the probability of such a small protein would be about 10-40, well above Dembski's "universal probability bound", and thus readily attributable to the action of natural selection.  Ken said that for the evolvability of this protein, his authority was none other than Bill Dembski.

Another interesting exchange was when I asked Paul Nelson about what science could exclude.  Paul had stated in his talk that empirical evidence made a difference to propositions, and that the evidence presented in the "Skeptical Inquirer" meant that there obviously were no UFOs in the sense of alien visitations.  I asked for Paul's reason why in science classes we should avoid mentioning another conjecture shown to be false by the evidence, that of the age of the earth being less than 10,000 years old. Paul said that there was no reason for science to avoid stating that. While I was satisfied with getting that from Paul, both Paul and Bill then got into a discussion of why I would bring up a question that was irrelevant to "intelligent design" and expressing disappointment that the content of their arguments was not being addressed.  I responded that a similar question had been posed to Dembski at the AMNH debate in April, and I wanted to see if Nelson was any more responsive than Dembski was.

Paul reiterated that he didn't see the relevance of the question.  At that point, Massimo stepped in and directed Paul to answer the question of whether Paul personally agreed with the YEC stance on the age of the earth.  Paul hemmed and hawed, and Bill objected on the grounds of irrelevance.  At this point, there were audible calls from the audience for Paul to answer the question.  Paul eventually said that it was well known that he adhered to the YEC view of the age of the earth.  Ken said to Paul, "See, that wasn't so hard."  Paul said that the only reason to bring it up was to score a rhetorical point, at which point an audience member called out, "It goes to your credibility."  Both Paul and Bill denied that.

There were various other questions asked.  I've bought a copy of the video, so I may add more detail later.

Ratings: Ken Miller was the star of the session.  If you get a chance to hear Ken talk, make sure to go.  Paul Nelson and Massimo Pigliucci gave well-polished presentations. I fear my delivery was marred by my initial nervousness and my relative inexperience, this being my third outing of this sort in the past 5 years.  Dembski, though, really failed to connect with the audience at any point.



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