Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ben Stein's Dishonest Film Exposes Dinesh D'Souza's Naivete and Ignorance

Beware the Creationist Ellipses. Those with experience dealing with creationists, and their tendency to quote mine, know this is rule #1. "Any time you see a creationist quote...that this", you can guarantee that whatever was eliminated by the ellipses contradicts whatever point they are making. The same applies to video. If a creationist interviews a scientist about evolution, you can be guaranteed that the answer you see the scientist give will be edited in a way that makes the scientist appear to be making an argument that he isn't making.

Dinesh D'Souza is either unaware of this, or simply doesn't care because the edited version told him what he wanted to hear. In any case, the only person exposed by D'Souza's latest article is D'Souza, not Richard Dawkins, the quote-filmed scientist.

But before we get to that, let's remind everyone how dishonest D'Souza is by corrected all the false statements he his opening paragraph:

"In Ben Stein's new film 'Expelled,' there is a great scene where Richard Dawkins is going on about how evolution explains everything."

Nonsense, and this is remarkable even for D'Souza. One of the things that irritates creationists to no end is that scientists tell them, willingly and loudly, that evolution does not explain everything, and that it is silly to expect it to. It doesn't explain what morality we should have, it doesn't explain how the universe began, and most relevant to this article, it doesn't explain how the very first replicator came to be. Scientific theories are very implication specific, and all scientists, Dawkins included, will lecture you on this point as long as you allow them to. For D'Souza to pretend to be unaware of this stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.

"This is part of Dawkins' grand claim, which echoes through several of his books, that evolution by itself has refuted the argument from design."

Ah, so to D'Souza, "refuting design arguments" = "everything". Glad we got that cleared up. And yes, insofar as ID proponents have made testable, scientific claims, evolution has refuted them. Irreducible complexity's claims have been falsified (functioning subsystems and indirect pathways exist), and their probability arguments are flawed (necessary mutations are not independent events), as are their statistical assumptions (it is not proper to assume all unknown distributions are linear). However, ID itself has not, and can never be, refuted, because it lacks scientific content. This is a distinction many ID proponents completely ignore.

"The argument from design hold [sic] that the design of the universe and of life are most likely the product of an intelligent designer. Dawkins thinks that Darwin has disproven this argument.

ID says nothing about the universe. The apologetic argument that does is known as "The Fine Tuning Argument". The ID argument is that certain attributes of living things (eg consciousness, flagellums, and eyes) are most likely the product of an intelligent designer, and this is the argument evolution keeps disproving.

So Stein puts to Dawkins a simple question, "How did life begin?" One would think that this is a question that could be easily answered. Dawkins, however, frankly admits that he has no idea. One might expect Dawkins to invoke evolution as the all-purpose explanation. Evolution, however, only explains transitions from one life form to another. Evolution has no explanation for how life got started in the first place. Darwin was very clear about this.

And some people don't understand why he's called "Distort DeNewsa" in some circles. Five easily referenced assertions to begin this piece, and not one accurate. Coincidence? The IDers he defends would disagree.

D'Souza then bores us with some of those very same errors: overstating the significance of "complexity" (a term evolution critics are always very careful to never objectively define), miscalculating probabilities, and then hitting us with another self-serving bizarre redefinition of a common English word:

"Moreover, the earth has been around for some 4.5 billion years and the first traces of life have already been found at some 3.5 billion years ago...What this means is that, within the scope of evolutionary time, life appeared on earth very quickly after the earth itself was formed."

So "1 billion years" = "very quickly within the scope of evolutionary time" to D'Souza? That would make the entirety of human history, around 200,000 years, a mere blink of an eye to Dinesh. Remind me to not wait on him when he says he'll be back in a minute. But seriously, 1 billion years is nearly 1/4 of the earth's history. It is not "very quickly", even in evolutionary terms.

"Is it reasonable to posit that a chance combination of atoms and molecules, under those conditions, somehow generated a living thing?

Of course it is. D'Souza is simply not thinking this through (shocker, I know). Simply compare the two competing theories here, and their predictions, to the data:

1) Atoms and molecules, within the constraints of chemical and physical laws, organized themselves into a very simple replicator.

2) An intelligence of unknown origin created the earth, and then purposely placed replicating life on it.

Now, given our two theories, how long would we expect it to take for that first replicator to appear? With #1, we'd expect it to take a very long time. Obviously it couldn't happen quickly or we'd see creation events happening all around us, even in our peanut butter. But you can do a lot with a billion of just about anything. A billion seconds is over 31 years).

However, with theory #2, we'd expect it to happen rather quickly. After all, if the earth was created for the purpose of having life on it, there is no reason the designer would wait for a billion years to put it there. This is why IDers avoid making predictions like the plague. They always turn up on the short end of the evidence.

The more important part of this issue is the inherent contradiction in the creationist position. They decry that the complexity of life we see is beyond the ability of mindless processes, but their solution is to posit a being of even more complexity as being the cause. To them the high complexity of life had to have a cause, but the even higher complexity of the designer doesn't. Thus, even if we found that life was in fact put here by some designer, say an advanced alien race, that would still leave us the problem of explaining their complexity. It is an infinite regress out of which the creationists cannot climb, and it dooms their argument.
This was the point Dawkins made when he was pressed by the Expelled interviewers as to what the possibilities of a designer were, and he suggested that it could be aliens. This theory is called "panspermia", and while there is a fringe group who believes it, Dawkins is not among them, and never has been. Yet that is exactly what Stein and company want you to believe, so they edited the film accordingly, leaving the context of the statements out so that it appeared that Dawkins was a panspermian.

D'Souza fell for it, and as a result, he reaches the correct conclusion, but for the wrong reasons, and as a result, doesn't grasp the full implications.

"But doesn't it take as much, or more, faith to believe in extraterrestrial biology majors depositing life on earth than it does to believe in a transcendent creator?"

Essentially, yes, an unreasonable amount of faith, which ignores the problem of the infinite regress of complex causes. This is precisely why Dawkins doesn't buy it, which he would gladly explain to you himself given an opportunity. But D'Souza would rather believe Ben Stein on what Dawkins' says than Dawkins himself. No wonder his articles are always so riddled with easly avoidable errors.


Luke H. said...

"But doesn't it take as much, or more, faith...?"

I hear that one all the time from talk-radio listeners. How, exactly, does one quantify faith?

Anonymous said...

Hi Avenger.

You introduced yourself to me over on the EvolutionBlog with some pretty heavy comments, so I thought I'd give your blog a read. Pretty good stuff, honestly. I dig your exegesis and share more than one of your sentiments. However, this caught my attention as possibly way out of line with the current scientific consensus, and certainly way out of line with what you yourself write earlier in this same post.

Quoting Stein, you write, "Is it reasonable to posit that a chance combination of atoms and molecules, under those conditions, somehow generated a living thing?" You then conclude with no explanation, "Of course it is..."

This is problematic for me because earlier in this same post you correctly note that science has no reasonable hypothesis of abiogenesis. If science proposes no reasonable explanation for the organization of inorganic matter into the first replicating cell, from whence do you?

Pre-emptively, I'm not being a smart-ass troll or trying to dupe you into another needless flame war; I'm sincerely confused by what I perceive as a sloppy argument from a decent writer.

Can you or anyone else point me to a valid experiment that supports your claim? And to elaborate, what conditions was Stein alluding to?

ScienceAvenger said...

Luke: I quantify faith roughly as the number of assumptions made that are unsupported by evidence, and the extent to which they go beyond that standard. It is an inexact process for sure.

CL: My comment is a recognition that it is the only solution we have, and it matches fairly well with the time we know passed from earth's beginnings to life's beginnings. It is a reasonable hypothesis, a starting point.

What science lacks is a full-fledged theory of abiogensis, which is why the experiments you request don't exist in great number, if at all. But such is not required to make the claim I did.