Sunday, June 19, 2011

Steven Novella: "Bachmann Promotes Creationism"

Steven Novella is commenting on intelligent design supporter Rep. Michelle Bachmann's endorsement of academic freedom.


To be fair (this is not a political blog so I want to make sure I don’t come off as partisan) bad science is not limited to the Republican party. But there are some issues where they definitely take the lead – and evolution/creationism is one. In some states creationism is on the Republican party platform.

Bachmann said:

“I support intelligent design. What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”

Novella loses it:

She is dead wrong, of course. There is no scientific controversy about the fact of evolution.

Novella couldn't be more disingenuous.

All scientists do support evolution, if evolution is defined as change in populations of organisms with time. The fossil record amply documents evolution, but one need not cite scientific data. The population of squirrels in my neighborhood changes subtly each year. The evolution that all scientists support is that kind of evolution.

If evolution is defined as the specific theory that Darwin proposed-- that all adaptation occurred by the mechanism of random heritable variation and natural selection-- then Novella is utterly wrong. There is a raging debate in evolutionary biology about the genesis of adaptations, and there is utterly no consensus.

If evolution is defined as the transition from one species to another with time, nearly all scientists accept it, although many agree that the evidence is substantially incomplete for most species.

If by evolution Novella means common descent, that is supported by most, but certainly not all, scientists.

If by evolution Novella means absence of design, one must first define 'design'.

If design means application of intelligent agency to the origin of life and speciation, then many scientists, even scientists who are atheists and who hold to strong materialist views such as Francis Crick, Leslie Orgel, and Richard Dawkins, have suggested that directed panspermia (i.e. intelligent design) may be the best explanation for some aspects of the emergence and evolution of life.

If design means the theory of intelligent design held by most ID scientists today, then there is a substantial minority of well-qualified (and vilified) scientists who hold that view.

If design means teleology in the sense of directedness or final causation, or more vaguely as some sort of 'theistic evolution', there are many scientists who hold to this view. In fact, any scientist who is a Christian, or Jewish (theologically, not just culturally), or Muslim almost certainly holds to some sort of teleology, because the belief that God created the universe necessarily implies some form of teleology in nature.

There are many different meanings that can be applied to 'evolution'. In affirming that nearly all scientists accept evolution, disingenuous polemicists like Novella apply the most general meaning to evolution, and ascribe the most restricted meaning- young earth creationism- to opponents of atheist/materialist evolutionary theory.

It is a deeply dishonest tactic. The reason that Novella and other materialists do it is clear: if they acknowledged the broad spectrum of viewpoints in science regarding evolutionary theory, from selfish genes to neutral drift to directed panspermia to various kinds of teleological views-- intelligent design, teleology in the Aristotelian/Thomist sense, and theistic evolutionists-- they would have to acknowledge that such fervent debates are the heart of evolutionary biology and should be resolved in an atmosphere of vigorous scientific debate, mutual respect and academic freedom.

Contra Novella, there are very few settled issues in evolutionary biology, and the viewpoints regarding teleology in biology span an enormous range.

By painting a false picture of monolithic evolutionary biologists on one hand, and snake-handling young earth creationists on the other, Novella and his ilk build a straw-man to advance their obvious goal, which is to use intimidation and legal force to silence genuine discussion of evolution in classrooms.

Rep. Bachmann is no scientist, but she clearly has a healthy respect for academic freedom and understands that the essence of real science is honest debate.


The scientific community has spoken – we should listen to them. Teach whatever you want at home and at church – but science classrooms are for teaching accepted science.

Vigorous candid debate about evolution is accepted science. Censorship and the use of legal force to shelter atheist creation myths from public scrutiny are filthy politics, and not science of any kind. The American people are fed up with atheist ideologues masquerading as defenders of "consensus science" who censor honest discussion of evolution in schools.

Novella again:

The leaders of the Republican party should lead – just say it like it is.

They are leading. Like the overwhelming (and growing) majority of Americans, they are demanding academic freedom in science classrooms.


  1. I would suggest materialists read "In the beginning was information" by Dr. Werner Gitt. If they still not see design in nature after that, their case is desperate!

  2. Michael, as a fellow Catholic traditional philosophic thinker/scientist, I applaud your responses to those who think that "mainstream" scientists somehow have all of the answers to life. Unfortunately, our society has been hi-jinked by atheistic scientists such as Coyne, Dawkins, Myers et al, who think their ideas are the only ones that "matter" (sorry, no pun intended). Keep up the good fight and the good blogs. Always enjoy reading your comments.

  3. What an awfully misguided, vitriolic post.

    "there is utterly no consensus."

    Are you serious??

    "Richard Dawkins, have suggested that directed panspermia (i.e. intelligent design) may be the best explanation for some aspects of the emergence and evolution of life.

    Taken out of context, you filthy rotten lying scumbags.

    "atheist creation myths"

    You've got to be joking...

    It is no surprise that ID isn't taken seriously.

  4. Typical atheist response! Their case REALLY is desperate...

  5. "If by evolution Novella means absence of design"...???

    What does that mean???

    "If by evolution Novella means Santa Claus" makes just as much sense as that statement

    Try looking up the scientific definition of evolution before you just "Guess" what Novella meant.

  6. The author tries mixing science with religion to prove that god exists, essentially using arguments from the middle ages. Let's see how he does on both scores:

    The religion-

    He says "There is no useless or false information in the Bible, since God's Word is absolutely true:" However this is a conclusion as are all of his 30 theorems which do not prove anything. More importantly any religion that has a creator would satisfy all of his theorems (we'll look at some below) and so choosing the Bible as the single truth is just a form of religious bigotry.

    The science -

    1. He tackles none of the Bible's inconsistencies with modern science such as carbon dating (age of the earth and fossils), geological (e.g. fossil sedementary placings, sequences, DNA etc) and the evidence that the first life were simple life-forms like bacteria. He would rather write an entire book using the interpretative tool of information as opposed to any concrete evidence.

    2. He says life is so complex it had to be created by a brilliant mind. He says this is proven by man's lack of ability to re-create. He quotes that "all evolutionary theses that living systems developed from poly-nucleotides which originated spontaneously, are devoid of any empirical base." This is comparable to a medieval philosopher saying 'man cannot fly' or 'no machine can replace the horse and buggy.' One cannot prove a negative. 'There are no planes so man cannot fly?' Obviously not proven.

    3. Modern science indicates that evolution arises from genetic mutations and selections subject to the environment. However he says "It should be clear from Theorem 27 that random processes cannot give rise to information." Why not?
    Theorem 27 -"Any model for the origin of life (and of information) based solely on physical and/or chemical processes, is inherently false." However this is a conclusion as are most of his theorems.

    4. Witt first dismisses Shannon's information theory as irrelevant to biology. This is due to his lack of understanding of its applications to molecular biology.
    Theorem 1- "The fundamental quantity information is a non-material mental entity." However Gitt is well aware that no mental activity is involved at the genetic level where the DNA code is read by ribsomes etc. He wants you to believe Theorem 1 is a fundamental truth which it is not and later his analysis eventually leads to his concept of relevant information (to decide the question of life and god) being 'creative information'. He says "This is the highest level of transmitted information: something new is produced." The critical issue now is the 'newness' of the information, having finally admitted that 'information' itself is not mental (if it was his book could have ended after theorem 1 which is just a tautology.)

  7. This leads to his final 2 theorems:
    "Theorem 29 - Every piece of creative information represents some mental effort and can be traced to a personal idea-giver...
    Theorem 30 - New information can only originate in a creative thought process."

    And so these are circular, 'creative information is new and new information is (necessarily) creative'? Modern science indicates that life evolves from mutations but he says "mutations can only cause changes in existing information" and so do not provide new information. If so he should have dedicated most of the book to descrediting the modern science of self-organization but he gives it short shrift next. We'll see he can't prove self-organization does not exist and so it's better to pretend to prove information by definition means there is a god! This is non-scientific, biased and medieval.

    5. He quotes with approval that "Not even the physical building blocks required for the storage of the information can construct themselves." However his analysis of self-organization is shallow and he ignores most of the scientific findings. (Theorem: It is better to ignore what you cannot prove?) Let's have a look at some of the scientific literature:

    Self-organization can be generally described as the spontaneous formation of structures where elements interact to achieve global behaviour. The first issue is does it exist? If it exists does it offer an alternative to a god? Gitt seems to infer it does not exist but in fact it does. For instance in 'the appearance of a new species, of a new mode of behaviour, of a new technology, of a new product or idea.' (Ebeling et al., Germany) Now Gitt would say all of these examples require minds. Well here is one that does not but we have to get more technical, and there are many: "Turbulance in two-dimentional fluids self-organizes through the mechanism of the inverse energy cascade. In the absence of dissipation this leads to the condensation of the spectral energy at the largest scale allowed by the system. The condensate formation in 2D fluids has been observed in experiments and numerical simulations." (Shats et al., Australia) "Many approaches have been developed to yield nanoparticles by chemical means and let them self-organize in 2D or 3D arrays." (Fruchart; France) "By all we know nature evolves in a self-organised critical state." (See P. Bak, "How Nature Works')

    Since self-organization can and does exist, Gitt's references to the impossible are now possible and so not disproven. Gitt has not in turn proven anything. Life and evolution show all of the signs of self-organization, with increasing complexity adapting to more complex environments, consistent with the fossil records and with the ongoing evolution of biological information through mutations and natural selection. In turn humans continue to learn, building airplanes and cars and computers of increasing sophistication, even though we may not have discovered the 'formula' for life yet.

    I see by the review of Gitt's book 'Questions I Have Always Wanted To Ask' that Gitt is driven by circular religious arguments
    in his zeal to descredit everyone who differs.

  8. Dr. Gitt, author of "In the Beginning was Information", is retired from several prestigious scientific positions at the German Federal Institute of Physics and Technology. He has written numerous scientific papers on information science, mathematics, and control engineering. As an evangelist, he once saved 51 people at a gathering. He has written at least four creationist books, including the present one.

    In this book, Dr. Gitt starts out explaining how the laws of nature operate. He also tells us that God wasn't constrained by them during the six days of creation, but did set them up at that time. Since then we mortals have been constrained by them, but God, of course, can circumvent them, as he often did during Old and New Testament times.

    The Author next discusses Information. He points out that Shannon's Information Theory ignores the quality of the meaning in a message. Dr. Gitt then proceeds to develop several dozen or so theorems to fill in this gap. He states that his theorems are as immutable as the laws of nature he discussed earlier. He concludes that the theorems show it takes intelligence to come up with information and since DNA is a repository of information, it couldn't have arisen by chance, so must have been designed by God.

    Dr. Gitt quotes several Biblical passages to show that Jesus is the Source of all energy, matter, and biological information. He states that the Bible is absolutely true, it contains no useless or false information; no other information can even approach it: It contains the most important information conceivable and is always up-to-date. We may not delete or add anything to its message. He bewails the fact that despite all this, most scientists bypass the Bible and submit themselves to the mental corset of a belief in evolutionary theory -- which Gitt claims to have scientifically shown to be erroneous.

    Dr. Gitt applies his Information theorems to the Bible, and supplements some earlier portions of his book with an often-technical appendix. He presents interesting comparisons between some of the world's languages. He precludes an evolutionary development of languages from scratch because some people are too dumb to have originated the language they use: Instead, God gifted man with this special ability when he created him. He later parceled out a lot of new languages at the Babel judgement to replace the one original language. Adam possibly received the gift of writing along with the gift of speech.

    If you are a creationist, this book may well help to reinforce your beliefs. If, like me, you don't have a literal belief in all the details of Geneses, then you might find portions of Gitt's book to be rather bizarre.

  9. The central thesis that information cannot arise naturally, but requires an intelligent mental source, is as mistaken as the idea that order cannot arise naturally owing to the second law of thermodynamics. This common creationist argument has long been discredited. On the contrary, according to the second law, there is nothing preventing order and information in a system from increasing naturally, provided that the system is not isolated from the environment and that there is a net increase in disorder of the universe as a whole.

    Even if the central thesis of Gitt's book were correct (which it is not), it would imply that God's omniscient mind (which is therefore a highly complex information processor) was the product of another intelligent creator, and that that second intelligent creator's mind was the product of yet a third intelligent creator, ad infinitum. Of course, positing an infinite regress of intelligent creators is hardly a satisfactory solution to the origin of information.

    In contrast, principles of Darwinian evolution by natural selection combined with the demonstrated capacity of natural systems for spontaneous self-organization are sufficient to account for the emergence of information and complexity in a manner that is fully consistent with the second law of thermodynamics.

  10. The conclusion of an adult fairy tale:

    "In contrast, principles of Darwinian evolution by natural selection combined with the demonstrated capacity of natural systems for spontaneous self-organization are sufficient to account for the emergence of information and complexity in a manner that is fully consistent with the second law of thermodynamics."

    GROW UP!

  11. Oh! Spy vs Spy. That should prove to be interesting.

  12. I feel sorta guilty to have a pop at you, since at least you're trying to be scientific, but let's face it: creationism + science = not compatible.

    Why? Because the whole premise of a "creator" fails to pass the basic Occam's Razor test!

    Life is just too complicated to have evolved out from some chemicals right?
    The idea of the universe creating itself out of nothing is preposterous right?

    But no, a "Creator" creating itself out of nothing, now THAT is perfectly logical!!!

    On a personal note, I tell everyone that I hate dancing. My friends want to go to a nightclub, I tell them dancing is lame. My girlfriend pleads with me to spin her round at her cousin's wedding, I tell her: "No way: dancing is for losers!"

    But the fact of the matter is: I am actually the world's worst dancer. I REALLY suck at it.

    Deep down I realise that I tell everyone that dancing sucks, simply because I cannot get myself to admit that I'm terrible at it.

    Psychologists call this associative dissonance. Its the whole reason for creationists' failure to think rationally about the existence of a deity - changing one's viewpoint is just too embarrasing, so one is forced to keep re-affirming in any which way one can.

    I wish you all the best in overcoming your personal hurdle.