There is no spoon

A young boy looks up at Neo, and reveals to him the most critical piece of information about the illusion known as “The Matrix”:

“Do not try to bend the spoon — that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.” (The Matrix, 1999)

The Discovery Institute (DI) promotes their false science, called Intelligent Design. It is a carefully constructed Matrix that approximates science but serves only as a poor digital reality designed to obscure the truth. The truth is that the universe is beautiful because it is governed by elegant laws, and one of those laws is that of descent with modification, or “evolution.”

Last Thursday, the DI visited the SMU campus, invited not by any of the science departments at SMU but rather by a campus religious group. They engaged not in debate, but in a panel discussion of their own movie, “Darwin’s Dilemma.” Like the false reality in “The Matrix,” “Darwin’s Dilemma” is carefully constructed to approximate a science documentary. But just as the Matrix lacks actual free will, “Darwin’s Dilemma” lacks the most important things in science: evidence, hypothesis, and experiment. In short, while “Darwin’s Dilemma” is well-produced, well-spoken, and highlights some very interesting challenges to Darwin’s original formulation of evolution, it fails to note that since Darwin’s original work . . .

  • The discovery of genetics by Mendel, and development of the science of genetics, explains how traits are passed from parent to child and also explains how it takes very little energy and time to develop a new and potentially useful mutation  (e.g. the HOX gene [1]). Evolution predicted the existence of such a mechanism, but Darwin could not learn of it before his own death.
  • the measurement of the age of the earth confirmed that there was plenty of geologic time for evolution to occur. The discovery of punctuated equilibrium showed how rapid periods of explosive change (as due to the introduction of significant fuel or food sources, as at the beginning of the Cambrian Explosion) are a natural part of evolution.
  • the discovery of macroscopic (e.g. Tiktaalik [2]) and microscopic evolution (e.g. disease) demonstrated small and large-scale evolution and transitional forms, as predicted by Darwin’s original formulation.

The event lasted over 3 hours, and since the panel held questions to the very end only about four questions were asked. Reporting on the event by the SMU campus newspaper faithfully regurgitated only what the Discovery Institute members presented in their argument. The Daily Campus presented no background information on the subjects under discussion, even though SMU science faculty are freely available for consultation [3][4]. A diverse group of SMU science, philosophy, and history faculty then printed a letter in the newspaper in response to the  event. They appealed to the wisdom of the SMU student body, something which the DI besmirched by hocking their sham.

As Prof. Ron Wetherington pointed out in a special lecture last Wednesday, prior to the event, the members of the DI were there not to make a scientific appeal (after all, no science organization invited them nor were any departments invited to participate in the event). They were there to pump up their local base – for instance, area churches that find evolution offensive instead of uplifting – ahead of fights about stereotypical conservative versus liberal American views this November. It’s not a good idea, therefore, to view this as a scientific event, or try to make scientific arguments to persuade people.

So instead, here are my opinions about this whole event and the views of the DI. People of faith, who truly believe in the breadth and brilliance of God, should be offended by the cheap vision of God offered by Intelligent Design. Should God be relegated to the role of a hobbyist tinkerer, making a flagellum here or a race of intelligent apes there? Should God be given only the realm of the gaps in our knowledge, stuffed into a tiny crack in the vast expanse of human knowledge? No! Why can’t God be responsible for the development of a set of fundamental laws of nature, elegant and powerful in their simplicity, thus establishing a fundamental plan for the whole of creation? Why can’t God be great and wise? Why can’t He have the wisdom of quantum field theory and the courage of statistics? Why must He only be responsible for the things we don’t know?

Every time I look at Maxwell’s Equations (especially in four dimensions), I catch a glimpse of the mind of God. When I think about space-time, I see the cloth that was woven into our universe. When I think about the big bang, or the asymptotically free dance of the quarks, I see a moment of genius that became the vast and complex fabric of our lives. When I see the genetic code of a chimpanzee and think about how a series of small gene activations and the black swan of the lucky benefits of those mutations became the tool-making, self-contemplating human race, I am gladdened by the majesty and subtlety of evolution (and statistics!).

I embrace the laws of nature, and I am happy to believe that these were writ by God to set the universe in motion. Nothing in my experience says it had to be otherwise, nor does this belief prevent me from looking in dark places where human knowledge has not penetrated. I do not fear filling the gaps, because my God is not forced to live in them. I do not accept the false science of Intelligent Design, because it offers me no means to test its cheap ideas and no satisfying predictions to pit against evolution. It’s hollow theologically and hollow scientifically. So what is it, really?

When presented with the slick polish of the DI’s vision, indulge in your unique ability to reason. Do so by checking their argument for evidence in favor of their idea, rather than against evolution. Ask them for proposed experiments that would help to discriminate between something that’s just unlikely or actually impossible.  Ask them if they believe God can only live in the gaps, trapped like a rat. Ask them if  peer-reviewed, published work preceded their production of “Darwin’s Dilemma” (just as peer-review, published scientific work precedes an episode of NOVA) or if they made the video because they chose not to publish their ideas. Ask them why they bring religion into conflict with science by creating specific cases where you have to choose between God and science. Ask if their published papers were reviewed by independent scientists or other members of the DI.

Most fundamentally, simply remember this when it comes to Intelligent Design: do not try to bend the spoon – that’s impossible . . . instead, try to realize the truth: there is no spoon.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hox_gene

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiktaalik

[3] http://www.smudailycampus.com/news/speakers-challenge-darwin-s-theory-1.1648409

[4] To the SMU Daily Campus’s credit, they do recommend Prof. John Wise’s biology class as a “must take” before you graduate (http://www.smudailycampus.com/opinion/classes-you-must-take-before-you-graduate-1.1654568).

[5] http://www.smudailycampus.com/opinion/smu-professors-speak-out-against-darwin-presentation-1.1649982

[6] http://smu.edu/anthro/smu_anthro/FacultyPages/Wetherington_Page.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hox_gene

Millie gets shut down by the cops

Despite the passing of Labor Day, summer had not gotten the hint that it was time to pack up and leave. The sun shimmered in humid air, hanging slightly to the west now that lunch was done. Millie had a pink card in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. Her experiment didn’t need a thermometer, but she was sure that if she had one it would be somewhere in the nineties.

A blast from the air horn at the end of the quad shook her back into the moment. A second or so later, another air horn blast replied from a few hundred meters behind her. She stood on her tip-toes on the cement bench, squinting in the sunlight to see if the students were scribbling down their data. They seemed to be chatting more than they were writing. She waved to Aneesh, who was lazing in the shade off to the side of his group of students. Even from here, she could see him frown back at her. He pushed off the tree that was his brief umbrella, pointed to the students in front of him, and said, “Less chatting, more physics!” Even from her perch on this bench fifty meters away, she could hear his Indian-colored English whip the students into silence.

She raised the pink card high into the air again, and again came the air horn blast from the students in front of her. Again, moments later, came the response from an air horn hundreds of meters behind her. Millie put her pink card down by her side and waited while the students recorded their data again. In her brief moment of peace, she shut her eyes and thought about just how cool this actually was. This experiment, something of a ritual for introductory physics students at the Institute, followed in the footsteps of people like Galileo Galilei. His experiment, with two men on different hills flashing lamps at one another to try to measure the speed of light, was the failed and ancient equivalent of this attempt to measure the more humble speed of sound.

“Are you thinking about how fucking cool this is, Millie? Because you’ve got your eyes shut and that look on your face.”

Millie opened her eyes to see Aneesh standing a few feet in front of her. “What are you doing here? Who’s watching the students take their data?”

Aneesh looked over her shoulder and nodded. Millie turned and saw that a policeman on a bike had been standing behind her and that another couple of cops had just pulled up in a cruiser. They’d driven up the sidewalk from the roads flanking the quad and were now parked just meters from Millie, who was still standing on the bench.

“Oh, shit shit shit,” she said.

“Ma’am,” said one of the officers, who was wiggling a finger in one of his ears, “I’m gonna need you to step down from there and tell me what is going on.”

Millie hopped off the bench and approached the officer. Another car pulled up behind her. The two cars and the bike cop now had basically penned Aneesh and Millie in. Students crossing the quad were beginning to stop and watch.

“What’s the matter, officer?” Millie asked, squinting in the sun.

“We go a complaint . . . actually, we got several complaints . . . of noise on the quad. Are you making all that noise, ma’am?”

“Complaints? Yes, well, we are making that noise. These students,” she said, pointing at the group of students nearest her, “are doing this for a class and the horns are part of that.”

“You realize there are other classes going on, ma’am, and that we’re getting complaints that your horns are disrupting those classes?”

Millie didn’t know what to say. Professor Buck had been doing this lab this way every semester for 10 years, and nobody had ever complained before. She wasn’t sure where this was headed, but the five police officers now on the scene suggested nothing good would come of this.

“I teach for Dr. Buck, and he told me to do the lab this way. It’s the only way the students can collect this data.”

“Just WHAT are you doing with those horns?” another one of the police asked.

Aneesh chimed in. “We’re measuring the speed of sound.”

“Look you two, this is a use of the grounds. If you use the grounds like this, you gotta have a permit. You can get one from folks in Facilities, but you ain’t gonna get one on short notice today. You’re bothering a lot of people right now.”

“I came up behind one of those student back there,” the bike cop gestured toward the group of students further away, “and they blasted that horn and my ears are still ringing. At least the students have ear protection. What about everybody else?”

Millie realized that class was over, no matter what she did or said now. The police weren’t going to let this continue, there was no way to get a permit, and she was going to have to cancel the other two lab classes that day. All of them were measuring the speed of sound that day, and none of them were going to get to do it.

It was at this point that things got weird. “Ma’am, you gotta understand that 9/11 changed everything. People get jumpy. Lots of strange noises on a college campus. You can’t just go around making strange noises in broad daylight on a college campus.”

Millie shot a look at Aneesh, who was doing his best to not laugh. He managed to calmly say only, “No offense, sir, but it’s a little strange to be told to watch our noise level on a college campus.”

It was at this point that all police eyes zeroed in on Aneesh. It was also at this point that Millie realized the policeman in front of her had been keeping one hand on his sidearm this entire time. Strange air horn signals on the quad. A dark-skinned male involved. Millie’s heart started to race. Until now, it had been amusing but manageable. Somehow, in the last 30 seconds, a new line had been crossed.

“Sir, I need you to understand,” said the cop in front of Millie, “that you can’t use the grounds to measure sound without having the proper permit. You’re disturbing other classes, and this whole thing stops right now.”

“Don’t we already know the speed of sound?” asked one of the other cops.

Millie screwed up her face at him and was about to say something when he waved her off. “I’m just kidding,” he said, and broke eye contact.

“Take these students, pack up, and try to find another place to do this class. Can’t you go to an empty field or something? This is a city. You can’t just be making all this noise here.”

Millie gestured to the students closest to her, yelling “Pack it up!”

“Thanks, officers. Sorry to waste your time.”

“We’re on duty, ma’am. You’re not wasting our time.”

With that, the cops eased back and started to disperse. Millie looked at Aneesh and realized he’d gone stiff. He didn’t move a muscle until he was sure that the cops didn’t think him a threat anymore. Millie clapped him on the shoulder and said, “C’mon, let’s pack this up. I’ll call Buck, and let him know we got in trouble.”

“I don’t understand why this never happened before,” Aneesh said. “Buck says he’s been doing this 10 years without anybody making a stink.”

“Our lucky year,” Millie said as they walked back to the students.

What it means

On the main quad of SMU appears about 3000 tiny American flags, and a sign asking us to never forget. We won’t. But rather that just worrying about not forgetting, I find it a more valuable personal exercise to ask also what we value, and how those values are influenced by the shadow of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

I value the freedom of personal inquiry, the freedom to doubt those who would bring a belief system into direct conflict with the natural world, and  freedom from the violence that is often brought to bear against those who would challenge authority with truth. These values are enshrined in various parts of the Constitution as freedom of speech; freedom of religion, but also freedom from religious persecution; freedom of the press; and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure.

As a scientist, all of these are deep values to me and in the United States I find my scientific freedom maximized and fulfilled by these basic rights. I am free to inquire, to challenge statements of unanchored belief with the reality of nature, to print my findings without fear of unwarranted censorship, to have rights to my work without fear of theft by an authority, and freedom from the tyranny of suppression of natural laws by overly literal interpretation of sacred text.

But just as I value these rights in my own life, I value the right of others to enjoy the same. I respect that those with whom I disagree have platforms for their views, and I would fight for the same protections of property and inquiry for those very same people. I may not tolerate those who lie and cheat the public with false claims about the natural world, but I respect that they have the right to say it. I respect that eventually the law may be brought to bear against them.

And in the end, it’s the law derived from our Constitutional principles that is the arbiter of right and wrong. Whether it’s Kitzmiller v. Dover or some other nexus of law and values, I have respect for a system that long-term regresses toward the path of preserving Constitutional rights. I am proud to live in a country that makes such things possible.

I have the most deep respect for Nature, who abides by no mortal Constitution except that writ deep into the structure of the universe. Nature knows its principles and, in the end, defines the most fundamental judgment and tolerance. When beliefs clash with Nature, Nature has always won. I want to be on the side of Nature, and in this country I have the freedom to choose that allegiance. For if the rights of man truly proceed from the creation, then it a great good to seek to understand the laws of that creation so that we might have respect for the origins of our own moral law.