Friday, September 21, 2007

The Al Sharpton of Information Theory

The book of Job contains a powerful lesson. No, not the one about patience and perseverance. I'm thinking more of this one: Satan is relatively impotent. He can operate only within God's permissive will. And there is only one weapon in his arsenal. He is not after our souls (what would he do with them?) He is not engaged in a battle of good vs. evil with God (talk about asymmetric warfare.) No, the only thing he can do is to try to make believers curse God. That's it.

That, by the way, is why we should look at the new atheist movement with nothing more than academic interest. There is nothing they can do directly that is harmful to the church. They cannot cause one person who is saved to lose his salvation. They cannot convince one person who, in God's sovereign plan is predestined to salvation, to thwart the will of God by rejecting the gospel. The best response to Dawkins (when he isn't designing fashion) and Hitchens (if you can catch him when he isn't advocating war) and Harris (on those occasions when he is on planet earth rather than some far away astral plane) is to laugh at their impotence.

The worst thing we can do is treat them like what they aren't: a threat. And one of the ways we treat them as a threat is to claim they persecute us. To play the victim.

Man, I really hate Christian victimhood. That is not to say that Christians aren't victims, for they certainly are in many parts of the world. My heart and admiration goes out to Christians in the Moslem world, and in places like China. However, even for them I would say that the biblical model teaches this: do not behave like a victim, for behaving like a victim is a way that we curse God. Satan wanted Job to behave like a victim. That's all he wanted, all he was capable of inciting.

Now, under real persecution, such as in the Sudan, would I play the victim? Probably. I'd probably cry like a baby. If I faced death, I'd probably deny my faith. I don't know for sure, but I don't have much confidence that I'd do the right thing. But we are not in the Sudan. In America, don't tell me you are persecuted.

The ID movement has reached rock bottom. It has become the refuge of a group of sissies crying wolf at every opportunity.

Let me summarize everything I have come to despise about the ID movement, in an order suggestive of their downward spiral.

• They claim ID was science, when it isn't. The prominent role played by lawyers and philosophers in the ID movement is circumstantial evidence for this charge. But the real proof is found in the fact that there are no testable claims made by ID. As much as I enjoyed the Privileged Planet, the tests proposed in there are on the form of challenges: find a planet inhabited by complex life that is not a good observation platform. There is no way to do the experiment short of cataloging all ~1022 planets in the observable universe. (Evolution is not immune to such silliness: the oft repeated challenge: find a pre-Cambrian rabbit is not a legitimate example of scientific falsification. If it is, go apply to the NSF for a grant to search for pre-Cambrian rabbits.)

• They claim it has nothing to do with religion, when it clearly does. OK, in a sense in which they don't intend they are right—it a way it has nothing to do with proper Christianity because it is actually a culture war battle. The infamous Wedge Document makes that crystal clear. But fighting the culture war is not a proper activity for Christians. You'll note that St. Paul never organized politically, and his writings reflect that, to the 99% level, he limited himself to (1) preaching the gospel to unbelievers and (2) reminding believers about the gospel and instructing believers how to behave regardless of their circumstances. Jesus (in a move exactly opposite to what the dispensationalists teach) literally ran away from the offer of political power. And he paid the Roman and Temple taxes, partially funding his own murder, rather than organizing a "moral majority" that opposed taxation and Roman immorality. Elevating the culture war front and center also makes for unholy alliances. No apostle that I am aware of ever advocated joining forces with heretics (say, for a modern example, Moonies) to fight immorality. They would, I feel confident, have witnessed to the heretic and not teamed up with him for any ministry until such time as he converted. So in a strange sense they are right—it is not about Christianity so much as about fighting the culture war. Still, they certainly see it as some sort of Christian mission. One of Dembski's most famous claims about ID is:

"Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory," Touchstone Magazine. Volume 12, Issue4: July/August, 1999

This, at the very least unspeakably presumptuous statement, leaves no room for doubt: ID is, in the mind of its leading proponents, religious. That, in of itself, is OK, but it leads to the next point.

• The ID movement practices deceptive, unbiblical, the ends-justify-the-means, political tactics. Instead of admitting their motivations, which I think are, in an ultimate sense, to glorify God (or in one case to glorify the Reverend Moon), they hide them. They take the "get your foot in the door by any means" approach—one which is conspicuously absent in biblical models of evangelism. Again, the Wedge Document makes this clear.

Finally, that leads us to the latest (unbiblical) tactic in the ID movement's drain swirling:

• They are claiming victimhood at every opportunity. As in the case of Al Sharpton, I took his accusations seriously at first. But when they began coming on a regular basis and often proved without substance I, at some point, decided he had no credibility.

The ID claims of persecution started with what I think is their strongest case: that of Richard Sternberg. Sternberg is the editor who approved publication of IDist Stephen C. Meyer's research paper. Now, for reasons bordering on the absurd, the Holy Grail in the ID/evolution war is a peer-reviewed paper. I say it is absurd because: who really cares? I cannot evaluate Meyer's paper, but I can tell you this: papers get published all the time that are not very good, and the scientific world goes on. The proper response is either to ignore a bad paper or, if you are mean-spirited, mock it later for its irrelevance as indicated by a lack of citations, or refute the paper with one of your own. There is ample evidence, I believe, that the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) played unseemly behind the scenes politics, besmirching Sternberg's reputation. That was unnecessary dirty hardball. They should have simply let the scientific community police itself as it always has.

The next high visibility claim of persecution was the denial of tenure in the case of Iowa State University Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. Now, I personally believe Gonzalez is the best of the marquis IDers. But the truth of the matter is that competent people are denied tenure all the time. There are two basic ways to get tenure at a research university. The first is to be so successful in terms of reputation and grants that you are too valuable to be turned down. The second is to be reasonably good, well liked, non-controversial, and not encounter too many idealistic tough-sells in the review process gauntlet. I think it fair to say that Gonzalez did not fit in either category. He is a quite competent scientist who, without the baggage of ID, might have gotten tenured in group 2, but the bottom line is he was controversial. This is not persecution; this is the way tenure works. Now once again, as in the Sternberg case, there were some unsavory tactics brought into play. At ISU a certain chucklehead wouldn't trust the system to work as designed, and we were treated with the anti-ID petition by the non-scientist, cliché of a man (an anti-religious, Religious Studies professor) Hector Avalos. His activities backfired (good) by giving additional credibility to those who claim Gonzalez was persecuted.

The newest case and by far the weakest (and hence the most repulsive) is that of the Informatics "Lab" at Baylor University.

A short review: Distinguished pro-ID engineer Robert Marks goes to Baylor. He gets a grant from an organization with ties to the Discovery Institute and hires Dembski as his post-doc. People at Baylor complain, the grant money is returned, and eventually Baylor tells Marks to remove his Informatics website from the Baylor server.

Is Baylor innocent in all of this? Probably not. Taking grant money only to give it back, allowing web pages on your server only later to demand their removal—this is surely a sign that either the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing or that Baylor will vacillate in the face of internal criticism.

But none of that justifies the response from the ID movement, which is both over the top and bizarre—I mean really bizarre—bordering on the insane.

Here is a list of responses, which have a kind of Van Gough like descent into madness:

• Claim: Baylor pulled the plug on the Informatics Lab. Not true. There was no lab. They told Marks to take his web site off Baylor's servers. A web site is not a lab, it's a web site. Lots of research was done before the internet existed. Every lab that I know continues to operate if its web site goes down. Baylor did not, as far as I know, chain any doors or confiscate any equipment or remove simulations from computer hard disks.

• Claim: This is a violation of Marks's academic freedom. No, it isn't. Academic freedom doesn't mean: do whatever floats your boat and feel free to imply Baylor's imprimatur on your work. Imagine if Baylor had a tenured professor who decided to advocate 9/11 CIA-Zionist conspiracies. It would (unfortunately) be a violation of his academic freedom to tell him he could not investigate his theories. It would not be a violation to tell him he can't publish his research on a university server. It may be a legitimate question as to why Baylor places ID in this sort of category, but the principle is valid. This is obvious to all blogger/professors. Very few of us would dare to claim that academic freedom demands that the university host our blog on its server.

• A fake letter from Baylor President Lilley. When this first came to light, an unflattering letter was posted on Uncommon Descent, written as if coming from Baylor President Lilley. The UD commenters attacked Lilley until such time that a warning was added announcing that the letter was a parody. Following much criticism of the whole affair, the fake letter was removed from Uncommon Descent.

• Publication, on Uncommon Descent, of the addresses and home phone numbers of the Baylor Board of Regents. The purpose was to apply pressure to the regents, who might then persuade Lilley to change his mind or, even better, fire him. This is beyond the pale—as I said a descent into madness.

• Claim: Baylor is unchristian. For fun you should investigate how it justified that Baylor is unchristian by not giving its stamp of approval to ID, given that ID is supposed to be all about science and not religion. Oh what a tangled web we weave! The basic idea seems to be that while ID is science, it really is, honest, it is also consistent with a Christian worldview (that part is true.) Somehow, then, Baylor rejecting ID on scientific grounds means they are also unchristian. Of course, the same logic would apply to Young Earth Creationism. If a Baylor professor wanted to perform research in an attempt to prove the universe was only six thousand years old, and Baylor did not stop him but merely said he cannot have a YEC science webpage hosted on a Baylor server, they would be unchristian because YEC is a valid Christian worldview.

Oh, brother. Atheists cannot hurt the church. Baylor cannot hurt the church. Only the church can hurt the church by cursing God. Whining that we are being persecuted is whining that God is not in control, that God is not sovereign, that he who is within us is not stronger than he who is in the world. It's cursing God pure and simple. Please, please stop.

UPDATE: Sigh. More hideous tactics. More whining.

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