Reports of the National Center for Science Education

The "Grill the ID Guys" Event at Biola

On the way to the "Intelligent Design Under Fire" event (also referred to as "Grill the ID Guys") at Biola University, my wife asked me what she should expect. I considered for a few moments and replied, "Well, if the past is any indication you will probably see responses from the 'intelligent design' (ID) guys that begin with a good bit of geniality, and then make a cursory attempt to address the question before digressing into something unrelated about which they wish to talk; that and complaining that a question is unfair, or else ignoring it altogether." As we merged with the crowd meandering toward the auditorium, we noticed that some were wearing shirts with Bible excerpts on the back. "Oh, and watch the audience," I said. "Depending on how it's played, this whole thing could end up being about them."

Waiting for the coals

John Bloom, the event's organizer, took the stage and explained how it all came about. He had noticed that the best part of similar events he had attended were the Q&A sessions, so he put together two panels he thought might produce an interesting discussion. One panel consisted of "intelligent design"'s leading proponents — Stephen Meyer, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, Guillermo Gonzalez, and Paul Nelson — and another representing ID's "toughest critics" (see sidebar, p 7) — philosopher Antony Flew, columnist and philosopher Charlotte Laws, television correspondent Keith Morrison, retired geology professor Larry Herber, and three faculty members from California State University at Fullerton — James Hofmann (Professor and Chair of Liberal Studies), Craig M Nelson (lecturer in comparative religion), and Bruce Weber (Professor of Biochemistry). Morrison and Laws described themselves as confused but interested outsiders. During the event, Herber made one comment which ended up being more of a clarification of uniformitarianism, and Flew never spoke. It was Hofmann, Weber, and Nelson who asked most of the informed questions.

After introducing both panels, Bloom had Stephen Meyer present a short primer on ID. Once Meyer finished his introduction to ID (essentially undiluted and unrebutted boilerplate), Bloom started things off by encouraging a question from the critics. This format — critic asks question, ID proponents answer — could be effective, but one of its drawbacks is that the interaction can become unfocused. What I have tried to do in this account is to focus on the advertised purpose of this event, the salient questions asked, and the answers given.

Let the grilling begin

Question 1. Morrison began by asking, "What kind of intelligent being are you proposing, or are you proposing any specific intelligent being?" Meyer looked to his mates briefly, and, after a digression into how the media report ID poorly, he explained that there is a difference between the theory and the religious beliefs of those who hold it. He repeated that ID infers only intelligence, not a specific entity. Critics of ID are quite familiar with this non-response. Thus the first question is met with hand-waving and evasion. Not an auspicious beginning.

Q2. Morrison continued, observing that ID is being embraced by people who take the Bible literally, while scientists and progressive Christians largely dismiss it. He wondered if those on the ID panel were comfortable with that. Michael Behe answered that he was not, but then protested, "Most people don't understand 'intelligent design', and try to fit it into pre-existing categories. Certainly that's true of the scientific community; most people have a skewed view of 'intelligent design' there." Behe went on to expound on initial reactions to the Big Bang (the first of several Big Bang excursions) and how the cell is "incredibly sophisticated technology" (one among many "machine" references). Behe can be credited with a half-answer to this question.

After a bit more discussion, John Bloom got the Fullerton contingent involved. Hofmann suggested that ID can attain legitimacy only by way of evaluation at the relevant conferences and in the appropriate journals, not at Biola (formerly called the Bible Institute of Los Angeles). This brought murmurs of disapproval. Hofmann then introduced Bruce Weber.

Q3. Weber presented several slides that documented studies examining exaptation as a reasonable naturalistic explanation for the evolution of "irreducible complexity" (IC). He noted that research on exaptation is a work in progress, but with very real research results. In contrast, where, he asked, is the ID research? And "why would a scientist abandon the productive research program of the Darwinian modern evolutionary synthesis for one informed by 'intelligent design'?" Behe responded with the opaque observation that what Weber had shown is not really new or supportive research, but "just regular biochemistry which is being spun in a Darwinian fashion." He went on to ignore the question and renew his battle with Ken Miller by showing slides and repeating previous arguments. After Weber tried to get back to his question, Behe attempted to refute recent research on the evolution of complexity (Bridgham and others 2006). Soon thereafter Meyer jumped in and digressed into possible Type III secretory system arguments, asserted that Behe has not been proved wrong and suggesting that proposed naturalistic pathways do not cut it. "Intelligent design" proponents typically attempt to cover the deficiencies of the IC argument in this way — shifting the burden of proof. But the criticism from biologists is of the in-principle argument that there cannot be an evolutionary explanation, and as such does not call for tested and replicated research; it simply requires empirically defensible hypotheses.

At this point, Paul Nelson joined the discussion. He continued Meyer's impassioned defense of Behe, directly addressing the crowd as he complained bitterly about "two sets of rules" preventing guys like Behe from publishing in the scientific literature. The audience applauded vigorously. Meyer carried on playing to the house by recounting the supposedly unfair treatment of Richard von Sternberg in the aftermath of his resignation as editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington after accusations that he manipulated the peer-review process to publish Meyer's paper on the Cambrian explosion. Finally, he asserted that "we cannot take peer-review … [as] the gold standard of scientific literacy." This elicited more applause.

And Weber's long-forgotten question remained unanswered.

Q4. Trying to get back on track, Hofmann talked about research on human chromosome #2 and the data that strongly support a fusion event in the evolution of humans. The point was about specificity of empirical questions (where, when, and how?) in preparation for his next question. For ID to be taken seriously as a science, Hofmann said, it must address two questions: When did a design event take place and how did it take place?

Meyer quickly responded to this with a protest directed primarily to the audience. He complained that design critics set forth rules on the methodology of science, assume their acceptance, and then proceed to dismiss ID on the basis of not following these methodological rules. Returning to the question, he argued that his own work shows that the Cambrian is a good candidate for when an act of design might have taken place (Meyer 2004). He added that the origin of life and the origin of intelligence are other possibilities. "So in fact we do say when, and moreover we say how," he argued, "we say it was done by an act of intelligence." Of course Hofmann meant that ID needs to address these questions empirically. Meyer ignored the need to test his hypothesis (a designer) as well as the requirement to establish testable mechanisms by which the intelligent intervention occurred. Meyer repeated his disdain for the "rules," suggesting that they be changed to accommodate different kinds of explanation.

Jonathan Wells took advantage of the ensuing lull to return to the question of "consensus". He argued that because of previous changes in the scientific consensus (for example, failed ideas such as geocentrism and the fact that at one time even Darwinism was considered incorrect), we should not be so willing to trust the consensus. Hofmann responded that those failed ideas were overturned as a result of the scientific process. Despite Meyer's sparest of partial answers, another question lingered in limbo.

Q5. After some discussion of information, Weber proceeded to ask Behe whether the blood-clotting cascade qualifies as a case of intelligent intervention. Behe replied that "these are difficult questions to address" and that we should not jump to "premature and unjustified conclusions." Meyer interceded to mention again how intelligence is necessary to build digital code, at which point Weber circled back to the earlier issue and suggested that there are natural mechanisms that can produce an increase in information. Meyer decided to answer Weber with a question: "Do you all have an explanation for the information that is necessary for the origin of life?" Weber noted that it is an active area of research. Meyer repeated the question, then scuttled off into an argument about ribozyme engineering.

Behe judged this a good time for him to turn the tables with a question as well, so he asked Weber and the others if they did not already agree that science has reached its limits on these biological questions, "When would you think so?" The audience chuckled knowingly. Meyer complained again about the "rules" of scientific materialism. Weber's question received only more questions.

Q6. Hofmann then asked how far they would be willing to go in abandoning methodological naturalism. Paul Nelson agreed readily that science cannot appeal to magic, and then appealed to the vanity of the audience, musing that "no natural law, no physical process, no algorithm can possibly explain what we're doing here. … It's not spooky, but it's not strictly material either," he said. Upon reflection, his point reduces to: "There's science, there's magic, and then there's the non-material causal agency that we like to infer." Unfortunately, he neglected to explain how this last category is empirically distinguishable from magic. Hofmann responded that science must operate by way of methodological naturalism, otherwise causal inference might be left open to miracles. Behe rejoined with another question: "How would you categorize the Big Bang?"

Q7. Hofmann now got Craig M Nelson involved. Nelson returned to the notion of consensus and asked when ID panelists would consider such a thing important. Meyer answered that they are not saying consensus is not important (of course, in fact they had just said exactly that!); rather, Meyer complained that the position of ID proponents is not even being considered, because their detractors simply appeal to consensus and never listen to what they have to say. It did not seem to occur to Meyer that what they have to say has been considered and rejected. An excellent reason for which rejection might be non-responsive performances such as the one occurring this very evening.

Q8. Bloom brought Charlotte Laws into the discussion. Laws observed that ID is being pushed into schools and asked the panel for their views as to why. Meyer noted that the debate involves the intersection of cultural and scientific ideas regarding origins and implied that people generally get carried away with the religious implications of ID theory. Laws tried to get back to the question, saying that she thinks the movement might have something to do with a general distrust of science, an observation that science currently appears to be vulnerable, and the influence of postmodernism. She also admitted that she thinks it is fine for ID to be in classrooms because it is philosophy and wondered how the panel felt it should be taught.

Wells remarked that they do not advocate required teaching of ID. In fact, he went on to say, ID is already in the textbooks, making reference to a stack of textbooks that he says include a section on ID. (Wells is not always reliable about the content of textbooks; see Camp 2005.) Paul Nelson picked up on this theme, noting that prominent evolutionary biologist George Williams wrote a book in which he discusses whether the vertebrate eye is "wise" design (Williams 1992: 72–3). During further discussion, Meyer came back to the subject of methodological naturalism. He opined that this rule prevents us from concluding design. Of course it does not; archaeologists and forensic scientists conclude design all the time. This is another case of ID proponents' using ambiguous language to confuse listeners to their advantage. Meyer went on to offer another reverse question, asking: "Let's just say, for the sake of argument: The universe really is designed. Would you ever be able to tell, as a scientist, if you held that rule … ?" The gathering rumbled its approval. Laws's query was largely ignored.

Q9. Craig M Nelson extrapolated from Meyer's question to ask one of his own, wondering why theistic evolution is not an acceptable explanation. Is there some reason God could not have worked in that fashion? Behe answered that God can do whatever he wants. Aside from Behe's dismissive non-answer, there was no response to Nelson's query.

Q10. In wrapping up the evening, Bloom reserved to himself the right to ask one last question of the ID panel. "What do you think it would take for 'intelligent design' to be accepted in scientific circles?" Wells answered first. He agreed with an earlier observation that ID needs to be fruitful. He then said that there is real ID research going on around the world. Meyer prodded Wells to talk about his "cancer research". Wells allowed that he would be doing some ID-inspired work that may have cancer implications. Meyer, not content with waiting for the results of the study, proceeded to drive home his point, saying Wells's work is a "direct application of irreducible complexity and design".

Paul Nelson answered next. He agreed with Wells, accepting that scientists want to see results and "new knowledge". Meyer followed by taking issue with Nelson and Wells. He stated that ID does not need to lead to new knowledge and it is already fruitful. Then he mentioned recent studies that suggest "Darwinism has been unfruitful". He moved on to assert that ID is attracting a following and implied that it is only the entrenched majority that is denying "intelligent design" its due. This will come, he suggested, as a result of retirement and turnover in academia.

Behe lined up with Meyer. "It's nice to make a prediction," he said, but the "question is: 'Does this idea explain what we see?'" Judging from the alternative he offers, Behe apparently does not feel the idea must "explain what we see" in an empirically testable fashion. After this, Bloom invited the audience to give the critics (who were offered no chance to comment on the last question) a standing ovation. "They took a lot of heat," Bloom acknowledged, and the proceedings closed with applause.

I went to a cookout…

Let me emphasize that there was much more discussion than could be captured in this short note, but I have tried to concentrate on those moments when questions got asked and answers were attempted. As I tally it, critics asked ten significant questions, including Bloom's softball at the end. The responses to those ten questions included three half-answers (Q2, Q4, and Q10), three evasions (Q1, Q6, Q7), three ignored questions (Q3, Q8, Q9), and one (Q5) answered with a question (though reverse questions also played a part in other responses). Much of the time was spent in digression into matters of dubious relevance.

…and all I got was this bun

The tiny, hopeful part of me that thought, "maybe this time it'll be different" took a severe thrashing once again. My sardonic side, however, was pretty puffed up after this was over. Most of my pessimistic predictions were fulfilled, though familiarity with the history of these events would have led anyone else to the same sad expectations. There was nothing new to be heard this night. In fact, looking back on how few of the questions actually got answered and the form the responses took, it is hard to conclude that there is any acceptance on the part of the ID spokesmen that the "tough questions" even exist. They were either dodged, dismissed, or met with other questions.

One problem with the evening was that the encounter took place in front of an ID-sympathetic crowd. It is hard not to be cynical about the motives for this event when so much of the time ostensibly intended for answering "tough questions" was instead spent reading from the playbook and pumping up the home fans. But the biggest drawback was the clear lack of fortitude on the part of "ID's Top Proponents" to engage the inquiry they invited. The critics, especially Hofmann, Weber, and Craig M Nelson, tried to press them in some cases, but there was no mechanism for detailed examination such as was available in the trial in Dover. Thus, the advertised purpose of the event was swamped by a tide of tired complaints about persecution, repetition of stock talking points, and pronounced public-relations efforts to rally the faithful. It was a sharp portrait of "intelligent design" as a movement with few guiding principles other than the desire to continue to hang onto political market share. Though slowed by the events in Dover, it is clear that the ID machine is still rolling, if with no more scientific direction than before.

By Robert Camp
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.