Tomorrow sees the start of a series of talks in Edinburgh by Kirk Durston, described as a “PhD Candidate in Biophysics at the University of Guelph in Canada” and he also holds degrees in Engineering, Physics and Philosophy. Good. Oh, and he’s also an intelligent design advocate.
Kirk will be speaking twice tomorrow on “How intelligent is intelligent design?” (which always reminds me of Christopher Hitchens’ barb that “I refuse to call [creationism] ‘Intelligent Design’ as there’s nothing intelligent about it”); once at the King’s Buildings (where the majority of science departments are based – the nerve!) and again at Appleton Tower in the evening.
I feel that as an evolution researcher I should go along and defend my subject, so what will I expect? The always resolute PZ Myers at Pharyngula has debated with him before and oh boy, are we in for a treat. First he makes the popshot that “Atheism is immoral” then misuses a quote from an atheist in entirely the wrong context to back this up.
Then we see why Kirk can be an effective bluffer as he displays all the traits of the pseudoscientist; baffle and confuse with scientific sounding waffle. His main argument, it appears, can be summed up as “Life is extraordinarily improbable, therefore it needs a designer to make it happen”. Let’s ignore first that life is not that improbable, if recent research here in Edinburgh is accurate. Detailed simulations of the development of the universe has estimated that the number of planets with life on them could range from 361 planets, and could even be as big as 38,000. Improbable in the universe it isn’t.
Let’s also ignore the fact that he pulls the conclusion of God out of a logical argument in which it doesn’t even factor, as discussed over at Sandwalk. It is a logical absurdity to insert conclusions into models in which they were not even mentioned. It would be equivalent if I wrote “Due to X, Y and Z, process P is unlikely, therefore Stanley Rous must have attacked the genome with a toffee hammer”.
Concentrate for now on how the argument of a legitimate evolution research paper is abused. As PZ Myers discusses, despite Kirk claiming that his arguments are mathematically sound, in fact they are anything but. Instead of calculating a good estimate for the number of different evolutionary combinations that can support life, only one is assumed (which is complete nonsense – is there only one type of intelligent creature in existence?) which doesn’t even fit with the equation! There’s more gory details if you want to look them up.
As a mathematics graduate working in an evolution lab I’ll be going along and hopefully shoot down his faulty logic. Why put myself through that pain? Not because I feel that evolution research is particularly under threat (I think universities will survive for now) but because it is important to rebuff such nonsense before it risks becoming more mainstream. As the state of teaching in America shows, that’s something we cannot let slip by. I’ll leave updates here on the talk later on in the week, provided that I manage to stay sane throughout.
(Incidentally, he’s also giving a talk at Napier University tomorrow on genocide, which is apparently allowable but under the strict condition that God ordains it, to every Canadian simultaneously and that there is no ambiguity that it was from God. So that’s OK then.