Friday, October 21, 2005

Michael Behe -- Reviewed. Rejected. Expert?

It turns out Michael Behe has been called as an expert witness for the defense (aka, the school board) in the Dover Panda Trial, in case you didn't hear. He's gotten some shit for his claim that Darwin's Black Box was more critically reviewed than your run-of-the-mill peer-reviewed journal article. I think that it's been hammered home that he's a bold face liar. I want to focus on my responses to some of the goings on during his first day on the stand. Consider the following exchange between the attorney for the school board (Muise) and the ACLU attorney representing the parents (Rothschild.
MR. MUISE: Your Honor, may it please the Court, I tender Dr. Michael Behe as an expert in biochemistry, evolution, intelligent design, creationism, and science education.
MR. ROTHSCHILD: I'm not sure he was ever actually previously proffered as an expert on science education.
THE COURT: All right. Let's handle biochemistry, evolution, intelligent design, and creationism. Any objection there?
MR. ROTHSCHILD: No, Your Honor.
Now, I don't know what makes someone an "expert" in the eyes of the court, but Behe's caricatured view of evolution hardly makes him an expert in the eyes of this biologist. In response to me telling Dr. Behe that the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, one of the largest international societies for evolutionary biologists, would be having their annual meeting in his home state, he seemed surprised that such a group existed. I'll let him claim to be an expert in biochemistry, intelligent design, and creationism, but leave the evolutionary biology to the evolutionary biologists.

Behe is also quite proud of all the invitations he has received to speak at colleges and universities. One such invitation came from Will Provine at Cornell. Here is his testimony about this visit as he is examined by Muise.
Behe: In the fall of the year 2002, a man named William Provine, who is a professor of the history of science and also a revolutionary [typographical error -- should read evolutionary] biologist at Cornell University invited me to come and present a lecture to his introductory class on evolutionary biology.
Q. And who is -- is Professor Provine an intelligent design advocate?
Behe: No. Professor Provine is a very, very strong advocate of Darwinian evolution.
Q. He invited you though to come up and give a presentation to his biology class at Cornell University?
Behe: That's right. I gave an entire lecture of 45 to 50 minute lecture, I believe.
Q. Did he explain to you why he wanted you to comeon up?
Behe: Yes.

MR. ROTHSCHILD: Objection, hearsay.
MR. MUISE: Your Honor, he's going to explain why he came up and his understanding as to why he was given the presentation.
MR. ROTHSCHILD: Exactly my objection.
THE COURT: I'll allow it. I'll overrule the objection.

Behe: His stated purpose was that he wanted students in the class to hear an alternative view to Darwinian evolution so that they could better make up their minds which they thought was more accurate.
Q. Apparently, he didn't consider this was going to cause some harm to his students? Behe: No, his opinion --

MR. ROTHSCHILD: Objection.
THE COURT: Sustained.
If you have ever met Will Provine, you know about his antagonistic relationship with religion. He's not a big fan of free will either, but we'll leave that as a topic for another time. What I want to focus on is the meaning of this invitation. Now, you can take my interpretation as speculation, or even ignore it if you like, but here's what I think: Provine was trying to make a fool of Behe. Provine is a confrontational man; he loves to debate, argue, and show someone up . . . especially if that someone is making arguments founded on religious principles. The course Behe was invited to speak in is also a non-majors course.
This course examines evolution in historical and cultural contexts. This course aims to understand the major issues in the history and current status of evolutionary biology and explore the implications of evolution for culture. Issues range from controversies over mechanisms of evolution in natural populations to the conflict between creationists and evolutionists.
Behe's visit seems to fit the general theme of the class, as it focuses on the social as well as scientific implications of evolution. I saw Provine debate Alex Kondrashov over the role of God in human evolution in this very same class. Kondrashov took the position that the human mind/soul could never evolve and showed evidence of a higher power (everything else could be explained by evolution). Sadly, this was seven years ago, and I don't have any notes from the debate, so I can't say much else about it other than Provine loves to attack God and religion.

I can only imagine what lectures Provine gave prior to or following Behe's visit. I'm sure his intent was not simply to allow Behe to present irreducible complexity in a vacuum. There is a no way Provine did not present a sharp critique of Behe's arguments using either the wealth of information available online or coming up with some of his own points. Simply put, Behe should not feel flattered by this invitation -- Provine's sole purpose was to show his students the best Intelligent Design has to offer, and then smack the shit out of it.

Finally, Behe thinks that professional meetings do not give him enough time to present the important ideas behind Intelligent Design.
The third point is that, one has to understand the structure of meetings to see why they may not be the best place to present such ideas. As I mentioned before, large national scientific meetings have many people, but generally most presentations are made as what are called poster presentations, where you get a large poster board, tape up figures and text on it, and go into a large hall with hundreds of other scientists, and display your poster. People wander by and look at it, and can either read it by themselves or continue on or they can stop and talk with you a bit. But it is not a place for a sustained conversation, a sustained discussion about topics such as intelligent design which require a lot of preliminary background, explanation, and so on. Rather, the seminars and discussions that I've just gone through are, in my opinion, much better forums for presenting such material, because generally you can speak continuously for 50 minutes to an hour. There are generally 20 to hundreds of other scientists, active admissions, and so on, who are listening quite closely to the argument you are making and who can respond with discussion and questions and counter arguments of their own. So I view it as a much better forum than a large national meeting.
Behe's argument in less than one minute:

  1. "Darwinists" believe all of evolution has occurred by random single nucleotide mutations and natural selection.
  2. There are certain biochemical systems that "Darwinists" have yet to explain the evolution of in a step by step process using their random single nucleotide mutations and natural selection.
  3. For everything that the "Darwinists" cannot explain in step by step detail, I claim that an Interior Intelligent Designer, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . um, GodDidIt!

That would fit on a poster in 72 point font with plenty of room for drawings of flagella, blood clotting cascades, or Jesus on a crucifix.


At 5:00 PM, Blogger Ranger of the West said...

I think you will be happy to read this.
Cornell President condemns ID

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Razib said...

interesting how provine is always noted as an evolutionary biologist. he sure knows a crap load about the topic, but he isn't a working researcher or theoretician in the field. the key is that the public doesn't understand very well distinctions within the sciences. behe is a molecular guy, right? they don't know jack shit about organismic biology. similarly, organismic guys might have a hard with a lot of biochemical pathways (though they do usually know molecular genetics). i've been to joint lab meetings where the evo people can barely talk to the devo people, and this is in the interests of the trying to get some evo devo going....

At 8:38 AM, Blogger RPM said...

Provine has a PhD from Chicago in either the history of science or in the life sciences. While he was there, he had professional interactions with the people actively doing research in evolutionary genetics. I am not sure what his PhD dissertation research was.

Regardless, he understands the history of population genetics theory better than most people. He isn't some distant scholar of the field -- he is/was close aquaintances with some of the leaders in evolutionary biology (Kimura, Ohta, Mayr -- I listed those because they are the ones I have heard him talk about). He also has an appointment in an Ecol & Evol department.

No, he does not actively do research, but his familiarity with the topic makes him a much better expert in the field than Behe. Behe is a biochemist (different than a molecular guy). Molecular tends to imply studying genetics or DNA, while biochemistry deals more with proteins and subcellular pathways. Usually, molecular biologists and geneticists have a better understanding of evolutionary biology than biochemists, from my personal experience.

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Razib said...

my undergrad background was in biochem. i agree with your generalization.


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