Ball State University – my answer to vjtorley

I expect that most here have heard about the situation at Ball State University (in Muncie, Indiana), where a physics professor was apparently including some Intelligent Design in a science class.  There was a public fuss.  And, more recently, the president of Ball State wrote a letter to the faculty about the situation.  It seems to have been a classy letter.  She described the issue as one of academic integrity, rather than one of academic freedom as a few commentators had suggested.  She apparently agreed that there were first amendment issues, as others suggested.  But she saw academic integrity as the main issue.  Incidentally, I also thought academic integrity was the issue.

The ID people don’t like what she wrote, because she was blunt about ID not being science.  Over at UD, vjtorley has a post “An open letter to BSU President Jo-Ann Gora” where he raises some questions that he would like the Gora to answer.  I’m giving my answers here, rather than in a comment at UD, because I think the issues warrant more discussion, and I’m sure others here will want to join in.

Defining ID

Vincent’s first question starts with “how do you define ID”.  It specifically asks about fine tuning.

My answer:  It is not up to Ball State to define ID.  They are reacting to a movement which has been very noisy about what it advocates.

On fine tuning:  It does not matter to me whether “fine tuning” is specifically designated as ID.  The relevant issues are that:

  • “fine tuning” is a religious apologetics argument, and
  • it has no scientific content.  If the apologetics were removed, it would be philosophy, not science and not philosophy of science.

He also brings up the question of whether the cosmos could be a giant computer simulation.  But that, too, I see as philosophy and not science.

Bad science

Vjtorley’s second section opens with:

Would you agree that the discussion of a bad scientific theory – even one whose claims has been soundly refuted by scientific testing, such as aether theories in physics, the phlogiston theory in chemistry, and vitalism in biology – can be productive and genuinely illuminating, in a university science classroom?

To me, this seems a misdirection.  ID has never shown any scientific value.  By contrast, phlogiston led to a research program of measuring the mass of combustion products.  It was the beginnings of modern chemistry, though that very research led to the downfall of phlogiston.

I would class the aether as an hypothesis, rather than a theory.  It was a background assumption but played no direct role in research with the exception of the Michelson-Morley experiment.  But it did provide a useful background for discussing apparent wave-like phenomena in light transmission.  Perhaps it’s role is similar to that of origin-of-life questions in biology.  The physics itself did not depend on anything about aether, just as biology does not depend on how life originated.  As far as I can tell, ID does not offer anything comparable.

I don’t know much about the history of vitalism, so I won’t comment about that.

Fred Hoyle

The next section begins with:

If you answered “Yes” to question 2, as I expect you did, then I shall assume that for you, the decisive reason for keeping intelligent design out of the science classroom is that it is essentially religious in nature. As you wrote in your email: “Teaching religious ideas in a science course is clearly not appropriate.”

It then goes on to discuss Fred Hoyle’s ideas.

Honestly, Vincent, this is absurd.  Nobody would have heard of Hoyle’s view of evolution, if he were not already famous for his astrophysics.  An famous astronomer says something laughably dumb about biology, and you really think that’s worthy of time in a biology class?

Now I hope you can see where I’m heading with this line of inquiry. If the discussion of the flaws in intelligent design theory belongs in a university science classroom, it logically follows that discussion of the theory itself belongs in a university science classroom.

Sigh!  Creationists and ID proponents are still confusing “theory” and “hypothesis”.  ID was never a theory.  At best, it is an hypothesis, and a rather bad one at that.  Compare it to phlogiston, which was a genuine theory and did lead to useful empirical research.  The research we see coming out of the ID community seems to be little more than a search for gaps in which to put your “god of the gaps.”  You don’t even need an ID hypothesis for that kind of research.

Richard Smalley

The next section is about Richard Smalley.  The whole section reads like apologetics.  I am wondering why vjtorley thinks that an apologetics argument would persuade people that ID is not religion.

So my question to you is: if a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry thought that intelligent design belongs in the category of “science”, what makes you so sure that it belongs in the category of religion?

Another non-biologist says something stupid about biology.  It should be obvious that this is not useful to discuss in a science class.

Viewpoint endorsement

The Ball State statement said that particular viewpoints should not be endorsed, even in humanities classes.  Vjtorley begins his question with:

I’d now like you to consider the hypothetical case of a humanities or social science lecturer at your university who is asked a very direct, personal question by a student: “Do you believe in intelligent design?”

If a student asked me that in class, I would decline to answer and rule it off-topic.  If he asked me informally out of class, perhaps I would answer.  But, in my opinion, this sort of viewpoint endorsement does not belong in the classroom.  I agree with president Gora that this is an issue of academic integrity.

258 thoughts on “Ball State University – my answer to vjtorley

  1. Mung,

    Even I have not just latched on to his “tornado in a junkyard” comment and attempted to make hay from it. I’ve read a number of his books. I try to understand his position. I try not to caricature.

    That entire statement is false. You don’t even try to understand; and you do, in fact, caricature your “enemies.”

    You appear to be quite incapable of understanding anything except how to make juvenile insults at everyone. In fact your remarks are even more juvenile than Dembski’s famous fart video mocking Judge Jones and the plaintiff witnesses at the Dover trial.

    Mike wants us to believe that Hoyle didn’t grasp the physics involved, which is just absurd. Others want us to doubt his mathematics, a dubious proposition.

    Hoyle was woefully naive about much in biology, chemistry, and condensed matter; and his junkyard argument was taken over by ID/creationists. None of these ID/creationists, including you, understand enough high school science to recognize what is wrong with this “argument;” especially as ID/creationists use it. You only cite Hoyle because he is an “authority figure” to you; not because you can understand or vet anything he said or wrote.

    The challenge to you still stands. Scale up the charge-to-mass ratios of protons and electrons to kilogram-sized masses separated by distances on the order of a meter.

    Calculate the energies of interaction among such masses in joules and in megatons of TNT. Then add the rules of quantum mechanics.

    In light of your answer, justify the ID/creationist use of the tornado-in-a-junkyard argument against evolution and the origins of life.

    You have no idea how to do this calculation or what it implies; and none of your cohorts over at UD can do it either. Just ask them; they will simply mock and avoid it just as you do.

    And please do try to grow up and stop being a naughty, feces-throwing child all the time, Mung. Your behavior is all too predictable; and it simply demonstrates just how ignorant and powerless you really are.

  2. It’s cargo cult science.

    Some people seem to think arguing with a scientist makes your argument scientific.

    When people believe in things like “the flood” there is no bridge from that to science, as all science says is “did not happen”. And what good is that to an ardent believer? So the science must be wrong….

  3. Mung,

    If you have read Hoyle’s mathematical work extensively, you will, for balance, have also read the work of the people to whose position he was setting himself up in opposition? Is that a fair comment to make?

    So … what is the ‘true position’, vis a vis the junkyard tornado argument, of which mine is supposedly a caricature? To remind you, I consider that Hoyle’s argument runs along the lines that a given protein of length n constructed randomly from 20 amino acids has a probability of 20n of occurring in a system which constructs proteins in that random manner. Make the number of bits long enough, and the target small enough, and you get a very big number (and hence a very small probability). The mathematics is simple, and it is factually correct to say that this would be the probability if that were the method of construction and the density of targets were 1 in that entire space. These were the ‘assumptions’ I was referring to. The assumptions – random draws of a single target from picks of an extended bit library – are implicit in the calculation offered.

    This has no biological relevance whatever, however.

  4. Mike Elzinga:

    In light of your answer, justify the ID/creationist use of the tornado-in-a-junkyard argument against evolution and the origins of life.

    Did I not just say:

    Even I have not just latched on to his “tornado in a junkyard” comment and attempted to make hay from it.

    You called me a liar. Where’s your proof?

    When I employ the argument I will justify it.

  5. Hoyle makes an appearance at ENV:

    (4) It is worth observing that Fred Hoyle anticipated Mike Behe’s idea of an irreducibly complex system in his discussion of the Histone protein complex. See his Mathematics of Evolution, Acorn Enterprises LLC, 1999. Hoyle’s derivation of the principles of population genetics is well-worth reading, especially his discussion of Kimura’s diffusion equations. His book is, needless to say, widely inaccessible. –

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