Goodbye, Columbus

Kenneth R Miller
Brown University

The much-anticipated intelligent design / evolution panel discussion sponsored by the Ohio Board of Education took place on Monday, March 11, 2002, in the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus, Ohio. Speaking on behalf of intelligent design (ID) were Stephen C Meyer, an associate professor of philosophy at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, and a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, and Jonathan Wells, the author of Icons of Evolution (Washington DC: Regnery, 2000) and, like Meyer, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Speaking on behalf of evolution were Lawrence Krauss, the chair of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and me. My host (Patricia Princehouse of Case Western) drove me to the site about an hour before our 8:30 AM start time. Anticipating a crowd of thousands, the Board had moved the discussion from its original venue to Veterans, which has a capacity of 4,000. We paid $4.50 to park, and strolled past a group of "Repent or Burn in Hell" picketers into the huge theater-like room.

Lawrence Krauss and I set up our laptops, and within a few minutes Meyer and Wells arrived. We nodded to one another briefly and shook hands. The President of the Board, Jennifer Sheets, spoke to all four of us together, laying down the ground rules and making it clear that our presentations would be timed to the second — as, it would turn out, they were. Each of us was allotted 15 minutes to make a presentation to the Board, and Sheets, as moderator, was careful to ensure that no one ran over by more than a few seconds.

I had prepared my talk assuming that Wells would go right after one of my textbooks, and I was right. Leading with the "Haeckel embryo fraud", he displayed the cover of one of my textbooks that he said contained the fraudulent drawings, tsk-tsking that, although it was "nothing personal" against me, I had helped to spread Haeckel’s fraudulent claims to students.

The rest of his 15 minutes was occupied by a recitation of the classic "icons" he discusses in his book. He showed a slide of a "peer-reviewed" 1999 article in The American Biology Teacher, told the audience about the "Darwinist persecution" of teacher Roger DeHart, and showed a slide with David DeRosier’s picture from his "peer-reviewed" Cell paper together with Dave’s comment that the bacterial flagellum, more so than other biochemical motors, has many features of machines designed by humans. In fact, I would wager that the single most repeated phrase in his talk was "peer-reviewed paper", which he applied to nearly every publication he cited.

He showed Darwin’s drawing from the Origin illustrating the divergence of taxa, and commented on how poorly it described the great gaps between the animal phyla, ignoring the fact that it was designed to depict speciation, not the origins of major animal groups. To my delight, he introduced Michael Behe’s argument from "irreducible complexity" (which meant that I would not have to explain it myself). He (correctly) anticipated that I would rebut Behe’s argument, and tried to undercut what I might say by telling the audience that there was a well-qualified scientist in the audience (Scott Minnich) who disagreed with me — as if bringing along one more colleague from the Discovery Institute somehow made a difference.

Lawrence Krauss, Chair of the Physics Department at Case Western, spoke next. He was clear and forceful, and uncompromising on the standards of science — standards that "intelligent design" simply does not meet. In one of the most-quoted phrases of the morning, he pointed out that the two-on-two format of this presentation wouldn’t render a fair picture of the sentiment in the scientific community. A more reasonable arrangement, he noted, would have one member of the Discovery Institute on one side, and ten thousand scientists on the other. He also made the telling point that two of the Discovery Institute’s nine senior fellows were the ID speakers who were there; if they had not been there, the only place to find more advocates for ID would be back at the Discovery Institute. If Krauss or I had not been there, however, we could have been replaced by scores of scientists from just about any college or university anywhere in the state of Ohio.

Stephen Meyer followed Krauss. His presentation contained cute, cartoon-like slides similar to the drawings I’ve seen in ID books. One compared the "controversy" to two shouting people holding signs labeled "Theory A" and "Theory B". How are students to deal with them? By being told that there’s a controversy, of course. "Teach the controversy" was Meyer’s message. He quoted Darwin on the importance of hearing all sides of a scientific issue, and then attempted to rebut Krauss’s criticism of the fact that the ID people mostly seem to publish books by pointing out that folks such as Copernicus and Darwin had first published their theories in books, too. (While he was speaking, I scribbled a note on his pad reminding him that Darwin and Wallace had published a joint paper before the publication of the Origin. I am sure he was unimpressed!)

Finally, and most importantly, Meyer offered a "compromise" on the issue. This was, of course, accompanied by a slide labeled "compromise" showing cartoon people smiling, shaking hands, and slapping one another on the back. Compromises, apparently, make people very happy. The compromise was that his side was willing to drop its insistence that ID be placed in the State standards — if, of course, the standards made it clear that individual teachers should be free to teach the scientific controversy about Darwinism. This, he said, would help Ohio to open the minds of its students, and would meet the high standards for evolution education mandated by the "Santorum language" in the new education law, the No Child Left Behind Act. My jaw dropped as he concluded with this statement, but more on that later.

In the first five minutes of my presentation, I exposed Wells’s tactics when he writes or speaks about evolution. I chose three of his icons to show how he misrepresents, distorts, or simply lies about the facts. These were the peppered moths, which he claims do not rest on trees, when in fact they do; the Haeckel embryo drawings, which I corrected in my own textbooks two and one-half years before he wrote about them in Icons; and human evolution, in which he used out-of-context quotes to distort Henry Gee’s views of human evolution and systematically withheld data in order to provide a false picture of human evolution. The point that Wells is not reliable was made very clearly.

Both speakers from the Discovery Institute had stressed Behe’s arguments about "irreducible complexity." I used Behe’s own language to show that he has, in fact, made a testable scientific prediction based on his idea: that the parts of an irreducibly complex machine, such as a flagellum or a mousetrap, should be "by definition nonfunctional". Unfortunately for Behe and ID, both the mousetrap and the flagellum fail that test, falsifying the prediction. To the delight of the crowd, I illustrated the failure of Behe’s prediction by pointing out that I had removed two parts from a mousetrap and was now using my "nonfunctional" mousetrap as a perfectly functional tie clasp! Wells and Meyer never brought Behe up again, except when Meyer claimed that my refutation of Behe would convince only people who heard only "one side" of the story. Curiously, he did not seem to be able to supply the "other side" himself.

I pointed out the many failures of ID to explain the fossil record, especially the problem of extinction, about which ID enthusiasts are notably silent — if all those organisms Wells claims were "designed" in the Cambrian were the work of an intelligent designer, why did all of them succumb to extinction? Neither Wells nor Meyer, of course, had an answer. Finally, I made it very clear that there was a simple way that ID could, in principle, find its way into the scientific curriculum, and that was the same way taken by every other idea that’s there now — by fighting it out in the scientific marketplace. Instead, the proponents of ID are asking for special treatment from the government, a sure sign that their ideas cannot stand on their own merit.

The question period, in which each speaker was given one or two minutes to respond to each question, provided opportunity for us to reiterate and amplify our points. One particularly telling moment came when a questioner asked about the "Santorum" language in the No Child Left Behind Act, which supposedly requires the teaching of alternate scientific theories. Meyer enthusiastically agreed that it did, and urged Ohio to follow the "law". I stepped to my computer, asked for its screen to be projected in front of the audience, and then explained that I had a copy of the law on my laptop and would execute a search for the word "evolution," which supposedly is in the language of the bill. As the audience buzzed (and a few of its members chuckled), the search came up empty. Why? "Because", I informed the audience, "the ID folks have misled you" (I should have been blunt enough to say that they lied). Santorum’s amendment to the Senate’s version of the bill was watered down during the conference committee and then was relegated to its report. The language that Meyer cited is not part of the bill, was not signed into law by the President, and does not have the force of law. The effect on the audience was dramatic. The ID folks had been caught in a lie. How did Wells respond? Incredibly, he simply picked up a copy of the conference report and read the language slowly, apparently on the principle that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, people will begin to believe it. No one was fooled, however, and the ID folks had blundered badly on the most basic issue of all — telling the truth.

The rest of the hour-long question period was great fun as well. At one point I diagrammed the Cambrian explosion to make the point that the "major animal groups" Wells likes to talk about as appearing suddenly in a geologically short period of time include only the phyla, and do not include what most people think of as "major groups," such as insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It also completely excludes the plants, and I pointed out that nearly all the plant phyla (which botanists call "divisions") appeared well after the Cambrian. Wells then borrowed my drawing and, of course, contended that he meant "phyla" by "major animal groups", saying that he meant to mislead no one. And the phyla really do appear in the Cambrian.

As the question period drew to a close, the ID folks claimed that we wished to suppress the discussion of controversy. Krauss scored points with the audience by emphatically and humorously stating that, on the contrary, we scientists like nothing so much as "to prove another scientist wrong."

The final questions gave me an opportunity to plug my new textbook and to prove Wells wrong yet again in a single stroke. Speaking on the origin of life, he pleaded with the Board to reject a "dogmatic" Darwinian approach on the origin of life, and allow ID to explain to students just how uncertain and controversial theories about the origin of life really are. Textbooks, he implied, present the origin of life as solved. Since Meyer had already broken the commercial ground by plugging a videotape sold by the Discovery Institute, I gleefully held up my new textbook and quoted from the section on the origin of life, which clearly indicates the scientific uncertainties Wells had claimed that we suppressed. Another point lost for the ID side.

Post-debate chatter in the evolution camp was jubilant, if somewhat muted by the political realities of the current situation in Ohio. Krauss and I felt that we had exposed the empty nature of "design" at every hand. Yet to many members of the Board, it was doubtless clear that, at the conclusion of the debate, there were still "two sides" talking away on the issue. As much as I enjoy the debate format and the opportunity to expose the flimsy science and misleading tactics of the ID folks, the two-on-two format clearly promotes a misleading impression of there being "two sides to the issue," and that’s the continuing danger. Nonetheless, Krauss and I had great fun, and the lack of scientific evidence on the other side was obvious to anyone who was willing to recognize it.

Kenneth R Miller
Department of Biology
Brown University
Providence RI 02912