The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin’s Intelligent Design Talk at the University Club of Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 20, 2010

This past Tuesday, I attended a talk by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute at the University Club of Chicago.  Attending this talk with me was Jamie Bernstein (her post on the event is located over at the Friendly Atheist blog) – we were both very curious to see what Luskin had to say on the topic of intelligent design (ID), which is essentially another form of creationism.

The event was a casual luncheon, and I must profess that the people gathered there were quite pleasant.  After Jamie & I seated ourselves and started our meals, the group (which numbered approximately 30 in total) held an invocation (appropriate, considering as how the St. James Fellowship and Salvo Magazine – both Christian organizations – sponsored the event).  It was at this time that Jamie & I felt a wee bit self-conscious, because we had started our meals before the prayer while everyone else was waiting – oops.  But no one made a big deal out of it, for which I was thankful.

After awhile the talk got underway.  I did my best to transcribe the talk on my computer, and I will include the notes I took below – all of my specific after-the-fact commentary will be in bolded italics

Me and Casey Luskin (right) after his talk – though we butted heads (more on that below) during his presentation, we agreed that it wasn’t necessary to get out the boxing gloves 🙂

Intelligent Design: Dead Science or Future of Biology?

talk by Casey Luskin (M.S., J.D., ESQ) of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture

at the Fellowship of St. James, University Club of Chicago

Introductions of various St. James & Salvo Magazine staff, and the introduction of the topic of intelligent design.  The speaker is discussing how he met Bill Dembski in the late 1990s and how he got introduced to the entire concept of ID.  There is now a brief story of the history of how the University Club of Chicago came about from the Great Chicago Fire.  He’s making a joke about how the Club “grew by chance” – har har 😉

Now he’s introducing Luskin…

Luskin is outlining his role as someone who works with teachers to teach about evolution “more objectively”.

**Note: This allusion by Luskin to treating evolution “more objectively” set the tone for much of his talk.  In my opinion, it was simply a more sanitized way of saying “teach both views” or “teach the controversy”. You’ll see pretty quickly that was basically the intent of this phrase – the intelligent design movement (IDM) doesn’t seem to want to give up on their strategy to push their version of creationism in public schools.  It’s just that they know certain phrases are rhetorical losers, so they have essentially scrubbed the losing lingo and replaced it with something less recognized.  As the saying goes: “If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.”


Depending upon who you ask, there are different interpretations of what ID means.  Outline of ID “from the critics”:

  1. The End of Civilization?
  2. What’s the Dangerous Idea? (The Positive Case for ID)
  3. The Question of Academic Freedom

Some, like philosopher Philip Kitcher, argue that ID is science, but a “dead science”.

NCSE President, Kevin Padian:  “The credibility of the DI is inextricably linked to ID, and no one with scientific or philosophical integrity is going to take either of them seriously in the future.”  Luskin says that this is sending a negative, almost censor-like message to scientists.

Marhsall Berman, former manager at Sandia National Labs: “IDM poses a threat to all of science and perhaps to secular democracy itself…”

Luskin says that the critics of ID have been putting out a lot of misinformation concerning ID.

**Note: These references to Padian and Berman’s comments seemed to me at the time to specifically position ID-proponents as the victims of some kind of conspiracy to discriminate against them.  Of course, in scientific academia there is discrimination against non-scientific ideas.  If ID cannot meet the standards of scientific scrutiny, then it should be discarded; this is indeed what has happened, but Luskin and many in the IDM interpret & spin this as “censorship”.  Again, this is part of the public relations strategy on the part of the Discovery Institute to frame the discussion in terms of “fairness”.  But would it be “fair” to science students to seriously take time in their chemistry classes for the Four Element Model of matter (fire, earth, air, water)?  Would it be “fair” to include equal time for geocentrism in earth science & astronomy classes?  Would it be “fair” to teach non-scientific, alternate views of gravity (such as those advocated by Transcendental Meditation) in physics class?

What’s the Dangerous Idea?  The Positive Case for ID

Brief survey: What do you think ID is?

a)      Life is so complex that it couldn’t have evolved, therefore it was designed by a supernatural being

b)      Many features of nature are best explained by an intelligent cause because in our experience, intelligence is the cause of their informational properties.

Luskin states that the correct answer is b, but that the view of ID has been distorted by the media and that most people think that the answer is a.

He claims that we cannot claim specifically who “the designer” could be, and that would be beyond what the data tell us.

**Note:  Luskin ran into real trouble on this point.  Again, in an attempt to scrub away the fact that the Discovery Institute really wants to push the notion that the designer is the Christian God (something which nailed them in the Dover trial), they are now going out of their way to state that “they can’t say who the designer is”.  However, as you will see, they cannot run away from their own internal documentation which clearly establishes that they want to push ID as a way of converting society to their own interpretation of Christianity – hint: see the Wedge Document for more details.

ID Reasoning in Science

ID tries to discriminate between naturally caused objects on the one hand, and intelligently created objects on the other hand.  He makes examples of geologists looking at arrowheads and forensic scientists looking at natural deaths vs. mad-made events.

He claims that SETI is using ID reasoning in science when they try to distinguish between naturally caused & intelligently caused radio signals.  He says it is significant that they are using this ID reasoning.

**Note:  I want to point out something important here – the SETI Institute has explicitly rejected ID.  In fact, at their website they have a very specific rebuttal to Luskin’s implication that SETI is somehow an ID-like endeavor which is supposed to lend credence to his claims – in short, SETI has disavowed this supposed connection between their scientific work and ID.  See Seth Shostak’s article on the subject for more detail. This sort of intellectual dishonesty is par for the course in much of the propoganda pushed by the IDM.

Where does new information come from?  New information comes from a mind, and intelligent consciousness.

Luskin references Stephen Meyer’s paper “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories” in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington.

**Note: Meyer’s paper was retracted because it was shown to have not gone through the proper peer-review process before publication – more details here. It’s curious that Luskin failed to mention this fact in his presentation.

He says this is significant because all life is coded on a language, which shows that there is ID in our DNA.

Luskin defines complexity as a measure of how unlikely something is.  He makes an example of a complex looking mountain, whose shape can be determined by referencing naturally occurring events, such as erosion, etc.

He then shows a picture of Mount Rushmore, and then he says that complexity with a specific pattern infers ID. Specific pattern + Complexity = ID

**Note:  There are LOTS of problems at this point.  First of all, this definition of complexity is sorely lacking, both in detail and due to the fact that it isn’t quantifiable.  As someone asked in Q&A (not myself or Jamie), if you are going to claim to be doing science with ID, shouldn’t you have a way to quantify “complexity”?  Luskin’s response was something to the effect that yes the IDM should do that and they were working on it.  Pardon me, but the IDM and Discovery Institute has been at this for 20 years, and they still don’t have a quantifiable definition of “complexity” yet?  And despite this fact, they want ID taught in schools as a valid science alongside evolution?  Give me a break.

Another problem here is that this sort of argument is post-hoc in nature.  In other words, everyone already knows that Mount Rushmore is man-made; what is necessary here is for these folks to come up with a blinded test of their method without knowing whether or not the subject is designed ahead of time.  Here’s a simple way to do it:

1. Take two sets of a dozen drinking glasses.

2. Drop one set from a significant height into a clear plastic box so that they smash apart into a random jumble of broken glass at the bottom of the box.  This is the “naturally caused” pile of broken glass.

3. Take the second set of glasses and break them up with a hammer or whatnot in a very specific manner and then place the pieces into the bottom of a second box so that the pile of broken glass appears random.  This will be the “intelligently designed” pile of broken glass.

4.  Do all of this out of view of the ID-proponents (the test must be blinded), and then ask them to apply their method to identify the “naturally caused” pile from the “intelligently designed” pile.  Of course, the entire procedure would have to be performed many times to get a correct read on the statistics.

5. If there really is something to the ID method of “inferring design”, then the ID-proponents should be able to determine correctly the “intelligently designed” piles of glass at a rate significantly higher than chance (well over 50%).

The fact that I’ve never seen any ID-proponent perform, or even seriously suggest, such a blinded test of their design inference methods speaks volumes, folks.  And remember: they’ve been at this for 20 YEARS!

The Basic Logic:

a)      Mind is the cause of certain kinds of information

b)      Scientists look at objects in nature that exhibit greater amounts of information

c)       This information was caused by a mind (ID)

One testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity, which can be discovered by experimentally reverse-engineering biological structures through genetic knockout experiments to determine if they require all parts to function. He claims that pro-ID microbiologist Scott Minnich at the Univ. of Idaho has tested this out via gene research.

CSI can also be detected through mutational sensitivity tests.  He claims that Pro-ID molecular biologist Doug Axe, of the Biologic Institute, has performed mutational sensitivity tests on enzymes and found that sequences that yield functional protein folds may be as rare as 1 in 10^77.  This is high CSI.  He claims that these sort of things cannot be explained through Darwinian evolution.

CSI can be studied in theoretical calculations and computer simulations of evolution to determine how much CSI can be produced via blind & unguided Darwinian processes.

Thus, high CSI is caused by intelligent design, not through Darwinian processes.

**Note: Again, what is the quantifiable definition of CSI?  In addition, for an excellent take-down on the work of both Dr. Minnich and Dr. Axe, take a look at this excerpt from the Dover trial via the Talk Origins website which clearly counters the claims made here by Luskin.

Testable Predictions of ID:

Biology will be full of information-riich structures containing high CSI.

Encoded Information: look at the nucleotide bases, ATGC, in our DNA.  There is no chemical or physical law which dictates the ordering of these bases – these bases represent language, such as computer code.  He states the DNA bases are like the software which needs other things in the cells that are like the hardware which reads the code.

He then quote mines Richard Dawkins: “The machine code of the genes iis uncannily computer-like.  Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer engineering journal.”

Luskin then states that mutations are like “bad lines of code” in our DNA.

**Note: First off, this is a very clear quote mine of Richard Dawkins, who is most certainly NOT a supporter of ID-creationism.  Secondly, the analogy between DNA and computer code is a very poor one, for reasons outlined at this link.

He says it is very striking that life is composed of biomolecular machines.  He makes an example of the supposedly “irreducibly complex” bacterial flagellum.  He states that cells are composed of large numbers of these machines.

What in our experience is the cause of language and machines?  He says that it is intelligence, and this is a strong argument for ID.

ID and Genetics Testable Prediction:

The cell will tend to contain less functionless “junk” and biology will tend to not contain functionless parts.

He says that ID-proponents have said for almost 10 years that there could be a use/function of the rest of the 97% of apparently useless DNA.

Junk DNA: What does Darwinism Say?

“The term ‘junk DNA’ for many years repelled mainstream researchers from studying noncoding DNA.  Who, except a small number of genomic clochards, would like to dig through genomic garbage?  However, in science as in normal life, there are some clochards who, at the risk of being ridiculed, explore unpopular territories… Noe, more and more biologists regard repetitive elements as a genomic treasure.” Wojciech Makalowski

He states that this represents a big paradigm shift in biology.

**Note:  Luskin acts like biological researchers are somehow trying to run away from this question, when in reality there has been much research done on the matter of ‘junk DNA’, and there is ample evidence that, while some of the noncoding parts of DNA are useful, there are huge amounts of DNA which serve no purpose.

Basis of ID:

  1. Discovery of Biochemical Language and Irreducibly Complex Molecular Machines
  2. Discovery of Digital Information and Information Processing Systems in the Cell
  3. Discovery of the “Fine Tuning” of Physical Laws in the Universe
  4. ???

Academic Freedom:  shows a picture of Ben Stein’s “Expelled”

Students, teachers, research and faculty around the United States are being persecuted because of their dissent from Darwinism or support for ID.

He makes some examples of this supposed expulsion of academic freedom…

  1. The president of the Univ of Idaho instituted a campus-wide classroom speech code, where “evolution” was “the only curriculum that is appropriate” for science classes.
  2. A professor of biochemistry and leading biochemistry textbook author at the Univ of Toronto stated that the major public research university “should never have admitted” students who support ID, and should “just flunk the lot of them and make room for smart students.”
  3. Three top biology professors at Ohio State Univ derailed a doctoral student’s thesis defense of ID ???
  4. A biology 101 lecturer at Weleyan College endorsed teaching students “inaccuracies” that are “wrong” if that enable educators to “gain their trust” and “help them accept evolution.”
  5. At Iowa State Univ, over 120 faculty members signed a petition denouncing ID and calling on “all faculty members to… reject efforts to portray ID as science.”
  6. In 2007, the Council of Europe, the leading European “human rights” organization, adopted a resolution calling ID a potential “threat to human rights”!

**Note: This is just more of the “censorship” tripe that I mentioned earlier.  It’s essentially just grist for the mill, and it feeds the ID-proponents’ perception that they are being unfairly ejected from the scientific process.  However, they don’t want to play by the rules of science (in fact, they want to change the rules – see the Wedge Document for more info), so if they want to pretty much arbitrarily adjust the rules of science to suit their whim, how is that “fair”?

Q&A Follows:

Q: What is the argument & counter-argument about some scientists claiming that they’ve shown the bacterial flagellum is NOT irreducibly complex?

A: The argument is that part of the flagellum is still useful in another context.  They are testing IC in a fallacious manner.

**Note:  Bzzt!  Wrong answer, Luskin.  There are very good arguments for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. In addition, Luskin is being slippery & inconsistent with his definition of “functionality” at this point – this is classic moving the goalposts.

Q: Isn’t it a proof of intelligence that you can use part of one system to make another use out of it?  Isn’t that what engineers do?

A: Yes, because these parts are put together in ways they weren’t meant to.

**Note: At this point I followed up on these two previous questions.  I noted that Luskin appears to be trying to have it both ways – that is, on the one hand he states that the fully-formed bacterial flagellum is evidence of ID.  Then, upon being asked this second question, he states that it is further evidence of ID that the flagellum structure could be broken down and the individual parts have other uses (which is actually evidence for evolution, as I stated above).  So at this point I asked him about this apparent contradiction:  How can you simultaneously claim that both of these things are evidence for ID and still claim that ID, in this context, is a testable & falsifiable notion?  Because if the functionality of a fully formed flagellum is evidence for ID and the broken down pieces of the flagellum are evidence for ID, then what’s not evidence for ID?  If everything is, by default, evidence for ID, then how is this idea falsifiable at all?  And if it isn’t falsifiable, then how can it qualify as science?

Luskin attempted to talk around this question by making references to the evolution of the human eye (which he claimed could be evidence for evolution and not ID) being different from that of the supposed ID-supporting evidence via the flagellum.  When I pointed out that he didn’t answer my question, he got pretty defensive and kept on going on in the same manner.

Not very convincing, Mr. Luskin – and, I might note, that a number of people present also found my question to be quite interesting & thought-provoking.

Q: How did all this ID stuff get started?

**Note:  Luskin answered that in the beginning of the IDM a variety of scientific proposals were put forth by those who started the IDM.  However, I very strongly challenged him on this assertion by making explicit note of the Wedge Document – this was a 1998 internal memo circulated within the Discovery Institute (and a key piece of evidence used against them in the Dover trial) which stated, in very explicit terms, the goals of the IDM were to change the nature of science & to push their version of Christianity on not only science but society as a whole!  In fact, deeper research clearly shows that even the original publications by the creators of the IDM are explicitly religious in nature and push a blatantly ideological agenda, so even that claim by Luskin isn’t true.

Back to the Wedge, I actually quoted specific phrases to the audience supporting my assertion, and I told them they could read the entire thing online at Wikipedia.  Then I challenged Luskin directly: he had stated earlier in his talk that the IDM was not out to change science and that the IDM was not about theology; yet, here is a document from within the Discovery Institute which is in direct contradiction to his statements.  So, Mr. Luskin, which is it?

I think it would be appropriate at this point to say that Luskin was very frustrated, and many in the audience were very interested to see his response.  Here are the basic points he made in his response:

1. So what?! He blatantly claimed that the Wedge Document didn’t show what I said it did or that I was somehow mis-characterizing it [In what universe?  It’s right there in black & white, Luskin – sheesh.]

2. He then started to go off on “Darwinism” and how it affected society at all levels and that therefore this was some kind of justification for the IDM pursuing the very same methods that they criticize “Darwinism” for using.  [So it’s okay to use those same unethical methods if it pushes your viewpoint, Mr. Luskin?  That sounds like relativism to me.]

3. When I made some mention about the Dover trial and how the Wedge Document played a critical role against ID there, he went on an even bigger rant.  This time he essentially attacked Judge Jones, the federal judge in the case, and began to completely misrepresent the ruling.  In fact, at one point Luskin stated that Jones’s ruling essentially stated that “if you believe in God, you cannot be part of the scientific discussion” – which is completely wrong.  What Jones stated was that the attempt to teach ID in public science classes was akin to teaching creationism because, due to the evidence presented at trial (such as the Wedge Document), it was clearly shown that the IDM has an explicitly religious motive.  Thus, trying to teach ID to students as if it were science would be a violation of the separation of church & state.  You can read Judge Jones’s ruling here.

This rant on Luskin’s part is very revealing.  First, it shows that he (and presumably the whole Discovery Institute) is very frustrated with their loss in the courts and failure to convince the scientific community that ID is science.  Based upon these facts, it seems that they are retooling their strategy to promote “academic freedom” (another code word for “teach the controversy”) as well as claiming that evolutionary science is pushing philosophical materialism (and that this is therefore a violation of the law).  For more details, you can see the following blog posts over at the Panda’s Thumb:

Casey Luskin: the new Wendell Bird?

Luskin, laws, and lies

The irony here is that this brings the entire creationism strategy full circle.  In the beginning of the 20th century, the creationists were attacking the teaching of evolutionary science and trying to block it in the courts.  Now, when the IDM cannot promote the teaching of ID as science, they seem to be resorting back to this same strategy.

16 Responses to “My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin’s Intelligent Design Talk at the University Club of Chicago”

  1. Bill Pogson said


    Great job on the coverage and rebuttal of Luskin!!!

    I am very glad that you were able to attend and not leave Luskin’s flaccid concepts unchallenged…polluting the minds of the less skeptical audience members. I hereby nominate you for the prestigious Darwin’s Bulldogs ‘Worried Bone” award complete with all privileges and honors attendant to said award.

    Thanks again, Mat, for a job very well done,

  2. Jimmy said

    Awesome job covering this. I highly recommend to everybody to read Judge Jones’ ruling. It’s long, but it’s very much worth the effort, especially if you’re a science teacher like me. It really prepares you to talk about it and defend yourself if it ever becomes necessary, God(?) forbid, just like this summary does as well.

  3. Joe Agnost said

    I wish more people (like you Mat) would challenge these fools when they give their little talks… Nice job, and thank you.

  4. “Intelligent Design” Not Accepted by Most Scientists…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  5. […] My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin's Intelligent Design Talk at … […]

  6. Greg Yarnik said

    Matt, just back from a long vacation last week and am reading this post after-the-fact. Great summary of Luskin’s typical trotting out of the DI’s same tired, old warhorse arguments in favor of ID. I felt like I was there! Kudos for passing this along to those of us who couldn’t attend. BTW, I second Bill’s nomination!!


  7. Eric Martin said

    Excellent report, Matt. I got the link from the NCSE mailing list…I’ll try to get to your Northbrook talk.


  8. Eric Martin said

    I also think that the reason ID has such legs, and is not going away any time soon, is not just because of the need for theism or the fear of apes in the family tree, but that evolution simply has not been presented to the general public in a clear enough way, by either public education or science popularizers.

    Indeed, most well-read individuals with a definite bend towards atheism, who would welcome homo habilis in their genealogy, would have a hard time explaining exactly what “survival of the fittest” means, in concordance with current scientific theory. Also lacking is a good public understanding of what speciation is and what causes it to happen.

    People don’t discount gravity as a theory because they can see it with their own eyes, even though the explanation of gravity is actually quite complex, and not without some questions of its own. People can’t see evolution with their own eyes, so it’s dependent upon “science” to make it as clear and as OBVIOUS as possible.

    Sadly, and I have many popular books in my own library (some which contradict each other), this has yet to happen. Dawkin’s massive tomes about ancestor’s tales and Stephen Gould’s diverting essays about flamingo smiles haven’t done the trick. Neither have our high school science classes, most of whom use texts where evolution, if addressed at all, is in the final chapters which are either missed in the rush of the school year or glossed over as the spring sun rises high and hormones surge in the classroom…

  9. Eric Martin said

    But I digress…in the end, whether or not the public understands evolution is a moot point. It would be nice if they did, and would put ID even farther down the ladder, but most people don’t know how a car works either. The real issue/battle is keeping ID out of the science curriculum, which you have deftly addressed here.

  10. […] by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2010 In an earlier blog post, I gave a detailed rebuttal to a lecture by the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin titled “Intelligent Design: Dead […]

  11. […] Discovery …telson on The Shroud of Turin Reveals th…My Challenge to the … on My Thoughts on Attending Casey…Ben Edmond on Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: […]

  12. Lane said

    It looks like Luskin posted his take on the exchange with Matt and others at this lecture here:

    • mattusmaximus said

      Thanks for the link. I’ll have to respond to this article, because it shows that Luskin is hoisting himself by his own petard, so to speak. For example, one important point he leaves out is that in an objective court of law, during the Dover vs. Kitzmiller trial, an impartial judge found the evidence put forth in the Wedge Document to be more than damning to the claims that ID-creationism is not religiously motivated. His response was to basically start accusing the judge of, you guessed it, “judicial activism” despite the fact that Judge Jones is 1) an appointee of George W. Bush, 2) a Republican, 3) a regular church-going Christian, and 4) a self-described conservative.

      • Justasking7 said

        Please observe – you are arguing that Casey Luskin was wrong to say the judge was engaging in activism. As evidence that Casey was wrong you offer: who appointed the judge. That is not evidence relevant to what the judge did (activism). You offer that the judge’s political party affiliation. Also not relevant to what the judge did. You offer the judge’s religious affiliation. Also not relevant to what the judge did. You offer the judge’s self-described political worldview. Also not relevant to what the judge did. Even intelligent atheists and skeptics avoid ad hominem and genetic fallacies as these four offerings are. Elementary errors in logic like this do not speak well for your position — leaving one to think you don’t have any better arguments or you would have used them.

        If you wanted to validly argue the judge did not engage in judicial activism, then you’d define judicial activism and show how the judge’s decision does not fall in that category. Too hard to do? Sniping fallaciously is easier?

  13. […] I found out recently that Casey Luskin of the intelligent design/creationist “think” tank the Discovery Institute has  responded in print to my takedown of his public lecture last August in Chicago.   I think it is important is to dissect his arguments and point out the utter failure of him to make any headway in his arguments; he is simply recycling the same ol’ same ol’, in my view.  For reference, here is my account of what happened at the event last August. […]

  14. […] science adapts and evolves, refining theories as a result of observation and experimentation. But I saw no evidence of this in Luskin’s talk; in fact, I saw quite the opposite: little more than a sad rehashing of the same tired old […]

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