My Day at a Casey Luskin Lecture

This is a guest post by Jamie Bernstein. Jamie is a graduate student in public policy at the University of Chicago. She previously posted about her day at an anti-vaccination rally.

Matt Lowry is referenced in the posting and you can read his take on the event here.

When I found out Casey Luskin was going to be giving a talk in Chicago, I knew I had to go. He works for the Discovery Institute and is a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design. Luckily a friend of mine, Matt Lowry, was going as well so I didn’t have to be there all awkwardly by myself.

The event was held in a small room at the University Club in Chicago. Matt and I grabbed some food from the buffet table and picked out a spot near the back. We began eating immediately, wanting to make sure we finished our food before Luskin’s talk started so it wouldn’t interfere with our laptops and notetaking. When we were half-finished with our meal, a woman took the mic and announced that it was time for the prayer. That’s when I looked around and realized that no one else had touched his/her food. Oops…

The other people at our table all seemed to already know each other, so Matt and I ate and talked amongst ourselves until the lecture began. We both set up our laptops and realized that they were each covered in stickers from Skeptical-type organizations, but kind of just hoped no one would notice. From what I counted, there were 29 people in the room, including Luskin, Matt, and myself. It was a small, intimate setting for what I hoped would be an interesting talk.

The title of Luskin’s lecture was “Intelligent Design: Dead Science or the Future of Biology?” My first thoughts were “Are those the only options?” and “Why the assumption that it’s science in the first place?” and “Wow, he’s kind of good looking.” [Editor's note: Hemant shakes his head at Jamie.]

One of the first slides contained the following definition of ID:

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

He then put up a slide showing the scientific method and talked about the importance of positive arguments. In other words, he warned that disproving evolution does not prove ID. He added that although many people may have opinions on who the designer may be, it is beyond the realm of science. Science can only tell us if there is a designer, not whether it’s the Christian God, intelligent alien beings, or any other form of intelligence.

At this point I was still eager to hear what he had to say. I’ve heard many of the arguments for ID already, but I hoped this focus on science might bring in some new ideas.

He then created analogies between natural creations versus intelligently designed ones — for example, discriminating between natural and intelligently designed objects in archeology or natural and intelligently designed radio signals in the search for extra-terrestrial life. He asked, “Why can’t we ask the same question in biology?”

At this point, I was just thinking “Get to the science part already!” He had promised to show us that ID can pass the scientific method, but so far there hadn’t been much. He proceeded with more analogies: mountain vs Mt. Rushmore, random poker game vs. a stacked deck, etc. The list seemed endless.

I found this “natural vs. designed” argument interesting because assuming a Christian Creationism, everything was designed by God, so there is nothing to discriminate between what’s designed and what’s natural. Luskin seemed to be implying that some things in our world are “natural” while others are “designed.” This is a duality I haven’t heard before in ID arguments.

Finally, he got to his point: The mind is the cause of certain types of information. In natural objects, we find the same kinds of information. So, the mind likely caused those objects.

Luskin was now ready to get to the science. He first introduced the concept of Complex and Specified Information (CSI), saying that this is what we are testing for when we are testing for ID. High CSI means design was likely involved, and low CSI implies a natural origin.

He started with Michael Behe and the concept of irreducible complexity by studying flagellum. My heart sank a little when I saw that this was going to be the first bout of evidence. This is an old ID argument that has been countered time and time again.

I left briefly to go to the bathroom, and when I came back he was talking about how amino acid sequences are extremely rare, and therefore must have high CSI. He also said that computer simulations show that not much CSI can be produced by Darwinian processes on evolutionary timescales.

At this point I was seriously confused. What exactly was CSI? How is it measured? What constitutes high CSI and what constitutes low? It seemed to me that it was just a general term used when something appeared designed. In other words, if something seemed designed it was declared to have high CSI and if it seemed natural it was declared to have low CSI.

The rest of the “science” portion of his talk never answered these questions. It seemed to just be a recitation of all the old ID arguments, like junk DNA having a purpose and DNA acting like computer code. If I was hoping for something new, I was sorely disappointed.

The end of his talk focused on academic freedom, and he briefly went through some cases of professors or researchers being discriminated against for studying ID. Most cases contained no names, just general references like “a professor at Ohio State” or “a person on a blog in Toronto.” He quoted random things that unnamed people said on their unnamed blogs that were against ID proponents. (Actually, he didn’t quote so much as paraphrase, so it’s not even exactly clear what was said.) This whole portion of the talk seemed like it had just been thrown onto the end. Luskin had not spent much time putting this section together, and it showed.

Finally it was time for the question & answer period.

The first question came from a man asking Luskin to refute the arguments from biologists like Dawkins and Gould against flagellum being an example of irreducible complexity. (Good question, random audience member!) It was exactly what I would have asked had I gotten my hand up quickly enough.

Luskin responded by turning back to analogies (Is a laptop cable not intelligently designed if you can use it to power a toaster?)… He did mention that a portion of the flagellum could be used to inject poisons, but for some reason I didn’t quite catch, he said that this was also an example of ID.

This is when Matt chimed in with a question. He pointed out that Luskin had claimed that irreducible complexity was evidence of ID, but then admitted that the flagellum could be reduced and that this was also evidence of ID. What gives?

This caught Luskin off guard and he claimed that he never said that, but Matt stuck to it and kept urging him to answer. Luskin then talked about step-wise evolution, and that some things, like the concavity of the eye, could be useful to the organism every “step” through the evolutionary process. Therefore, he said, this was not evidence of irreducible complexity or ID. This didn’t really answer the question, but Matt dropped it and Luskin moved on.

When it was my turn to ask a question, I asked: “In order to have a good hypothesis, it has to be possible in theory for it to be disproven. What then would be evidence that, if found, would disprove the theory of Intelligent Design?

Luskin responded that if we find a structure that has no purpose, then it could not have been intelligently designed. This seemed to be a reference to the section of his talk regarding junk DNA. He had said that for years scientists believed that junk DNA served no purpose, but recently we have found that much of it is important, though we are just beginning to understand its function. He believed this vindicated ID because a structure would not be designed without a purpose. Regarding an earlier time when we believed that junk DNA was useless, he had said that just because we don’t know somethings purpose doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one.

So, by his own logic: A structure with no purpose would disprove Intelligent Design. We can never prove that a structure does not have a purpose. Therefore, we could never disprove Intelligent Design.

In other words, he basically admitted that ID is unfalsifiable! This was exactly the point I was trying to get at with my question.

Matt was then called on for a second question. He asked Luskin about the Wedge Document and quoted lines from it that seemed to contradict what Luskin had been saying earlier about ID having nothing to do with religion. Luskin answered by trying to distance himself (mentioning he was just an undergrad at the time) and generally evading the question by saying that scientists with an atheist agenda pushing evolution don’t mean that the theory of evolution is an atheist theory. This led to an exchange between Luskin and Matt over the Wedge Document and the Dover trial, in which the entire audience was perked up and interested and gasping at various points. This was the only point during the lecture where Luskin seemed out of his element. He went on the defensive, his voice rising, and the bitterness clearly evident when he would mention names like Eugenie Scott or Judge Jones.

The talk ended soon after and Luskin quickly came over to Matt and me to thank us for our questions and shake our hands. He said he really appreciated us being there and asking him difficult questions that challenged his conclusions. He agreed to a picture with Matt and was generally quite nice about the whole thing.

Matt Lowry (left) and Casey Luskin

As Matt and I were leaving, a couple other people came up to thank us for coming as well. It was obvious that we were not ID proponents and Matt had clearly shaken things up a bit, but everyone seemed genuinely glad that we had come. Some people even said that they had agreed with some of our points where they felt Luskin’s argument was weak and were glad that we had challenged him on it.

Overall, I don’t feel like I got any good evidence for ID, and mostly heard rehashings of the same, old ID arguments. Much of the information in the talk was inconsistent or contradictory. When these issues were pointed out in the Q&A, I didn’t feel his responses were satisfactory. Even so, it was presented well. Casey Luskin was an engaging, articulate speaker, and I found myself interested in everything he was saying, even if I found the content lacking. Nothing in his talk changed my mind regarding Intelligent Design.

But you can’t say I didn’t give it a fair hearing.

  • Jordan

    Matt is way better looking imo. Look at that ponem!

    Thanks Jamie for taking one for the team and sitting through that. Great review!

  • Claudia

    Agree with Jordan, Matt is far better looking than Luskin.

    Luskin is, as far as I can tell, a far more insidious threat to science than Hovind or other unmitigated idiots. Luskin is obviously intelligent and he uses his intelligence to form arguments that appear to the untrained ear, to be credible.

    Someone not trained in science or used to scientific discourse and who lacks a real understanding of the science of evolution, could easily be duped by someone like Luskin. He sounds credible. He’s smooth, he uses the big words scientists use and has much of the same cadence and tone common to scientists. What he says is utter horseshit of course, but it’s pretty impressively disguised, which makes him much harder to deal with than a Hovind or a look-at-my-banana Comfort.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    At this point I was seriously confused. What exactly was CSI? How is it measured? What constitutes high CSI and what constitutes low? It seemed to me that it was just a general term used when something appeared designed. In other words, if something seemed designed it was declared to have high CSI and if it seemed natural it was declared to have low CSI.

    This is exactly right. Complex information is a well-defined concept, but the idea of “specified” information is (I believe) something invented by Behe and never actually defined.

  • Courtney

    On “complex and specified information,” according to Mark over at Good Math, Bad Math it’s pretty much a meaningless term, used to sound scientific.

    Mark’s main point:

    But to make matters worse – this statement explicitly invalidates the entire concept of specified complexity. What this statement means – what it explicitly says if you understand the math – is that specification is the opposite of complexity. Anything which posesses the property of specification by definition does not posess the property of complexity.

  • Bill

    How disappointing! They have nothing new about ID at all! When I lectured on evolution I used to tell doubting students that if they wanted to be the most famous scientists of all then they should come up with a better explanation for diversity and function than evolution. But still it’s all the same old tropes and strawmen – nothing that’s going to convince this evolutionary biologist to change his mind, despite all the high falutiin’ promises of scientific rigour. Thanks for the report!

  • http://www.twitter.com/UAJamie Jamie

    Hemant, it was a luncheon so it wasn’t exactly at night, but I’ll give you a pass on the title anyway =)

    (Hemant says: Fixed!)

  • http://www.zenosarrow.blogspot.com Bruce

    Thanks for the report Jamie. I wish I could have been there but Science was well represented by you and Matt!

  • Revyloution

    Casey Luskin is cute? I always thought he looked a little mousy. Then again, I have no idea why my wife finds ME cute. I guess I’ll never understand female attraction to males, I’m just glad it happens.

    One thing I wanted to mention was the complements of the tone and genuine friendliness she mentioned about Luskin. The same types of comments were made about the speakers at the AFTAH. I think that’s something very important to remember when engaging with people. They really believe, and they really think they are trying to help people. Treating them as hate mongers is missing the point (for most, I believe).

  • Aaron

    At First I thought you wrote Teddy Ruxpin. I said “They are using an animatronic bear to push ID?”

  • Jeff

    Matt and I grabbed some food from the buffet table and picked out a spot near the back.

    That was your first mistake. I wouldn’t touch the food at these things; I have it on good authority they put something in it that kills neurons.

    As for the rest – evasion when challenged. Yep. That’s pretty much the only defense mechanism they have. Well, that and “You’ll burn in hell!”

  • http://moregloriousdawn.wordpress.com/ Sivi

    I have to agree – Luskin’s not unattractive.

    I found this “natural vs. designed” argument interesting because assuming a Christian Creationism, everything was designed by God, so there is nothing to discriminate between what’s designed and what’s natural. Luskin seemed to be implying that some things in our world are “natural” while others are “designed.” This is a duality I haven’t heard before in ID arguments.

    That’s a really good point. I’d never even thought of it, but this really does strike at the heart of a lot of design creationism that has any specific theistic basis, even back to Paley and the God-as-Watchmaker crowd.

    We should definitely be pointing this out to people.

  • Freddy

    Male nipples. No purpose to those.

  • Christophe Thill

    That discussion about design and purpose is their undoing. You know, the ways of the Lord designer are unscrutable. Maybe he/she/they have a twisted sense of humor, or an esthetic taste that we can’t understand, or choose to implement a detail in order for evolution to work on it and turn it into a new major feature within the next million years, or just made a mistake, or…

    In a word, however pointless or ill-conceived a specific item can look, you can never prove that the designer didn’t have a hand in it.

    Refutability test: failed.

  • Parse

    I have it on good authority that CSI is both a dessert topping and a floor wax.
    I imagine hearing Mr. Luskin speak is similar to hearing Duane Gish debate. He’ll acknowledge the weaknesses in his arguments, but he’ll still use them in his next speech as if you never brought them up the first time.

  • Adam

    Your frustration about “get to the science” is familiar.

    I went to an event at BIOLA where 4 prominent ID researchers including Dr. Dembski and Dr. Meyer were going to tell us about the current state of bleeding edge ID reserach. After what seemed to be endless yammering about Darwinian discrimination they finally revealed the most important recent development in ID science: they were starting an online journal. That’s right: the most important development in ID as of June, 2010 is a website, the expansion of their propaganda machine.

  • TychaBrahe

    If ID has nothing to do with religion, how would its proponents react to the suggestion that the Universe and life WERE intelligently designed, but by someone other than the Christian concept of God?

    Amateratsu stirring up the seabed with a stick to create the islands of Japan and then heading off to Africa to build H. sap? Sedna creating man from her snot? The cosmic goat of Viking tradition?

  • http://deviatehulk.blogspot.com Keith

    I have it on good authority that CSI is both a dessert topping and a floor wax.

    And it outperforms all other junk science terms 2 to 1! I haven’t even touched my pudding and I’m ready for more!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Complex information is a well-defined concept, but the idea of “specified” information is (I believe) something invented by Behe and never actually defined.

    I think CSI is due to Dembski, not Behe, and the definition changes as necessary.

    Luskin’s attractiveness: hey, some people go for the unibrow look, there’s no accounting for taste.

    … for example, discriminating between natural and intelligently designed objects in archeology or natural and intelligently designed radio signals in the search for extra-terrestrial life. He asked, “Why can’t we ask the same question in biology?”

    When design questions are asked in those sciences, they rely very strongly on who the designer is/was, what their purpose was, and the technology available to them. Consider a recent report of possible tool use by Australopithecus afarensis (e.g. Lucy) 3.4 million years ago. The evidence in question is scratch marks on bone. Paleontologists would depend on knowledge of who is proposed as the “designer,” what tools might have been available to them, and how marks due to butchering tools can be distinguished from marks made by other methods (e.g. weathering or dragging of the bones after death). SETI makes strong assumptions about what technology (radio) might be available to other civilizations. And so on.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    this chucklehead got to speak in the U Club? f*ck me, i am so ashamed of my alma mater right now. meh, i guess it’s no worse than the “ex” gay speaker i went to hear when i was on campus, with about 200 of my fellow Chicago out and proud queers. he was sweating bullets, by the time Q&A was over.

    at least that moron didn’t get a room in the club.

  • http://lizelotte.blogspot.com Liselotte

    I think the better-looking picture is the laptop … I just LOVE the “SkepChick” sticker :D

  • Revyloution

    Reginald Selkirk, thanks for using the caveat ‘possible’ tool use by Australopithecus. This story received far too much media attention. It is an intriguing bit of evidence, but hardly conclusive. So far, Occams razor slices this pretty neatly into the ‘doubtful’ category, but definitely begs further looking.

  • CatBallou

    I’ve been making that very simple argument about the “watchmaker” analogy for years: you can’t say “natural (shell) does NOT equal design (watch)” as an argument for “natural DOES equal design.” It doesn’t take a book to refute it.
    But if Luskin is now splitting that particular hair and saying that part of the natural world is natural and part of it is designed, he’s taking sophistry to brand new levels.

  • Gustavus Adolphus, Millipedeus Maximus

    I believe that the Complex-Specified Information notion was first formally presented by Dembski’s The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance Through Small Probabilities in 1998. There’s even a good ol’ Wikipedia page on the book.

  • Nerdette

    Sweet FSM, Luskin was at UChicago?! How embarrassing! Talk about a poor follow-up to the awesome string of evolution seminars they had last year. Ah, my alma mater, you still have some nuts wandering around the squirrels haven’t abducted yet…

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    Reginald Selkirk: Quite right, thanks for the correction.

  • Aaron

    Male nipples. No purpose to those.

    You obviously have not had the right romantic partner yet. :P
    Of course male nipples have a purpose. They cause us to question the validity of ID.

  • Chad Estep

    In Chicago and I didn’t know about it? Blasphemy! I would have loved to go to this talk.

  • Pingback: My Thoughts on Attending Casey Luskin’s Intelligent Design Talk at the University Club of Chicago « The Skeptical Teacher

  • http://www.twitter.com/UAJamie Jamie

    To clear up some of the confusion, the lecture did NOT take place at the University of Chicago. It took place at the University Club of Chicago, which ironically is in no way connected with any University.

    http://www.ucco.com/

  • Lane

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

    http://www.salvomag.com/new/articles/archives/science/luskin.php

  • Jerome Luskin

    I was 5 years old when I realized that all religious thought is conceived in the mind of mankind out of fear of the unknown. Dealing with an entity is easier than finding solutions to where we came from and where we are to go. Why do we sacrifice our mental integrity for easy answers. We are a civilization gone mad, and getting madder with each millenium….to wit..the contrivances of nonsense philosophies such as ID. Give us a break, O Fearful Ones.

  • THEMAYAN

    If your keen for disappointment when rhetoric is replaced with scientific methodology, then you should go to a Richard Dawkins lecture where the term natural selection is used in the same fashion a magician uses the word abracadabra, and when the best evidence for the theory is to insult the critics of the theory and call them evil or ignorant. In addition to the “Dissent From Darwin” list which contains almost a thousand signatories of earth scientist from all over the globe, including members of the American Academy of Sciences and who represent all types, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics and atheist alike, there is also a growing number of  non ID evolutionary development biologist who are also challenging the limitations of the modern synthesis. I have scoured the internet yet very little is said about non religious and non ID theorist such as the attendees of the Altenburg summit who further represent a growing number of scientist in their repected fields & who again, are also publicly challenging the limitations of neo Darwinism/the modern synthesis.

    “Will the real theory of evolution please stand up?”  Google it.

  • Bendogvallejo

    Correction of first sentence which should read……when scientific methodology is replaced with rhetoric. My apologies.


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