Discovery Institute Howler

Howler monkey

(Image form Jean Kern.)

The irony flooding out of the Discovery Institute these days would make Noah nervous.

Their website devoted to debunking “Darwinism” has an article titled “Dr. Novella’s ‘Every Single Prediction’ in the Mind-Brain Problem”. The problem the Discovery Institute has with evolution and other science is that it is “materialistic”. That doesn’t mean science wants to own big-screen high-def plasma TVs. It means that there is a natural, real-world explanation for all phenomena we observe in our universe. To quote Wikipedia: “all phenomena are the result of material interactions”.

The problem with this view is that it leaves no room for God. That freaks out the DI. That’s their whole motivation for hating evolution and trying to suppress the teaching of it.

The DI’s article begins:

Atheist-materialist Dr. Steven Novella…

This is double-flag code-speak for the faithful. “OMG! He’s an atheist and a materialist! Bar the doors! Hide the children! He’s come to destroy our way of life!”

…is confident: all of our experiences and awareness arise from brain matter. There is no soul, no immaterial mind, separate from the brain itself.

You can see why they feel so threatened. In fact, this is worse than evolution to them. At least in evolution there is a little bit of wiggle room. That’s why they invented Intelligent Design creationism (“Accept no substitutes! If it doesn’t say Intelligent Design creationism, it’s just some crappy Chinese creationism! Make sure you buy your delusional ideas from the masters of delusion! Home-grown. Seattle-brewed. Mmmmmm! Discovery Institute Intelligent Design creationism!”).

The DI continues:

According to Dr. Novella, a neurologist at Yale, the debate is over, and all that is left to do is to eradicate a few stubborn pockets of resistance to the theory that the mind is merely a secretion of the brain, just as bile is a secretion of the liver.

Note how they subtly equate Dr. Novella’s theory with bile? Oh there’s bile in their article all right, but it isn’t coming from Dr. Novella!

Next, the article quotes Dr. Novella himself:

“The materialist hypothesis — that the brain causes consciousness — has made a number of predictions, and every single prediction has been validated.”

Here’s the part where I partially agree with the Discovery Institute. I get nervous when a scientist makes a broad, sweeping claim like that. Science can never know anything with 100% certainty. Some things we know with 99.999…% certainty. Everything else is known with a bit less certainty than that. That’s why scientists usually speak with an “out”: “The data are consistent with…”

Dr. Novella wrote the quoted sentence in his blog. He was speaking to a general audience and was trying to convey the extent to which we are confident in the materialistic theory of the brain. In those situations, the speech has to be more accessible to the audience. If he spoke in technobabble, people would get confused and wander off, probably ending up at Ken Ham’s creation museum in Kentucky.

It’s also important to look at the very next sentence that Dr. Novella wrote. This is from his blog, and it’s the part that the Discovery Institute left off:

Every single question that can be answered scientifically — with observation and evidence — that takes the form: “If the brain causes the mind then…” has been resolved in favor of that hypothesis.

This sentence qualifies the first. It is also a bit less sweeping. What he is saying is “Within the limits of science, all questions have been resolved in favor of the hypothesis.” Science is an ongoing process. It is always being refined. There could be some discovery tomorrow that contradicts the theory. Then the scientists would conduct additional experiments to confirm the observation. If it holds up, then the theory would be modified to accommodate it. We would then be even closer to an understanding of the brain.

But of course, this is too subtle and nuanced for the Discovery Institute’s quote miners. Let’s now return to the Discovery Institute article about Dr. Novella’s research:

A bit of advice: whenever a scientist says of his own theory that “every single prediction has been validated”, you’re being had.

I would agree with this, but remember that’s not quite what Dr. Novella said.

No scientific theory has had ‘every single prediction’ validated. All theories accord with evidence in some ways, and are inconsistent in others.

OK, that’s fair. Wow! The Discovery Institute managed to write two whole sentences without lying once! But now get ready for the howler:

Successful scientific theories prevail on the preponderance of the evidence, not validation of “every single prediction”. Real science lacks the precision of ideology. [emphasis added]

Woo hoo! Bop! Bingo! Zap!

The DI has spent years trying to sell us on ID creationism as if it’s some sort of real scientific theory, but they’ve never given us one shred of unambiguous data. Intelligent Design creationism is nothing BUT ideology!

News reports are now coming in that the Discovery Institute was just washed away in a flood of irony.


10 Responses to “Discovery Institute Howler”

  1. Parrotlover77 Says:

    It’s too bad you didn’t go further down where they say, “…dualists propose that the mind is in part caused by matter, and in part caused by something else…”

    “Something else?” Have a hypothesis? Evidence? Anything? Bueller?

    That’s the exact same line as ID. Can they at least attempt to come up with an original thought or two?

    Just “something?” Nothing specific? No experiments attempting to discover what this “something” is? Hello?!

  2. Ron Britton Says:

    The article ended up being bigger in scope than I originally intended anyway.

    You’re right about the dualism. In fact, I think that’s what they’re all about. All I hear them complain about is the materialist scientists, but they never say what the alternative is. Apparently it’s dualism. They think there’s a materialist half and a magic half to everything.

  3. Parrotlover77 Says:

    What’s even crazier is that this whole topic is way less biblically incompatible than evolution. Why does the soul have to think? Why can’t only the body do the thinking part? Where in the bible does it say the soul does the thinking? And if the soul contributes to thinking, why do we have to be taught about Christianity? Why isn’t it just imprinted on us from birth?

    DI is just absolutely crazy. I’m waiting for their press release denying gravity.

  4. commander other Says:

    Excellent post, not that you needed me to tell you that. The Discovery Institute seems to spend a lot of time not really discovering anything, deferring instead to a long-term investigation of their collective navel-lint. Always impressive.

    I managed to find you through Blue Gal today, and I’ve spent about an hour just reading. Thank you for doing what you do. Have you met Happy Jihad? I think you would get along together quite well.

    If you don’t mind, I have blogrolled you and subscribed to your feed. I’m looking forward to having your commentary in my life on a more frequent basis. Sorry I’ve missed you over all this time!

  5. Ron Britton Says:

    Commander Other:

    I’m glad you enjoy the blog. Helping others survive the radical right is why I’m here.

    Thanks for the blogroll addition on your site, and thanks for letting me know about Happy Jihad. I somehow managed to miss him. I’m flattered that you think this blog is as good as his. On your site, you said:

    I think Ron Britton may well be Happy Jihad’s long-lost twin.

    I have to disagree. Happy Jihad is Bay of Fundie on LSD. For any readers out there who haven’t visited it, go check out this article on HJ’s site. I am not worthy.

  6. commander other Says:

    Glad you liked Bing’s place (Happy Jihad = Bing McGhandi or however that’s supposed to be spelled). Obey the Hypnotoad.

    I’ll keep coming back. I appreciate what you do.


  7. Bing McGhandi Says:

    Aw, shucks. Thanks very much, y’all.

    Also, I love the DI’s assertion that ideology is more precise than science. It’s taken up permanent residence in my brain, like Parelaphostrongylus tenuis. If I were a goat, that is.

    And yes. Obey the hypnotoad.


  8. Brian Says:

    Atheist-materialist Dr. Steven Novella is confident: all of our experiences and awareness arise from brain matter. There is no soul, no immaterial mind, separate from the brain itself.

    Not only does this statement, if accurate, agree with what I think, it also cuts right to the heart of religion’s creaky foundations. All “great” monotheisms are sex-obsessed death cults. Believers simply cannot tolerate the idea that upon their inevitable demise nothing of them will remain in some animated form. The idea of complete oblivion is utterly unacceptable. I find this odd, since the billions of years that transpired before my birth didn’t trouble me in the least, so why should the time following the cessation of my bodily functions be something to distress over? Of course, I am not an arrogant narcissist convinced that the universe exists for my benefit and that my eternal well-being is a cause for concern to an unimaginably powerful and intelligent, yet undetectable superbeing who seems to get his panties in a wad whenever boys kiss each other and scientists get out their petrie dishes, so you can see why I have a problem with absurd claims about everlasting souls and the dichotomous options of either heaven or hell.

    If people would simply come to terms to their own mortality, religion would wither and die, and the clerics know it. I really don’t think its too far-fetched to imagine most people reconciling themselves to nothingness. That’s where I am, and I feel like I’m a better person for it. I’m not eager for my death to get here, and I shall follow my survival instincts as long as I can, but I’m not afraid of it either, which is why I have no problem telling believers to piss off and to take their precious goddamned beliefs with them. They can “know” themselves, in the Greek sense, if you take my meaning.

  9. Mike Spenard Says:

    “if the mind arises entirely from the brain, materialism predicts that there must be a specific material cause for each mental state. That is, a specific mental state must be a specific brain state, nothing more or less. For example, if I am thinking “the White House is in Washington, D.C.”, there must be a specific arrangement of molecules and neurons and action potentials in my brain that are the thought itself.”

    This is an Ad Ignorantiam argument.
    Only Cartesian Materialism would predict such; a model where there is a ‘final draft’ of consciousness. In contrast, a working alternate is a ‘multiple drafts’ model.

  10. Sushi Douche Says:

    It annoys me to no end when fundies take already existing words and add ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ at the end. ‘Materialist’, ‘Darwinism’, ‘evolutionism’, ‘leftist’, etc. Let’s see how they’d like if we starting calling their religion Christism. A bunch of Christists. No even better- Delusionism.