Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Medicine Science Skepticism/critical thinking Surgery

Three swings, three misses

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I’ve featured the antics of a certain character who’s become a bit of the bête noire of my fellow surgeons. I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Michael Egnor, a renowned neurosurgeon from SUNY Stony Brook who’s made 2007 a very embarrassing year indeed for surgeons like me who accept evolution as a valid scientific theory, as, in fact, the entire underpinning of modern biological and medical sciences. Starting back in March, having whetted his appetite for looking foolish by jumping into the comments of a posts in February by P. Z. Myers and journalist Michael Lemonick, Dr. Egnor, reasons only known to himself, decided to enter the fray over “intelligent design” (ID) creationism on the wrong side of the pseudodebate as a regular contributor to Evolution News and Views. Worse, like the stereotype of a surgeon, he did it with gusto, jumping in with both feet, so to speak, and making an utter fool of himself time and time again.

Beginning four months ago or so, I began to chronicle his antics, all the while pointing out how much I was embarrassed by the sight of a fellow surgeon using so many pseudoscientific arguments (some of which would embarrass a young Earth creationist, such as the “evolution is a tautology” argument), logical fallacies too numerous to mention in detail, and pseudohistory (blaming eugenics as an inevitable consequence of Darwinian theory, for example), all topped off with a heaping dollop of an arrogance that led him to dismiss evolution as being irrelevant in the study of bacterial resistance to antibiotics and to the development of cancer. My ignoring of Egnor’s “egnorance” has been intentional and done for a three reasons. First, for a period of time around three months ago, it seemed as though discussions of Egnor’s antics were taking over the blog to the point where it might be said that I was beating a dead horse into a squishy pulp. Second, Egnor seemed for a while to cut back on his antics, becoming much less prolific in his “contributions” to Evolution News & Views, the house propaganda organ of the Discovery Institute, purveyor of all things ID. Third, I was getting bored. The last of these reasons is usually the best indication of all that it’s time for me to give a subject a rest for a while, because if I’m getting bored with it chances are good that my readers are also getting bored with it. Now that a sufficiently long Egnor-free interval has passed, I was curious to see what our favorite creationist neurosurgeon with a penchant for arguments that embarrass even some of his fellow creationists has been up to.

Oh, goody. It’s been quite a lot, so much so that I will have to pick and choose. It’s probably a good thing that the lastest Fantastic Four movie, Rise of the Silver Surfer, does not involve Doctor Doom as the primary villain. If it did, I might have to fashion myself a Doctor Doom mask based on the movie’s version to cover my face in shame, as I have mentioned several times in the past. Heck, I wonder if they sell them premade. On the other hand, depending on what the moviemakers do with it, maybe a Galactus mask would do. It’s purple and has those cool things sticking off the side–much more stylin’. On the other hand, I’m starting to come to the position that perhaps I should just stop letting him get to me so much and just relax and enjoy the egnortainment.

The first bit of egnortainment that caught my eye was posted about a week and a half ago, and it addresses one of the weakest parts of all of ID “theory,” namely the question of how one detects “design” in nature when we have no idea what the characteristics of the “designer” might be. Naturally, to our intrepid creationist neurosurgeon, this is not a problem at all:

Fundamental to the argument of many Darwinists against intelligent design theory in biology is the assertion that design in biology is undetectable. Darwinists argue that biological design is undetectable because, while we have experience with ‘designers’ in archeology, forensic science, etc., we have no experience with designers in biology, and thus cannot reliably detect the work of a biological designer. Intelligent design proponents reply that there are reliable criteria that indicate design, regardless of whether we have actual knowledge of the designer.

Without doubt, the detection of design is of primary importance in many fields of science, such as archeology, forensic science, cryptography, and bioterrorism. And the detection of design is at least theoretically possible even if we have no experience with the designer. The design inference is the scientific basis for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in which investigators search for signal patterns that imply intelligent agency amid the dense background of naturally occurring signals in the cosmos. Despite our lack of experience with extraterrestrial intelligence, we assume, reasonably, that we could detect at least some design in signals sent from intelligent agents.

The SETI reference is, of course, one of the favorite tropes of ID’ers. One has only to look at the history of the discovery of pulsars to see just how easy it is to be fooled by nature into “inferring design” when no design exists. Pulsars were originally discovered because of their very regular “pulsing” electromagnetic signals. When they were first discovered, they caused great excitement, and more than a few astronomers interpreted them as evidence of extraterrestrial life. Of course, it turns out that pulsars represented nothing of the sort, but they serve as a good non-biological example of a natural phenomenon that can easily be interpreted as “design.” Here’s where the egnortainment comes in:

In the field of archeology, a remarkable discovery has shed light on the scientific validity of the inference to design when we have no knowledge of the designer. In 1900, divers exploring a 1st century B.C. shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera found a coral-encrusted device the size of a small laptop computer that was clearly part of the 2000 year-old ship’s cargo. Further examination of this device, called the Antikythera mechanism, including x-ray and CT studies, shows it to be a remarkable assembly of precisely designed gears. Many scientists believe that it was a device for predicting eclipses and planetary motion, but its precise function is still a mystery. Its resemblance to an analog computer is striking…Archeologists believe that the technology to produce such a device didn’t emerge until at least the 14th century A.D. They have no evidence as to who designed it, and no evidence even of who could have designed it. Yet the inference to design is obvious, and no archeologist doubts that it is a designed artifact. Design can be inferred from an artifact alone, regardless of the obscurity or the implausibility of a designer.

Even if everything Egnor says about the device is 100% true and free of spin or bias (and, given Egnor’s rants about eugenics and “Darwinism,” I wouldn’t take his word on it without checking), he’s still wrong. We do know something about the designers of the Antikythera mechanism. We know that, at the very least, it was human beings who designed and built it. Being human beings ourselves, we can infer a lot about how they thought and what they thought, as well as the limitations of what they could and could not do do. That we don’t know who designed this device or how does not change the fact that we know a lot about who did design it just on the basis of knowing that it must have been members of the same species as ourselves–human beings; that is, unless Dr. Egnor is going to claim that extraterrestrials actually built the Antikythera mechanism. The problem is, there are references in ancient literature to similar (but not the same) devices–in other words, another line of evidence about the “designers” of the mechanism.

The stupid, it burns–maybe enough to scar my face to the point where a Doctor Doom or Galactus mask might not be such a bad idea. In any case, this was strike one.

But Dr. Egnor is not finished, not by a long shot. His second strike was yet another invocation of eugenics as being due to the dreaded “Darwinism”. This one was almost caught by the third baseman, but barely made it out of reach into the stands. I really don’t want to belabor this one, as I’ve addressed this idiocy before.

With two strikes, most batters would become very cautious, but not our Dr. Egnor. Oh, no. He steps boldly into the batter’s box, totally undeterred, and lays down what is arguably the stupidest argument that he has yet to have presented, and, given the already amazingly low level of his arguments to this point, that’s saying something. He accomplishes this by arguing about an area that, one would think, is an area of his expertise as a neurosurgeon: the brain. In this case, Dr. Egnor cannot conceive of how behaviors such as altruism could have evolved or, indeed, could even result from the action of just the substance of the brain alone. The basic question behind his blather is reasonable (namely, Is the material substance of the brain sufficient to account for the mind?), but the way he goes about addressing it is, alas, every bit as chock full of appeals to supernaturalism that we’ve come to expect from our creationist neurosurgeon. Get a load of his “reasoning”:

The brain is a material substance. It has location, dimensions, weight, temperature, and energy. It also has parts; it has a superior surface, a medial boundary, a left side and a right side. As such, it can interact with other things that have similar properties- things that have matter and parts and energy. A region of the brain can cause action potentials, or movements of the arm. Oxygen molecules, barbiturate molecules, electrons, or a hammer can, in turn, affect the brain.

Altruism, in contrast, has no matter or energy. It has no ‘location’, no weight, no dimension, no temperature. It has no properties of matter. Altruism entails things like purpose and judgment, which aren’t material. Altruism has no parts, in the sense that there is a ‘left-side’ of altruism and a ‘right side’ of altruism. There are, of course, left sided and right sided parts of the brain, which may be associated with acts of altruism, but there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to altruism itself. Of course, objects (like human brains or bodies) that have location, weight, etc. can mediate or carry out altruistic acts, but the altruism itself doesn’t have a location. Altruism isn’t spatial. ‘My altruism is three inches from the edge of the table’ is a nonsensical statement.

This is just plain ridiculous. As our understanding of brain chemistry and structure have become more sophisticated, we have found out how injury and biochemical alterations can result in alterations in behaviors. MarkH is very correct to liken this egnortainment to what I at one time termed “Chopra-woo.” In the case of Deepak Chopra, the additional “spark” of consciousness arises from some mystical “universal consciousness.” Don’t believe me? Check out Chopra’s latest woo in two parts with more promised, which MarkH has nicely trounced. Truly Dr. Egnor is channeling Deepak Chopra. Read Egnor’s piece and the two referenced pieces side-by-side, and you’ll see what I mean.

In the case of Dr. Egnor, who is a conservative Catholic, presumably this “spark” must be the soul placed in the brain by God. Maybe it is God; maybe not, but even one does attribute the design of the brain to God, it must be acknowledged that He made it with definite structural and chemical changes that alter thoughts, behavior, and mood. PZ Myers quite correctly brings up the example of Phineas Gage, a man who developed a frontal lobe lesion and as a result lost self-control and sociability. He became less altruistic and thought only of himself. Neurologist Dr. Steve Novella points out that there are numerous ways that brain damage or loss of function of specific parts of the brain can lead to alterations in personality, in who a person is. Indeed, the entire basis of psychiatry is that the chemistry of the brain causes behavior, and that disorders of that chemistry can result in disorders of mood and thinking, such as depression or schizophrenia. He points to the example of Alzheimer’s disease, where a patient’s memory and personality fade away as the disease progresses and more and more neurons die. Moreover, pharmacological intervention, which is based entirely on “materialistic” principles of altering brain chemistry, is quite effective at treating such disorders. If there weren’t a physical/chemical link between the “matter” of the brain and our thoughts, these drugs would have no basis to work, nor would the spiritual quests of various mystics throughout the centuries, who sought to alter their brain chemistry, the better to experience God or the transcendent.

Peyote, anyone?

Moreover, Dr. Egnor neglects that concepts such as “altruism” are constructs. They’re human ideas or models that describe a set of behaviors. The term “altruism” is nothing more than a convenient way to describing how human beings have a universal tendency to help each other. As such, there clearly is a physical link between the physical “meat” of the mind and the behavior that is observed, namely altruism. However, perhaps the most damning argument against Egnor’s thesis is that this same type of behavior, altruism, is observed in animals. Presumably, Dr. Egnor’s main complaint about neuroscientists seeking “materialistic” causes for altruism is that he thinks there is a nonmaterial cause, presumably the human soul. However, in Dr. Egnor’s own Catholic religion, which I, too, was raised in, animals are considered not to possess souls. If creatures without a soul can demonstrate altruism, then clearly a soul is not necessary for altruism, implying that brain chemistry alone is most likely sufficient to explain altruistic behavior. The same could be said for some forms of reasoning and problem-solving. Certainly nonhuman primates are able to engage in some forms of abstract reasoning. Even dogs show a level of problem-solving skills around the level of a 2-3 year old human and can understand object permanence. Indeed, recent work shows that dogs can even do more sophisticated forms of deduction. By Dr. Egnor’s own criteria, reason and problem-solving are “immaterial” just as altruism is, yet “soul-less” animals can apparently engage in surprisingly sophisticated forms of reasoning not unlike that of humans.

Believe it or not, though, after that astoundingly bad argument, not content with devolving into Deepak Chopra, after having turned on the stupid, Dr. Egnor couldn’t resist cranking the stupid up to 11:

The remarkable thing about materialistic neuroscience, as applied to the study of the mind-brain problem, is how unscientific it is. Scientific materialism as a method in science intrinsically requires that a material cause and its effect share properties that link the cause to the effect. Materialistic scientists rightfully scorn pseudoscience like telekinesis, yet the view that ideas are caused by brain matter is merely a mirror image of the claims made on behalf of telekinesis. We know that Uri Geller can’t really bend a spoon just by thinking about it, because the thought ‘I’m bending this spoon’ and the spoon itself share no properties in common. They’re not connected. But the disconnection between matter and thought works both ways. It makes no more sense to assert that matter alone ‘moves’ ideas than it makes sense to assert that ideas alone move matter.

Strike three! As a skeptic, I found that last paragraph particularly painful to have read. I really think I should forward this one to The Amazing Randi. I suspect he’d have some fun with it; that is, if he didn’t burst an aneurysm first. On second thought, maybe I won’t send it to Randi. In any case, I’m surprised that PZ or MarkH didn’t pick up on this last remark, because to me it’s the juiciest tidbit of egnoratainment in the entire article!

Talk about a straw man! Can Dr. Egnor really be so clueless that he can’t figure out that the reason we dismiss claims of telekinesis is because there is no plausible biological or physical mechanism for Uri Geller to bend spoons? The human brain doesn’t generate enough energy to do it by any sort of electromagnetic means. There is no physical interface between the spoon and the electrochemical activity of the brain to account for it. Moreover, time and time again James Randi has shown that it’s nothing more than a clever magic trick. Worse, Dr. Egnor conflates a material object (a spoon) with no plausible scientific interface between it and the brain with an immaterial thing (thoughts) that clearly could derive from the chemical activity of the brain. That we do not yet understand how the chemical activity of the brain produces thoughts does not make it implausible that they do; in fact, it’s the most reasonable explanation presently available. There’s no need to invoke some “immaterial” supernatural force. The only point where Egnor’s not totally off the deep end is when he ridicules the term “emergence” as an explanation of how the brain might produce consciousness. It is true that the term is sometimes used as a hand-waving pseudoexplanation for something that science just doesn’t understand yet. But it’s a far better explanation, scientifically speaking, than Dr. Egnor’s. The question of what causes our consciousness is a profound and difficult question, but Dr. Egnor’s “soul of the gaps” concept in attacking the neuroscience of consciousness is no different from the typical “God of the gaps” argument beloved of creationists everywhere when attacking evolution.

As Dr. Egnor tries to run around the bases, not accepting that he has struck out, frantically pursued by the umpires and security, I’ll take this opportunity to reassure you, my readers, that I’ll try my best to provide another suitable Egnor-free interval on the blog. In the meantime, I’m on the hunt for a masks like the ones below, because even going with the flow and appreciating egnortainment when it comes my way has nonetheless provoked an acute sense of shame in me.

I wonder what part of my brain is responsible for that?

i-bded2990b8be395e0393b4f58aaeb73f-doom.jpg i-b13a0ff4d760083088e1b947c45ff4da-galactus3.jpg

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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