Catalytic reporting

An Australian science show flags its bias

by guest columnist Andrew Rigg, and Jonathan Sarfati CMI–Australia

2 November 2005

The flagship science show of the Australian public broadcaster, the taxpayer-funded ABC television, is called Catalyst. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that accelerates a reaction. Watching its overtly subjective coverage of the current debate over Intelligent Design (ID) certainly accelerated a reaction in us!

Atheistic Skeptic fronts program

ID has been in the media spotlight for some months—and not just in the USA. The ABC has had a history of anti-Christianity (see Atheists Blast Christianity), and they were true to form here. This Australian story, aired on 20 October, was presented by the ABC’s resident palaeontologist, science communicator and Skeptic of the Year award recipient, Dr Paul Willis.

Paul Willis himself is no stranger to the ID/Creation–Evolution debate. He has spoken out against ‘creationism’ on ABC television and radio for years and in public forums such as a 2003 debate in Brisbane, Queensland, where he faced off against the president of CMI–Australia, Dr Carl Wieland. CMI has marketed the DVD of the debate, while although the Skeptics claimed victory, they have declined the opportunity—perhaps not surprisingly.

Not surprisingly, the ID topic was covered in an unsophisticated and shallow way that failed to deal with any of the real challenges against Darwin’s version of events.

On the pro-ID side, Willis interviewed the principal of a Christian high school, already allowing ID to be taught alongside evolution in his school’s science classes, as well as a key promoter of the ID theory, molecular biologist Michael Behe, from Lehigh University in the USA.

In all, Willis spent little more than a minute in total with these two, ensuring that their theistic bias was clearly highlighted, and dealing with only minor surface details of the theory in question.

However, on the anti-ID team Willis unveiled a relative ‘who’s who’ of Australians opposed to biblical creation and outspoken materialists. These included atheist and humanist propagandist Professor Mike Archer from the University of New South Wales, and Paul Davies from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at Macquarie University in Sydney.

While Willis ensured the ideological biases of the ID proponents were clear, he kept those of his anti-ID subjects well under wraps.

Archer vs design

Professor Archer, Willis’ first subject on the pro-evolution side, is a well-known member of the Australian Skeptics. He is an Honorary Associate of Rationalist International, an international atheist/humanist organisation,1 and the recipient of the 1998 Australian Skeptic of the Year award from the Australian Skeptics.2

For those not familiar with the Skeptics, they are a group renowned for their anti-Christian and antibiblical grandstanding (see How Religiously Neutral are the Anti-Creationist Organisations? and The Skeptics and their ‘Churchian’ Allies). In their extensive catalogue of around 280 topics, entitled, ‘what we are sceptical of’, the Skeptics list ‘Biblical Literalism’, ‘Jesus’ (which should make one question the genuineness of the faith of professed Christians prominent in this crowd), and ‘Original Sin’.3 They recently debated CMI–Australia (see this page), and even many of their fellow anti-creationists thought they lost hands down.

As far as Archer is concerned, he is a paleontologist who demonstrates his atheistic bias and demonstrable incompetence in science outside his field and in logic (see Dr Michael Archer, local ringleader for examples). In this case, Catalyst absurdly cites him as an authority on microbiology/biochemistry, a blatant (but fallacious) appeal to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) Archer claimed:

‘What we know for example is that it doesn’t require as he claims 40 unique proteins to make this whole thing work there are many other kinds of bacteria out there that have flagella and they have far fewer than that. So it’s already reducible.’

The most charitable way of explaining why he misconstrues Behe’s argument (for explanation, see Life is too complex) is that Archer, having no qualifications in the field, simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. 

It is irrelevant whether some bacteria function with less than 40 proteins; the claim is that at least 30 are new, and must be assembled in the right way.

Elsewhere, Archer has claimed that the flagellum might have evolved from the TTSS secretory systems of some bacteria that he described as ‘delivery tubes for punching toxins into other bacteria’, undoubtedly parroting Kenneth Miller.

Scott Minnich, one of the world’s leading experts on the flagellum (and who cuttingly states that Miller has no experience with it) points out that the flagellum has many new components that the secretory apparatus doesn’t have, and that the latter must have DEvolved from the flagellum. The flagellum assembly mechanism is designed to punch out the proteins required for the flagellum in a very orderly way. If this is disabled, it can punch out proteins (including toxins) in a haphazard way.

Paul Davies bluffs again

Leading up to the interview with Paul Davies (a well-known physicist and author), Willis, as the narrator, says that:

‘According to ID, even the simplest cell is so complex, it must have been designed from scratch.

‘But Professor Paul Davies at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology disagrees.’

In an edited response, Davies (while not disagreeing that a cell is immensely complex) does not offer anything other than a statement of faith in the future. He says:

‘We may never have all the details but I’m sure that there is a physical pathway leading from a mixture of mindless molecules to something as wonderful as a simple living cell. I don’t know what that pathway is. I don’t believe anyone else does at this stage, but that doesn’t mean it was a miracle just because this is a big gap in our understanding’4 [Emphasis added].

See Quantum leap of faith as an example of how Davies tries to bluff with quantum mechanics. In a recent Nature article5 he continues in the same vein. He admits that ‘the origin of life remains one of the great outstanding mysteries of science’. Once more, his vague idea (without specifics) is that ‘quantum mechanics’ will somehow ‘solve the riddle of life’. But no matter how sophisticated the language, this is nothing but the purest bluff and bluster.

In reality, everything known about QM actually reinforces Davies’ pessimism about finding a non-creation explanation for life—QM explains the chemical reactions which we already know move away from life, relentlessly degrading it (see Origin of Life Q&A).6 His speculative ‘quantum leap’ is really a massive ‘quantum bluff’.7

Philosopher of science

Willis then interviews philosopher of science Rachel Ankeny. He asks her to provide a definition of science; he then asks her if evolution fits this definition. Surprise, surprise, she answers, ‘Yes.’ Then he asks:

‘Patterns found in nature are tests of the theory that life has evolved. But can Intelligent Design be tested?’

Ankeny answers:

‘Intelligent design isn’t testable in the way that we normally think about scientific hypotheses being testable. They don’t provide the details by which that design happened because they couldn’t. They couldn’t possibly show us the designer.’

What Willis and Ankeny don’t do is to even attempt to give the arguments from design that are used by creationists and ID theorists, e.g. Dembski’s The Divine Inference, published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press, 1998. Willis fails to even mention one of the key scientific components of the ID argument, namely information theory. And he pays only lip service to another key argument, irreducible complexity.

But Willis’ story reaches its resounding climax with the definitive claim that Intelligent Design is ‘not science’ (and by definition, therefore, biblical creation no more so) and therefore should not be taught in schools or given equal hearing with Darwin’s theory.

Not religion vs science but religion vs religion

Of course, the real difference between ID/creation and evolution lies in the ideological starting points of the theories’ respective proponents (see also Evolution & creation, science & religion, facts & bias). See

As can be clearly seen by Willis’s own blatant atheistic bias, and the atheistic biases of at least two of his interviewees, he has a prior commitment to secular humanism. He is clearly not an impartial journalist building an objective report on the real issues surrounding the debate.

At the end of the day, the Australian public has again been served a sugar-filled spoonful of one-sided rhetoric by a number of Australia’s leading humanist practitioners, masquerading as objective rational scientists, and funded by taxpayers. Don’t be shy about revealing the religious biases of Willis, Archer and friends. To settle on the truth, the whole story needs to be told. After all, Willis would have no hesitation in revealing your religious beliefs (or at least a caricature of them) if you happened to disagree with him on this or any related issue.

Published: 12 February 2006

References and notes

  1. <www.rationalistinternational.net/archive/en/rationalist_2000/57.htm>. Return to text.
  2. <www.skeptics.com.au/spoon/1998winners.htm>. Return to text.
  3. <www.skeptics.com.au/about/skeptics/overview.htm>. Return to text.
  4. <www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1486827.htm>. Return to text.
  5. A Quantum Recipe for Life, Nature 437:819, 6 October 2005. Return to text.
  6. E.g. QM explains the energy levels of molecular orbitals, and how the overall energy is lower in the monomers, the single units, rather than polymers (long-chain molecules) plus water. Hence the polymers will tend to degrade to simpler units, not the other way around. Return to text.
  7. Wieland, C. and Sarfati, J., Quantum bluff, Creation 28, 2006 (in press). Return to text.