I’ve been looking for a way to fit in another post about Intelligent Design and the Discovery Institute, that has something to do with astronomy, and maybe have an opportunity to point out why Casey Luskin‘s rants on their podcast are really incredibly ignorant.
And today’s “ID the Future” podcast on “Materialist Science Fiction at a Public Library” provides me with just that opportunity. Oh, and it also gives me the opportunity to somewhat defend libraries, since I used to work at one I know something about them.
The Claims – An Overview
The paragraph description for this episode of ID the Future is:
On this episode of ID the Future, Casey Luskin examines the lame materialist science fiction being promoted to students at a local public library. With wild speculations on the existence of life outside our planet based on the idea that life just takes a “bing” and some interstellar chemicals, this book should be not on reference shelves, but in the science fiction section. Listen in as Luskin lays a Dewey decimal smackdown on Life on Other Planets.
Right off the bat, you can tell that this episode is not going to a nice, unbiased review of a book, given the language “Dewey decimal smackdown” as well as “lame materialist science.” Having worked at a library before AND being an astronomer, though, I was somewhat interested to see how these folks were going to formulate their complaints. So I listened to the ~5-minute episode.
The bulk of the episode focuses on numerous ad hominem attacks (attacks based on denegrating someone or something’s character in order to get you to be adverse to believing them) against the book in question, Life on Other Planets. The actual meat of Luskin’s arguments focus on his belief (yes, belief) that information cannot be naturally created inside a cell, that an external intelligence must have put it there. I’m not actually going to address that claim, though, since I am not a biologist.
I will address his claims about extra-terrestrial life and the SETI project.
But, before I get there, I would like to resort to my own little ad hominem attack …
Casey Luskin Doesn’t Know What a Childrens’ Book Is
In the podcast, about 40 seconds in, Luskin gives his own little overview of the book. He states, “The title page featured little green men with big alien bug-eyes, the kind of pictures you might see on some nutty UFO website.”
Okay, I looked at the book. You can view it for yourself on Amazon (it’s “Look Inside!” feature). Luskin plainly doesn’t know the difference between a Title Page (the page inside most books that has the – you guessed it – title!) from the Table of Contents (the page or pages inside most books that have the … contents!). In fact, that picture of aliens is quite clearly ON the page labeled, “Contents.”
But I digress.
Casey then states, “The book and its display were clearly aimed at students, perhaps junior high or high school aged.”
Perhaps it’s been a few years since he was in grade school. Perhaps he doesn’t remember quite what age-appropriate literature would be. Or perhaps he went to a school system that separated grades differently. Where I went to school, “junior high” was grades 6-8, and “high school” was grades 9-12. That would be ages 12-18.
The book is fairly clearly for a younger audience. You can tell that simply from the print size, the spacing between words, and the spacing between lines. In addition, Amazon fairly clearly states on their website: “Reading level: Ages 9-12.” Casey, that would be elementary school.
Besides this, if you look at the copyright page (that would be the page with the copyright information, Casey), the Library of Congress cataloging information clearly states, “Juvenile literature.” Not “Young adult” literature (the new term for that junior and high school level of reading).
You may think that I’m nit-picking here. Perhaps I am. But I am sure that I am not alone that when I think of “high school” material I think of reasonably in-depth information, and lots of good science. But when I think of “elementary school” material, I think of big print, lots of pretty pictures, and simpler prose to try to get children interested in science. The science should still be there and it should be accurate, but it can – and should – take on a different form for that age level.
Moving Along … A Problem with “Bing!”
This is where the age-appropriate language really comes into play and where Casey makes much ado about nothing. At 2 min 20 sec into the podcast, Casey is quoting from the book: “‘Put some common interstellar chemicals in a cold chamber with no air, zap it with radiation, and bing! you’ve got a protocell.'” (I don’t know the exact punctuation because Amazon doesn’t happen to have that page available for online viewing.)
From 2 min 25 sec through the next 10 seconds, and then for an additional 10 seconds later on, Casey harps on the “bing” language. That’s about 20 seconds. In a podcast with 5 minutes of material, that’s at least 6% of the time devoted to one word.
And I agree. “Bing!” should not be used in literature for high schoolers. They would roll their eyes and no longer pay any attention to it. But for children in grades 3-5, that language is fully appropriate, and inserting fun words like that can help keep them interested. Again, this is why Luskin’s inability to properly judge the target age of the book is an important part of his argument, and why I feel the need to point it out.
The Crux of the SETI Claims
Casey makes a rather large deal (at about 3 min 45 sec) about SETI’s purpose, and that, “SETI researchers are trying to find signals that imply an intelligent source.”
I’m not really surprised that he discusses this for awhile because that’s really what Discovery Institute researchers supposedly do: They try to look at biological systems and say that they could not have been constructed naturally so they must have been constructed by an intelligence. That’s where they stop. They don’t try to find out how those systems may have arisen naturally. In fact, they purposefully ignore studies that have shown how they evolve naturally, such as their bread and butter, the bacterial flagellum (which is a straw man since there isn’t “the” bacterial flagellum, there are many different kinds) or the mammalian eye.
SETI scientists, however, do look for signals that astronomers think (not believe) could not have been made from a natural source. And if they were found, there would be hundreds if not thousands of scientists debating the claims and trying to figure out a way that they could have been made naturally. And in the true nature of science, a consensus would eventually come out that would determine, in light of the evidence, whether that signal is made by artificial or natural means.
For example … in the 1960s, detectors were built and, when they were turned on, a very regular, very fast pulsing signal was discovered. This signal was found in other locations in the sky, with different pulsing rates and different intensities. But each time, it was incredibly regular, and often times incredibly rapid (such as over 1000 times per second). It was believed that this signal was artificial in nature because people couldn’t figure out how it could be made naturally. In fact, they were given the nickname of “LGM,” short for “Little Green Men.” Astronomers did not publically conclude that these were actually aliens. Even those that thought they were aliens tried to poke holes at the idea and really figure out what else they could be. And they certainly didn’t try to get it put into science text books that these were alien signals.
We now call these objects “pulsars,” which are collapsed, dead, massive stars about the diameter of Manhattan island, that rotate very quickly and beam radiation into space at the frequency that they rotate. If we had just stopped at, “It’s little green men, let’s try to communicate with them” instead of trying to figure out what else they could be, then we may not have ever really discovered this important – and useful – class of astronomical objects.
The same thing would happen if SETI found a signal that it believed was artificial. And we may discover a new class of natural object, but we may also have found ET life. For example, if it finds a signal that pulses the Fibonacci Sequence at us up to 100 (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89) or prime numbers up to 100, then it would be fairly difficult to conceive of a natural object that could do this.
Defending Libraries: Casey Luskin’s Ignorance of Classification
Luskin spends his last 40 seconds in the podcast in what I would literally consider a rant:
Perhaps the folks at this library could have used a little prodding from Conan [the Librarian]. Despite the patent over-statements and blatently false over-simplifications of Origin of Life Research in this book, the Dewey Decimal call number for Life on Other Planets was 576.8, or Life Sciences – Genetics & Evolution. In my view, if you’re going to market these kinds of false speculations to kids, better forewarn them by classifying the book in the 800s, Fiction.
There are two (main) things wrong with this:
(1) Libraries Don’t Really Choose the Dewey Number: Casey has a false premise here that individual library systems can just go around choosing their own Dewey number for books. That is false. In all books, at least those printed in the US, on the Copyright page there will be Library of Congress Cataloging Information. It will specify all of the information required for cataloging the book by libraries, and it will give a Library of Congress -assigned Dewey number. This book’s is 576.8’39, the ‘ meaning that numbers after it are only used in MASSIVE library systems that require further categorization. It also has the Library of Congress catalog system classification, QB54.D66 2003 for this book. That’s where the book will appear in any and pretty much all libraries.
(2) 800s are NOT for Fiction: Even in Casey’s rant and his attempt at a joke, he messes up. The Dewey system does not catalog works of fiction. Those are found in any library by subject (such as Mysteries, Science Fiction, Poetry, etc.). The Dewey 800s are used for Literature. In other words, famous and important, historical or contextual work that has something more to offer than just a good story. For example, Shakespeare has a Dewey number (822.33). Or Edgar Allen Poe (811.3). You will find William Shatner’s latest Star Trek fan fiction in the Fiction section, not under a Dewey number.
Alright, this post is a lot longer than I originally intended it to be. I apologize for that, but it was good to get it out of my system. I’ve listened to ID The Future podcast for so long that it’s nice to finally be able to do a blog post on Casey Luskin’s factual errors, ignorance, and distortion of the truth:
(1) He doesn’t realize the age level for this book, leading to skewed interpretations of age-appropriate language.
(2) He doesn’t know the difference between a Title page and a Contents page.
(3) He doesn’t know how library books are cataloged by Dewey number.
(4) He doesn’t know where Fiction goes in a library.
(5) He doesn’t realize how the scientific process works in terms of SETI’s search for a “signal that contains information.”
(6) He rants about how a childrens’ science book doesn’t claim that an intelligence is required to create life.