Monday, 22 October 2007

Meeting Prof. McIntosh, free speech and the nature of "truth" in science as opposed to "Truth in Science".


Today I used up a precious half day from my meagre annual holiday allowance to go and see Andrew C. McIntosh DSc FIMA CMath FEI CEng DInstP MIGEM FRAeS professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory from Leeds University who was giving a talk called "God is Real. Hasn't science disproved him?" sorry "Him?", at York University Christian Union.

This was the first chance I have ever had to see someone locally espouse creationist views and perhaps even making some scientific claims I could look into.

I would like to be absolutely clear in this piece from the outset and confirm that I don't believe in god. Having said that I do believe that kids in the UK school system should be taught about a range of religions, they play a huge role in the world today after all. I also believe in freedom of speech and so I would defend Prof. McIntosh's rights to hold and espouse his views. Yes I mean it.

If the UK government was ousted by a junta which outlawed all religion and curtailed free speech then I would be a member of the underground resistance, struggling alongside Prof. McIntosh and Prof. Dawkins - yes I have read Dawkins' views on freedom of speech so I am confident this would be the case. If this surprises you then perhaps you have listened to people telling you what Dawkins thinks rather than reading Dawkins for yourself.

However in my dangerous, romantic and entirely theoretical armed struggle, I would perhaps go further than many religious folk in the fight for freedom. After all I include in my definiton of free speech the right to tell jokes and be disrespectful. "Motoons and Islam" and "Jerry Springer Opera and Christianity" are two examples of situations where my stand for free speech would put me in direct opposition to some people of faith.

Anyway, why do have I such an interest in McIntosh as to give up part of my annual leave to go and listen to him?

Well the thing is, I care about my kids education.

Prof. McIntosh is the chap who signed the letter from "Truth In Science" sent to all UK schools and colleges with some extremely professionally produced creationist DVD's. If this material was used in science classes then at best the kids would be confused and waste some time in class working out the logical fallacies and distortions it contained or at worst these would not have been picked up and crucial exam marks would have been lost, perhaps the difference between one grade and the next. His letter did in fact claimed the materials were part of the curriculum and suitable for use in science classes when actually they are neither. The letter also included other distortions of fact. McIntosh is a Director of "Truth in Science".

So, I care about my kid's education and Prof. McIntosh effectively tried to sabotage my sons Biology studies, and this is what got me interested in the whole creationism issue.

I have blogged about this issue often both here in my personal blog and in my single issue blog Truth in Science Revealed.

I subscribe to many science based organisations on the web, I am a forum member at Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (although more of a lurker than a poster) and a member of the British Centre for Science Education which is a single issue, voluntary, membership based organisation which has built up quite a comprehensive database of information on this issue and the main creationist proponents and activities here in the UK.

The BCSE site is here.

I was recently asked to join the committee at the BCSE and was very pleased to accept and to do my bit. I try to spread the word about the threat to science teaching as this is quite literally, in the creationists own words, the thin end of the wedge. The infamous "wedge document" was discussed here.

Their ultimate intention is to replace science with religion. This threatens scientific research and ultimately jeopardises the many ways in which the UK benefits from a strong science education system. Benefits ranging from industrial and economic advantage in the world and the rewards that each of us reap in terms of medical care and technological development.

So now the scene is set, you know my motives, and the reasons why I decided to go and see him for myself.

His talk was to a Christian Union group at the University of York, so in my view he can talk about whatever he wants. Of course, this means I can also talk about it here and I can point out for you where he was making statements which were untrue, there were several, so you can see for yourself.

I will try to draw some personal conclusions about why he says what he says and if he actually believes these claims or not, and I will try to comment on the nature of "truth" in science as well as the nature of "Truth in Science".

In this post I will cover both his talk ( I took detailed notes ), and the chat I had with him afterwards which was very nearly, very informative.

Here are my notes on his talk.

- - -

The Talk

There were 41 people in the audience including myself, most were student aged with a couple of older blokes near the front not far from me and one other "slightly more mature than a student" looking chap in the middle of the audience. It turned out at the end that the questions would come from these older folks with just one question from a student.

The lecture hall holds up to about two hundred, but despite this and the small size of the turnout, the student who introduced McIntosh started by saying how good it was to see so many people here today. I wonder how many they usually get?

The talk was then introduced as "About the question of whether or not Christianity and Science can coexist." Strangely enough this wasn't covered.

McIntosh started with a joke about the blackboard being full of polar co-ordinates calculations and that being his home territory in his day job i.e. a Professor of Thermodynamics.

Next he laid out the structure for the talk;

• Science & God
• Science Today
• Interpreting the Evidence
• 4 questions.

Just a quick note about my notes. I made them as he spoke and so they are not always word for word quotes. He would often chat around a sentence and say it again a few different ways, and so in cases like these I will just give you the essence of what he said. If I am quoting him directly I will say so. If I am quoting from one of his slides I will preface the sentence with, you guessed it, "slide";
  • Science must be testable. I am not a biologist, but so must be evolutionary theory[testable].
  • Science can only operate in the physical word but God is essentially non-physical. God is also all powerful and able to interact with the physical world.
  • I believe in the bible, that is the pre-supposition I bring to the evidence. We all have some kind of presupposition and that is mine.
  • It is reasonable to be a scientist and believe in god.
I agree with the first and last points. With regard to the second part of the third point it is worth bearing in mind that science spends an awful lot of time making sure that results are free of bias.
  • Scientific Theory - because it has to be testable and because it only relates to the physical world science has boundaries beyond which no definitive claim can be made.
OK - but that's rather turning things around a little. Science is a way of testing claims. Put it this way - can science prove god does not exist? No. It doesn't claim to either - even Dawkins does not make this claim.

  • Slide; "In the study of origins, it is not the realm of science to discount the possibility of the Outsider revealing himself"
  • I don't see enough humility in science today.

Well actually, science can include or exclude anything it likes that makes claims on the physical word, it can do this because it just follows the evidence wherever it may lead. Lets hope we see some today.

He will return to this theme later on. I think this may give us some clues about a possible future tactic for the creationists, i.e. "our explanation also explains the evidence therefore it should be taught in science classes". I will return to this later.

We then had some Venn diagrams with the "whole of creation" equalling the "physical world" in science today and then his suggestion that the physical world should just be a subset of the "whole of creation".
  • Slide; "Science today is built on atheistic humanism - it is this underlying philosophy which will attempt to evade God"
  • Today I strongly contest the claim that science makes which is there is no design in the universe at the very beginning.
He should try claiming that to the many scientists who are people of faith and see what reaction he gets. There are several in the BCSE for instance, or alternatively he should try telling that to the many moderate people of faith out there who support science as a way of exploring god's universe.

He needs to create this false idea that "science is atheist" because that is how he explains the fact that science rejects his claims. The only alternative for him would be to admit that science rejects his claims because they are nonsense.

Next he turned to the "evidence" bit of his talk.
  • Really this is all about the Theory of Evolution. I contend that all living organisms descend from basic kinds which were created a few thousand years ago with all the genetic information for all the variations seen in the past and today.
The "kinds" bit is straight out of genesis.

Next he surprised me by plugging a selection of creationist books including Genesis of Today, Hallmarks of Design and Darwins Black Box rather than talking about any evidence.
  • I want to clarify that when I talk about the evidence against evolution I mean macro evolution and not variations within a kind.
  • This is Young Earth Creationism. I lean towards it and I am open about that.
  • Slide; "Creationism is open to the Outsider" but "Evolution means that man decides the rules"
So he wants the "rules" to be set by his interpretation of the bible instead of by society. Very clear, but not a lot to do with evolution which he just said this was all about.
  • Slide; "Creationism = In the beginning . . ." but "Evolution means that everything happened by chance"
  • I want to be fair and explain that that is not strictly what evolutionist claim. Natural selection on random mutations is well understood and accepted.
OK he cedes part of evolution theory and fits it into his "kinds" idea from Genesis. He accepts natural selection but implies it can only work within these "kinds". He gives no reasons or evidence why we might see this is true, other than the fact it is in the bible.
  • Slide; "Molecules to Men"
  • I don't accept this.
No logical reasons or evidence to back this up were given.
  • Ancient quotes about god from Faraday from the nineteenth century.
  • Quote; Chandrawickramasinghe from 1982 on the argument from improbability.
  • Quote; Watson in Nature in 1929.
  • Quote; Phillip Johnson in Darwin on trial in 1991.
Note to self - where is the evidence? Science doesn't work by authority it works by evidence. Some of Einstein's ideas are rejected by science because they don't fit the evidence. He is just listing authority figures, and they are not even all scientist authority figures, Phillip Johnson is a Lawyer.
  • He next claims that the ID proponents were not claiming that just because something looks design it was.
Excuse me - that is exactly what they were arguing. Later on in this very lecture he will do precisely this himself.
  • But it is wrong to dismiss that things could have been designed.
Well that depends - science can quite easily dismiss that if you have no evidence, in fact that is what science does - dismiss things that have no evidence to support them. Where is the evidence. Science dismissed Astrology as an alternative explanation of psychology, flat earth geology and feng shui. These all claim to be alternative explanations that explain the phenomenon we see around us but they are rejected because they have no supporting evidence. Exactly the same rules apply to his claims of design - show us your evidence. Another point that rather undermines this whole question anyway is the fact that the Theory of Evolution produces design, so he needs to show a difference between "god design" and "the Theory of Evolution design" as well as the evidence to support this claim.

He next got slightly confused ( and I was able to clarify this for him later ) and claimed that it was the EU who had passed a resolution "to not allow it [creationism] to be discussed". ( actually it was the Council of Europe )

This is not true. Government guidelines tell teachers not to teach it and give them guidelines on how to discuss it if it crops up. It is part of the national Curriculum for RE. I challenged him about this after the talk.
  • Slide; Picture of Mount Rushmore - and the argument from design i.e. it looks designed so it is.
  • Codes and order come from intelligence.
This is his key claim and he gave no evidence to back it up other than a picture of Mount Rushmore. Just assertions. Nothing else. Despite the fact he claimed not five minutes before that ID proponents don't do this.

Next comes one of the more extreme claims from his whole speech;
  • It is people on the creationist side of the debate who want to look at the whole evidence, it is others who do not.
Still no evidence yet.
  • I am not afraid of natural selection - you can change a breed by artificial selection as well but you will never get a Great Dane from a Pekinese.
No reasons were given for this limit on evolution. Just more assertions.
  • We won't have time to cover this in detail but I would just say from my own discipline; "Thermodynamically you can't make new machines that are not there already. It is impossible."
No reasons given. No supporting evidence. He did refer to his clash with Dawkins on NI radio several months ago where Dawkins called him to account for this.
  • Next we will turn to the evidence. Now there are evolutionary explanations for this but I want you to be exposed to the evidence.
  • Birds have a different muscle system for operating their wings. They have a pulley system which allows two muscles to be used to lift their humerus bones.
No other comment or claim that it could not have evolved. How exactly is this evidence?
  • Birds Breathing; we have a end flow mass exchange system whereas the birds have a contra-flow mass exchange system where the air never stops.
Now here he did specifically claim that birds lungs are not evolvable. He said this was because any system part way between the two would stop the bird from breathing. At last a clear evidential claim in support of his case. This is also a new claim to me, I look forward to delving into this to see what I can learn.

But only a few minutes on the net reveal several published papers about this and even a layman's explanation of how this could happen. Can McIntosh really not know about any of this? Is he truly ignorant of such simple answers to his claims to "impossible"? Or does he know? He offered me his card afterwards and so I will write and ask him about this.

My brief research turned up this answer to his claims that birds lungs can't possibly evolve; it is a possible evolutionary pathway:
  • Initially birds evolve to breathe by expanding/contracting the air sacs rather than the lungs: this is beneficial because it frees the cycle of breathing from the beat pattern of the winds.
  • Valves evolve at the front of the lung allowing air out but not in, meaning that air now follows a more circular path with less mixing with used air. This is directly beneficial in terms of oxygen requirements.
  • More valves evolve at the back of the lung to keep the air more efficently in the lungs during their contraction phase.
  • This system resembles the modern one, we have respiration drawing air into the posterior air sacs and then pushing them through the lungs. However the air is not yet being cleared from the lungs so some efficency is lost in mixing.
  • The development of anterior air sacs helps by pulling the used air out as the fresh air comes in, their placement naturally allows the used air to be blown out through the forward valve as the sacs contract but mixing will still occur as some will go back the way it came albeit at a reduced level
  • We're now almost there; the final stage is to add more valves to the system to prevent the re-entry of used air into the posterior sacs from the lung and the re-entry of used air from the anterior sacs to the lung. Both these adaptations have immediate benefits in terms of reducing mixing. And the system now naturally switches to the two-stage, unidirectional breathing pattern of modern birds.
This is of course pure speculation, but so is his claim that bird lungs can't evolve. I can't believe he is not even aware of the explanations and he does not mention that the Theory of Evolution has an explanation, he just states that it is impossible.
  • Next up trilobite fossils. Supposedly 4-500 million years old. Eyes are made of calcite.
  • In the Cambrian these creatures suddenly evolved.
  • The eyes produce double images unless they are curved at a particular angle to correct this.
  • Can you believe that they have exactly that shape?
Well yes that's what the Theory of Evolution would predict as well. No mention of this.
Therefore this is totally consistent with design. I know this is not proof it was designed, but it is consistent with the proposal.
Yes I agree, but as covered elsewhere the problem with this claim is that anything and everything is consistent with an omnipotent God. It can explain everything. It is not testable, and so it is not science.
Slide; The Geological column and the claim that complex compound eyes appeared from nowhere.
About 40 minutes had gone by now and his talk was supposed to last 45 mins with 15mins for questions so I only got a brief glimpse of a slide entitled; The Cell - A Miniature City.
  • Old earth or young earth is not the key point here and we don't have time to cover it, the key point is that the oldest fossils are very complicated.
  • Overall I find that evolution is not the most satisfying argument.
  • People often talk of God of the Gaps arguments but creation is exactly the opposite. The Theory of Evolution is trying to fit into the gaps in our knowledge.
  • The reason that the arguments are raging about evolution is because the science says that evolution is wrong.
Breathtaking unsupported assertion. This ignores huge swathes of evidence which support evolution. Huge swathes of independent evidence all of which support evolution and any one of which might not and would therefore show it to be false. Here are some to start you off if you are interested.
  • DNA - a code in every creature
  • Slide; Purpose . . .action . . .code . . .signal
  • DNA has a million times more information density than a computer
  • If I put a frog or a hippo in a blender could I rebuild it? No!
I think that this is funny. Here he makes a claim that has nothing to do with evolution in the first place. But this isn't the funniest thing. The funniest thing is that most of the audience loved this bit. It's not even wrong enough to count as a proper logical fallacy! It's nothing to do with the Theory of Evolution at all. It's simply a non-sequitur

As the faithful chuckled I took the opportunity to look around the room. I could see the two chaps in front of me shaking their heads and the mature-ish chap in the middle of the crowd was looking a bit red in the face. When the gentle chuckling had subsided McIntosh turned to more philosophical subjects;
  • There are three fundamental quantities in the universe;
  • Matter
  • Energy - the materialist reductionist is at fault for limiting us to just these two
  • Information is the third one.
  • The definition of information eludes their definitions.
My ears perked up here - scientists and mathematicians have been challenging creationists to define information in some sensible way for several years now - perhaps I would get a scoop.

Here you go;
  • Information does not equal matter or energy
No it isn't a definition is it - sorry.

- - -

Next he pulls out the bible.

OK now for the Christian Creationist position.
John 1.1 "In the beginning . . ."

- - -


At the end of the talk he was asked several questions which I will quickly cover off;

11,000 Christian ministers in the US have signed a letter supporting evolution and basically saying that your position is one of "embracing ignorance and passing it on to out kids"?

  • He often hears that people of all kinds of philosophies of life, but the point is that they all exclude design as a possible explanation. Oh and by the way the ID folks do good science.
Next was a query asking for clarification about his previous claims about the second Law of Thermodynamics.
  • Information is always linked to machinery and no new information is ever created by evolution. No experiment has ever shown this at all.
This is just nonsense.

Next was a comment that Dembski had admitted an ulterior motive for wanting to push his arguments. In this religious context how do you distinguish one god from another or even from an alien designer?
  • That's another debate altogether - waves bible about.
  • It all comes from this - waves bible about.
  • I believe that people have an innate tendency to do wrong. Only Jesus can save.
Next was Dawkins own ultimate 747 argument - how much more unlikely is a god to arise from nothing.
  • Different rules apply to god. No scientific explanation is required for Him.
No explanation was given as to why this might be so.

- - -


After the talk I approached him and said hello. I asked him what the future plans were for Truth in Science. He said they had plenty of plans but after the furore with the DVD's he couldn't say anything, even to a supporter like me.

I hastily explained that I was not a supporter of his ideas or the actions of TiS.

I pointed out to him that it was the Council of Europe and not the European union he had presumably meant to refer to earlier. He didn't say "oh yes", or "thanks". He just claimed that he had meant them and had in fact actually said them anyway.

I pointed out that no one has banned free speech as he had suggested but that the subject had been ruled out of the science curriculum and guidance notes to discuss creationism, if it should crop up, had been issued. He denied saying that.

I quoted from my notes and even showed them to him. No that isn't what he said. By this time about 6 of his "followers" had gathered around and where all watching the exchange so I turned to them and asked if anyone was doing biology, genetics or any of the life sciences? No.

I asked if they had heard of endogenous retroviruses. Blank looks - no.

I asked him why all the trilobites where low down in the geological column. He said he didn't know.

He claimed that science has no idea how a fish fossilises becasue a dead fish floats you see.

This just took my breath away. We were now joined by about six student supporters of his who were hanging on his every word and laughed at my stupidity at not knowing that dead fish float. You see the only way a fish could possibly have fossilised was if it was killed during Noah's flood, he explained.

Of the dozens of possible holes in this assertion I could of course only reply with one so I went with this;

"Why can't they be fossilised from non-noah floods then?" I asked.

He never answered but said that this question showed that I now accepted that it must take a cataclysm to form fossils.

His audience sniggered.

I tried a couple more times to explain that even if we accept his premise that only floods fossilise fish (which I don't) that even then this doesn't support his conclusion i.e. that it was Noah's flood that created all the fish fossils.

Eventually I just gave up.

Again a few minutes on the web can suggest the following papers which demonstrate how fish are fossilised and why this is not "catastrophe dependent".
  • Briggs, D. E. G. (1995): Experimental Taphonomy. Palaios. vol. 10, pp. 539-550.
  • Briggs, D. E. K. and Crowther, P. R. (1993): Paleobiology: A Synthesis. Oxford Blackwell Scientific Publications, New York.
  • Briggs D. E. G. and Kear, A. J. (1993): Fossilization of Soft Tissue in the Laboratory. Science vol. 259, pp. 1439-1442
  • Briggs D. E .G., Keara, J. A., Martill, D. M., and Wilby, P. R. (1993): Phosphatization of soft-tissue in experiments and fossils. Journal of Geological Society vol. 150, pp. 1035-1038.
  • Dunn, K. A., et al. (1997): Enhancement of Leaf Fossilization Potential by Bacterial Biofilms. Geology, vol. 25, no. 12, pp. 119-1222.
  • Holiday, V. T. (1997) Paleoindian Geoarchaeology of the Southern High Plains. University of Texas Press, Austin. Texas.
  • Maisey, John G. (1991) Fossil forensics. In J. G. Maisey, ed., Santana fossils; an illustrated atlas. T.F.H. Publ.. Neptune City, New Jersey.
  • Seilacher, A., W.-E. Reif, F. Westphal (1985) Sedimentological, ecological and temporal patterns of fossil Lagerstatten. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. B311, pp. 5-24.
  • Trewin, N. H., and Davidson, R. G. (1995) An Early Devonian lake and its associated biota in the Midland Valley of Scotland. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Earth Sciences. vol. 86, Part 4, pp. 233-246.
  • Weeks, L. G. (1953) Environment and Mode of Origin and Facies Relationships of Carbonate Concretions in Shales. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 162-173.
  • Weigelt J. (1989) Recent Vertebrate Carcasses and Their Paleobiological Implications. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.
  • Wilby, P. R., et al. (1996) "Role of Microbial Mats in the Fossilization of Soft Tissues." Geology, vol. 24, pp. 787-790.
Anyway, by this time he had given me a card and asked me for my email address - so I gave it to him.

Round about now a young chap chimed in with the claim that carbon dating is all wrong and that a tree fossilised through layers millions of years apart proved this. McIntosh himself corrected the chap that Carbon dating is only good for much shorter time periods anyway, before I could do this myself.

I asked where and when this tree was found - he didn't know.

McIntosh asked what I did for a living. I replied that I worked in a Bank and confirmed that I was just a curious member of the public when it came to science.

I asked if anyone wanted to continue this debate over the net and to swap email addresses?

Before anyone could answer he asked me who I was representing - I said myself.

He asked if I was a member of any group or organisation so I said yes the BCSE - a mirror of the NCSE in the US.

He went quiet for a moment so I again asked if anyone wanted to swap email addresses again.

He interrupted me to say that my attendance at his talk was unfair and dishonest and I should have declared myself at the outset. I pointed out it was a public talk and he had made no such request for declarations.

He said it was not right to demand people's email addresses and to write to him instead. He asked me to commit to reading John and I agreed.

I left.

- - -


McIntosh mapped out his position quite clearly;
Everything in the bible is true.

The earth is only a few thousand years old with everything created in the seven days of genesis. Noah's flood etc. all happened.
He gave no evidence which either was not explained by the Theory of Evolution or which could not be explained by it.

ID seems to be dead - not a bacterial flagellum in sight.

His case seems to be that because the god did it argument can explain everything it therefore has equal right to be in science classes.

This is despite his own inclusion of testability in the definition of science. Of course this is something which the "god did it" idea fails miserably at.

- - -

Personal conclusions

His presentation was far too long for the time he gave himself and he ended up skipping about and only asked us one of the four questions he said he would leave us with at the end.

He tells a lot of fibs. He seems used to doing this to audiences who know no better. He is not daft and can twist and turn an argument - an awful lot - look at his claims about fossil fish and how he turned a question from me into a point for him.

His claims about Noah's Flood being the only thing which could possibly create fish fossils and the fact that birds lungs could not possibly have evolved are two examples of his fibs. The thing is that I find it hard to believe he does not know the answers are actually out there.

I found answers to both these points with very little effort.

Whilst only he really knows his own motives, on balance I think he is lying, and not simply ignorant of the truth. I think that he thinks he is doing it in the service of god.

Make your own mind up but I wouldn't trust him as far as I can throw him.

His faithful are not interested in learning or debate - they just know they are right - and are happy in their ignorance as evidenced by big cheesy smiles all round.

His arguments about dead fish floating, and frogs in a blender are laughable until you realise they are swallowed hook, line and sinker by believers.

I think I gathered some clues which might show where creationism is going next in its quest to infiltrate our science classes. A few times during his talk he repeated his comment that the creationist explanation i.e. "god did it" explains all the evidence just like the Theory of Evolution does and so deserves to be taught along side it in science classes.


  1. With the understanding that you have honestly reported this encounter, Macintosh comes across as a George Bush grade moron.

  2. Even *if* you accepted "God did it" as a scientific viewpoint, how would you scientifically prove that it was the god of the Bible, rather than Ahura Mazda or any other god?

  3. Sounds entertaining and ridiculously frustrating. These scientific "experts" who discount science can walk as heroes among believers that desperately need credible sources on their side. It sounds like he was expecting such accolades at the forum, otherwise he would not exercise such presumption that all non-choir members present themselves!

  4. This email feedback posted as a comment by permission of the author;


    Thank you so much for your notes and comments on the talk given by
    Professor McIntosh on 22 October "Free speech - and the nature of
    truth in science ...".

    I attended my local CofE church pretty faithfully for about 2 years,
    but gave up about 2 years ago. I really did try to get the spiritual
    message but all along I felt the worship experience, and christian
    religion was, well,
    silly/ odd/ contrived/ meaningless/ pointless/ embarrasing/ dated.

    I am now an atheist. (I hope to Thor I stay this way).

    Look, I really am trying not to be gushing ... but ... I really
    appreciated your useful and intelligent feedback from the said talk.
    And I will check out more of your stuff later. I detest the
    absurdity of stuff like that ID/Creationist "museum" in Kentucky, but
    I do not have the mind or confidence for rhetoric - yet. I continue
    to read and re-read the great work by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris,
    Daniel Dennet etc.

    I am also a father of 3. If I hear a sniff of "Truth in Science" in
    their secondary schools I will be at their door with placards in hand.

    Jeff Daniels