March 06, 2006

Clinging to the Myth: "Ain't Nothing Gonna Convince This Guy"

In an essay that I reposted several days ago, The Power of Narrative, I touched on an issue that goes to the basic stance we bring to the world, and to the manner in which we think about events generally and in our own lives, and the kinds of ideas that we therefore embrace or reject. After discussing the stark difference between the theory of evolution and creationist/intelligent design beliefs from this vantage point, I wrote:
The contrast between the evolution and creation stories illuminates a few key elements of the issues that concern me. We can arrive at a story about our world by first observing what is before us, analyzing its nature and causes to the best of our ability, and then carefully identifying those broader explanations and conclusions we consider justified and provable. Those explanations and conclusions then become the story we tell about what we've observed. Or we can begin with the story itself, a story we have chosen because it pleases us for some reason or fulfills some need, and then proceed to fit the facts we discover into the already existing story as best we can. When the facts won't fit, we may ignore or seek to dismiss them through a variety of strategems.
To put this difference another way: it is the difference between always remaining open to evidence, even (and perhaps especially) evidence that calls into question the conclusions we have previousely arrived at, and being so wedded to a particular belief system that we insist on retaining it, even as facts accumulate that challenge it in the most fundamental terms.

Here are two stories from recent weeks that illustrate what happens when we follow the latter course -- when we are so determined to cling to our beliefs, no matter how plainly false and destructive they may be shown to be, that we court disaster. First, we have yet another story in an endless stream of similar stories demonstrating that the Bush administration and the supporters of our foreign policy have resolutely refused to acknowledge facts before and during the catastrophe of Iraq, even as the path of destruction increases every day:
U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned the White House beginning more than two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war, according to former senior intelligence officials who helped craft the reports.

Among the warnings, Knight Ridder has learned, was a major study, called a National Intelligence Estimate, completed in October 2003 that concluded that the insurgency was fueled by local conditions - not foreign terrorists- and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.

The existence of the top-secret document, which was the subject of a bitter three-month debate among U.S. intelligence agencies, has not been previously disclosed to a wide public audience.

The reports received a cool reception from Bush administration policymakers at the White House and the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, according to the former officials, who discussed them publicly for the first time.

President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others continued to describe the insurgency as a containable threat, posed mainly by former supporters of Saddam Hussein, criminals and non-Iraqi terrorists - even as the U.S. intelligence community was warning otherwise.

Robert Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005, said the October 2003 study was part of a "steady stream" of dozens of intelligence reports warning Bush and his top lieutenants that the insurgency was intensifying and expanding.

"Frankly, senior officials simply weren't ready to pay attention to analysis that didn't conform to their own optimistic scenarios," Hutchings said in a telephone interview.


Maples said that while Iraqi terrorists and foreign fighters conduct some of the most spectacular attacks, disaffected Iraqi Sunnis make up the insurgency's core. "So long as Sunni Arabs are denied access to resources and lack a meaningful presence in government, they will continue to resort to violence," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

That view contrasts with what the administration said as the insurgency began in the months following the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion and gained traction in the fall. Bush and his aides portrayed it as the work primarily of foreign terrorists crossing Iraq's borders, disenfranchised former officials of Saddam's deposed regime and criminals.

In August 2003, with concerns about the insurgency growing, Bush told reporters: "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on. ... We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."

On Nov. 1, 2003, a day after the National Intelligence Estimate was distributed, Bush said in his weekly radio address: "Some of the killers behind these attacks are loyalists of the Saddam regime who seek to regain power and who resent Iraq's new freedoms. Others are foreigners who have traveled to Iraq to spread fear and chaos. ... The terrorists and the Baathists hope to weaken our will. Our will cannot be shaken."

As recently as May 2005, Cheney told a television interviewer: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."


A former senior U.S. official who participated in the process said that analysts at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's intelligence bureau all agreed that the insurgency posed a growing threat to stability in Iraq and to U.S. hopes for forming a new government and rebuilding the economy.

"This was stuff the White House and the Pentagon did not want to hear," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were constantly grumbling that the people who were writing these kind of downbeat assessments `needed to get on the team,' `were not team players' and were `sitting up there (at CIA headquarters) in Langley sucking their thumbs.'"

The October 2003 report on "violence and instability in Iraq" was requested not by the White House but by the U.S. military's Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, current and former officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As I have had to note on too many occasions, it was not facts and reason that led to the adoption of our current foreign policy -- and as a result, no number of corpses and no amount of destruction will dissuade those who continue to believe in the power of brute force to effect broad cultural and political change. Instead of beginning with the facts and deriving their policies from them, the true believers in our foreign policy began with the story and their Utopian delusions -- and they refuse to give them up, no matter the amount of contradictory facts and devastation that confront them.

And here is an example from an entirely different realm: the conflict between evolution and creationism that I discussed in the earlier essay. The first part of this story is hardly surprising to those of us in the "reality-based community," and I find it entirely fascinating:
To advocates of intelligent design, the human sperm's tiny tail bears potent evidence that Charles Darwin was wrong--it is, they say, a molecular machine so complex that only God could have produced it.

But biologists now are starting to piece together how such intricate bits of biochemistry evolved. Although the basic research was not meant as a response to intelligent design, it is unraveling the very riddles that proponents said could not be solved.

In contrast, intelligent design advocates admit they still lack any way of using hard evidence to test their theories, which many biologists find revealing.

The new insights on evolution at its smallest scale were a major yet little-noticed reason why a federal judge late last year struck down a plan in Dover, Pa., that would have put intelligent design in public school classrooms. The findings the judge cited will provide the ultimate test of ideas about the origins of life, more lasting than court rulings or the politics of the moment.

Most scientists have long rejected intelligent design, or ID, on the grounds that it is a religious proposal not grounded in observation. ID adherents say biochemistry actually supports their view. They argue that many tiny mechanisms--the tails of sperm and bacteria, the immune system, blood clotting--are so elaborate they must have been purposely designed.

Yet biologists have made major strides on each of those phenomena since the first ID books were published in the mid-1990s.

Working without the benefit of fossils, experts are using new genome data to study how fish evolved the crucial ability to clot blood. A wave of new research on the evolution of the immune system seemed to stump ID witnesses in the Dover case. And even the once-mysterious sperm's tail now appears related to other cell parts.

"Once you take apart any system in the cell, you find it's incredibly complex," said Joel Rosenbaum, a professor at Yale University. "But that complexity is falling to experiment."


The most forceful rebuttal of ID has come from Kenneth Miller, a professor of cell biology at Brown University whose pro-evolution testimony helped guide the Dover court decision.

Like Behe, he is a practicing Roman Catholic who believes life is part of God's plan. But Miller said such religious beliefs do not belong in science classes--and they do not conflict with evolutionary theory's attempts to understand the natural world.

Miller happily concedes the ID movement's point that biologists have not fully explained how structures like the sperm's tail, or flagellum, evolved.

But science works by exploring such puzzles with testable theories, experts say. It is a slow process of evaluating new ideas against the evidence, gradually leading to new discoveries.


Everyone seems to agree that the flagellum used by sperm and many bacteria to swim around is an almost unbelievably complex piece of work.

At the core of the bacterial tail is a miniscule rotary motor consisting of about 30 different protein types that interlock and move in concert. The tail acts as a propeller, spinning at up to 60,000 revolutions per minute. In arguing for ID, Behe often quotes flagellum expert David DeRosier, who wrote in 1998 that "the flagellum resembles a machine designed by a human."

Behe says the flagellum and other intricate systems are "irreducibly complex"--like a mousetrap, they wouldn't work if you took away even one part. Behe argues it's impossible that such a structure could have come about through natural selection, which is thought to build complex structures one step at a time. So a designer must have done it all at once, he says.

Opponents of evolution made similar arguments in the past based on complex organs such as the eye, though these have largely been discredited. They still cling to the flagellum, which ID proponent William Dembski has described as "the mascot of the intelligent design movement."

That faith is misplaced, scientists believe.

In the last several years Miller and other evolutionary researchers noticed that the flagellum resembled a needle-like structure that bacteria such as salmonella use to inject toxins into living cells. The needle's base has many elements in common with the flagellum, but it's missing most of the proteins that make a flagellum work.

The system seems to negate the claim that taking away any of the flagellum's parts would render it useless. It also suggests how the marvelously complex flagellum could have evolved from simpler forms.

"The parts of this supposedly irreducibly complex system actually have functions of their own," Miller said.

Evolutionary studies also have shed more light on blood clotting, another pillar of Behe's intelligent design ideas.
And at the end of the article is an observation that ties into my point about how the ID proponents, like the defenders of our foreign policy, will not give up the myth, no matter what:
Perhaps the strongest rebuke to ID in the Dover case concerned the claim by Behe and others that it would be impossible for evolution to produce the immune system. Miller testified that since Behe wrote his 1996 book, evolutionary biologists have built a rich account of the immune system--a point Judge Jones highlighted in his ruling.

"[Behe] was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system," Jones wrote, "however, he simply insisted ... that it was not 'good enough.'"

Behe still staunchly defends ID, saying Miller and other biologists have yet to show how evolution originally produced any complex biochemistry.

"They're saying part of the flagellum looks like some other part of the cell," Behe said. "None of that says what the first step would be in trying to construct the flagellum."

Proponents of intelligent design clearly are refusing to play by the normal rules of scientific evidence, Miller responds.

Behe's dismissal of the immune system research "tells you right away, ain't nothing gonna convince this guy," he said.
And that is precisely correct: "Ain't nothing gonna convince this guy."

Scientists understand that, as do those who see the disastrous consequences of Bush's policies, in virtually every area. You can choose to ignore reality if you wish. But, to be philosophical about it, one day it will come back and bite you in the ass.

Or, as too many people have tragically found, defying reality in this manner can get you killed.