Tuesday, March 09, 2004

A Study in ID Dishonesty Amusing editorial from the Kansas City Star today. They might make you register before reading it. It's authors are two fellows named William Harris and John Calvert, and it's worth going through their article line-by-line as a study in the inability of ID people to say anything that's true.

Charles Darwin's core claim is that the apparent design we intuitively observe in nature is an illusion that can be explained by mindless, purposeless, mechanistic and accidental processes.

If Darwin's claim of ``no-design'' is scientific, then it is necessarily scientific to disagree. Further, if Darwin's claim of ?no design? cannot be challenged, then it ceases to be a scientific theory and becomes an ideology

Note the emphasis on what is scientific and what is not. Darwin's claim was not simply ``no design''. Rather, he showed how the hypothesis of common descent mediated by natural selection could make sense out of a wide array of facts. It was also clear how to gain further information from various branches of science to test his ideas. Subsequent discoveries in biochemistry and genetics were entirely in accord with Darwin's ideas. Contrary data from just one of these fields would have been enough to kill the theory. Today, Darwin's ideas continue to produce tangible results in the field and the lab.

ID's assert only that an unspecified intelligent agent did some unspecified thing at some unspeicified point in natural history. That is the extent of their theory. They never tell us what could possibly count as evidence against design, nor do they tell us what empirical consequences follow from their hypothesis of design. At no point do they tell us how their hypothesis explains the patterns we see in paleontology, genetics, anatomy, or any other branch of biology. In what possible sense is that scientific?

Consideration of the case for design is critical if evolution is to be both scientific and credible. Evolution is a historical claim that uses forensic rather than experimental methods to explain the cause of singular unobserved events that occurred millions of years ago.

As acknowledged by the eminent evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, ``laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes.'' Instead evolutionary biologists construct ``historical narratives'' or ``plausible explanations'' that are inherently subjective. Since evolution lacks experimental confirmation, its ``historical narratives'' remain only speculations unless its evidence rules out the competing design hypothesis.

The implication here is that scientists dogmatically refuse to consider the case for design. This is nonsense. The case for design has been considered and found wanting. Harris and Calvert don't want to accept that verdict.

Their assertions that evolutionary biology does not rely on experimental evidence and that it seeks to explain singular, unobserved events that occurred millions of years ago are more nonsense. Evolutionists assert that certain biological processes that are known to be acting today, natural selection most notable among them, can explain the data obtained from various relevant branches of science. Experiments conducted in the field and the lab are a major basis for this assertion.

Then we come to a classic case of quote mining. Since Mayr's quote is presented without any context, we have no way of knowing what events and processes he had in mind. Probably he was talking about specific events in the distant past, as opposed to general trends. There is a big difference between saying ``One hundred million years ago gene X mutated and caused a certain effect,'' and saying, ``If natural selection has been operating continuously for the past one hundred million years, then we would expect it to produce results similar to what we find in nature.''

Like crime scene detectives, scientists use objective methodologies to distinguish between designs and accidents of nature. Designs, such as hieroglyphics, are typified by a periodic [sic]message bearing patterns that cannot be reasonably explained by law and chance. Radio and light waves from outer space are being tested for design in search of alien intelligence with negative results. The same tests turns up positive when applied to ``messages'' found in DNA. Gene Myers, a scientist on the Human Genome Project, remarked: ``There's a huge intelligence there.''

Calvert and Harris probably intended ``aperiodic'' instead of ``a periodic''. Here we are seeing another standard rhetorical trick used by ID's. On the one hand they cite examples like the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project as examples of how design can be a scientific concept. Then they turn around and accuse scientists of refusing to consider design for philsophical reasons. Well, which is it?

Of course, there's a big difference between what crime scene detectives do and what ID's are asking biologists to do. When a crime scene detective rules that a person's death, say, was the result of intelligent-design (murder) as opposed to accident or suicide, he doesn't just stop there and call his job complete. He then uses what he knows about the nature of the designer to investigate the crime. That's precisely what ID's refuse to do.

They close the paragraph with yet another quote stripped of its context.

Myers' view is ignored, not because of the evidence, but because it violates an unwritten philosophical ``rule,'' which requires the absence of design in nature and effectively suppresses criticisms of evolutionary theory. It robs evolution of its theoretical status and makes it an ideology.

Use of the rule brings religion into science. Suppressing the evidence of design to keep the ``supernatural'' out necessarily promotes nontheistic religions (e.g., secular humanism) and denigrates traditional theistic religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam and Christianity).

Notice that Calvert and Harris are explicitly equating ``design'' with ``supernatural'' here. This is significant, since they routinely argue in other venues that it is not a consequence of their theory that the designer be supernatural (this is a further rhetorical trick to avoid the charge that they are smuggling in religion.) Again, which is it?

Once again, the assertion here is totally false. The only bias in science is towards useful theories. Since supernatural theories have never once proven to be useful in actual scientific work, scientists generally take a dim view of them. But if there were genuine evidence that supernatural forces had been at work scientists would embrace them in a heartbeat.

The rejection of design as an explanation of biological data has to do with the fact that the arguments offered and "evidence" cited by design proponents are simply wrong. Scientists will consider any sort of explanation for a phenomenon, but they will not accept bad arguments.

Needless to say there is no evidence being ``suppressed'' here.

The problems evaporate when evolution's claim of no-design is kept theoretical rather than dogmatic. This allows for a rigorous and really interesting competition between both ideas per the scientific method. Keeping evolution theoretical will also ensure that publicly funded science education remains ``secular, neutral and non-ideological'' as required by the First Amendment and recent legislation.

Darwin longed for the day when ?young and rising naturalists will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.? So do we.

Here we come to our final trick. Evolution should be labelled as a ``theory'' not a ``fact''. Actually, it should be labelled as the best explanation anyone has come up with for the biological data collected by various disciplines. It should also be labelled as a theory supported by so much evidence that it is a fact in precisely the same sense that it is a fact that the Earth goes around the Sun.


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