Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Sisson, Part Two

In Sunday's post I discussed Edward Sisson's contribution to William Dembski's anthology Uncommon Dissent. I continue that discussion now.

Sisson opens his essay by describing himself as a lay person interested in the evolution/ID debate. So what is it that Sisson finds convincing about ID?

Still, I want to point to one aspect of the theory of intelligent design that I have found particularly persuasive. Design intelligence theorists, notably the editor of this volume, William Dembski, have developed techniques for intelligence detection, techniques useful in detecting intelligent design both in human-made artifacts as well as in biology. Having reviewed a variety of attempts to rebut their work on intelligence detection, I have found them all unpersuasive. They do not persuade, primarily, because as any parent, business manager, or detective knows, we often are confronted by events we are told are accidental but which we reasonably conclude were intentional. Moreover, those teachers and educational systems that administer standardized multiple-choice tests are also engaged in a form of “intelligence” detection that operates similarly to the intelligence detection “filter” developed by Dembski. Those who reject the intelligence theorists' work on intelligence detection also inadvertently reject our ability to make qualitatively similar judgments in a whole host of other situations having nothing to do with the origin and subsequent diversification of life. To use a phrase common in litigation, the rebuttals “prove too much” because the rebuttal arguments, if true, cannot be limited just to the origins debate; they necessarily deny our ability to reason and judge matters that all of us agree we can reason about and judge.

Wow. That's about one step up from “If humans evolved from apes, why do we still have apes?” in the hierarchy of brain-dead creationist silliness.

It is William Dembski's claim that there is a certain empirically detectable quality, he calls it complex, specified information or CSI, which, when present in an object or event, indicates that it was the product of intelligent design. He further claims that CSI has been found in biological organisms, and concludes that said organisms are the product of ID.

If you reject either of Dembski's claims (personally, I reject both), then you will also reject his conclusion that the ID of organisms has been established.

According to Sisson, as a matter of logic (note the word “necessarily” in the last line of his statement), I am now required to reject the idea that we can ever be certain an object resulted from intelligent design.

Do I really need to point out the obvious? Isn't it possible that we can detect design in various situations, but that Dembski's CSI is the wrong tool for the job? Isn't it possible that CSI has the properties Dembski says it has, but that he has not established that organisms actually possess it? Don't both of these possibilities show that Sisson's argument, as a simple matter of elementary logic, is not valid?

Actually, things are much worse than this. Sisson does not cite a single rebuttal of Dembski's work, though he assures us that he has read many. The reason he does not cite any is that if he had it would have been immediately obvious that none of Dembski's critics have ever denied that in many situations we can be certain that an object was designed without knowing specifically who desgined it or how. Instead, Dembski's critics point out that his use of probability calculations is slipshod, and that his notion of specificity is hopelessly vague, among many other problems. If Sisson believes that these rebuttals are mistaken; that, actually, Dembski's probability calculations are impeccable and that specificity is well-defined, then he should tell us why. But he definitely needs to explain where, in making these arguments, Dembski's critics are rejecting even the possibility of detecting design in objects.

But it's even worse than that. For Sisson, skilled rhetorician that he is, moves solidly into crank territory by suggesting that facts that are obvious to any lay person have somehow eluded scientists. Why, any backwater rube knows that we infer intelligent design all the time, he implies. Do those arrogant scientists really think they can fool us, the infinitely wise public? They don't even realize that their arguments against Dembski actually prove too much! In arguing that the specific, technical apparatus Dembski has consturcted can not be applied properly to biology, they are actually arguing that it is never possible to infer intelligent design. How ridiculous! Ha ha ha ha ha!

I find it ironic that elsewhere in his essay Sisson accuses evolutionists of attributing to ID folks views they do not hold. He is doing precisely the same thing here.

Now, you might think that stupidity of that magnitude would be hard to top. Actually, though, Sisson is just getting warmed up. He also has some thoughts to offer on the low standard of evidence scientists are willing to accept in embracing evolution:

The scientific establishment, casting its eye over the diversity of life on earth (the observed data), sees that data - the diversity itself - as “overwhelming” and “enormous” evidence proving the “fact” that all those species evolved from common ancestors. Descent with modifications resulting from unintelligent, natural processes caused the diversity. The most remarkable thing one learns by reading the works of the contributors to this volume is the discovery that the claim of “overwhelming” evidence does not stand. The scientific establishment is looking at the tangible facts on the ground - the data, the diversity of life forms on earth - and it sees in that data evidence of facts that it passionately wants to be true and that it feels need to be true. But the message they have, since Darwin, convinced themselves is there in the observed data is simply not in the data. (P.80)

What on Earth is this idiot talking about? At the risk of sounding repetitive, Sisson does not cite a single example of an evolutionist claiming that the mere fact of life's diversity constitutes evidence for evolution. I defy him to produce even a single example of any scientist making such a claim. Frankly, I don't even know what it would mean to say “the diversity itself” constitutes evidence for evolution.

Once again note how Sisson is willing to attribute to his adversaries a position so obviously stupid that any sentient person should be able to see through it. Do you think that gives him a moment's pause? Do you think he ever says to himself, “Gee, it doesn't really make sense to argue that the brute fact of life's diversity is evidence for evolution. Maybe I should read a little more carefully to try to understand what scientists really think is evidence for evolution.”

Now, the two parts of Sisson's essay that I have considered here are both obviously and trivially wrong. His arguments in defense of Dembski rest on an obvious logical fallacy, and his assertion that “the diversity itself” is used as evidence for evolution is completely silly.

Yet Sisson thought they were good enough arguments to put them into print. And Dembski, who I have no doubt knows precisely how stupid these arguments are, let them go into a book that bears his name. What am I to conclude from this? Am I really expected to engage in polite conversation with people this stupid and mendacious?

Of course, Sission doesn't stop there. He also gives brief consideration to a few lines of evidence scientists actually do cite. We will examine those considerations in our next post.