Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Today's New York Times has eight letters to the editor replying to Michael Behe's op-ed from Monday. The letters vary quite a bit in terms of quality, but none really gets at the heart of the matter.

Before looking at specifics, this may be a good time to remind people that letters to the editor are frequently edited substantially before publication. So it is possible that the blame for the low quality of the letters is attributable to the editor, and not to the letter writers themselves.

Anyway, here's the best of the bunch:

Michael J. Behe demonstrates why the so-called theory of intelligent design should stay out of our science classrooms. His claims of physical evidence are spurious. We see clocks and outboard motors in cells not because they are clocks and motors, but because we have no better analogy.

A century ago, the astronomer Percival Lowell described water-filled canals on Mars for the same reason. When confronted with the unknown, we first perceive it in terms of the known. Perception, however, does not make it so.

Science alone cannot sustain our society; philosophical speculation like Dr. Behe's is vital to our understanding, too. But trying to pass one off as the other serves only to undermine them both.

Jon Sanders
Monterey, Calif., Feb. 7, 2005

Of course, I don't agree that Behe's speculations provides anything that can be construed as “understanding.” But I love the point about analogies.

Here's another good one:

I must have missed the concept of “if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck” in my studies of the scientific method.

Yes, scientists describe their observations, but this is not the scientific method. Employing experiments aimed at discovering the “compelling evidence to the contrary” is.

That is the trouble with the design - intelligent or otherwise - theory. Description is not enough in science. That is for religion.

Melissa Henriksen
New York, Feb. 7, 2005
The writer is a research assistant professor, Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology, Rockefeller University.

Sadly, several of the writers followed this approach:

The basic principle of intelligent design is that life is just too complicated to occur by chance, and thus there must be some intelligent entity guiding the process.

A much more likely explanation is that our inability to comprehend these phenomena that appear “designed” merely reflects our own limitations as a species. We only recently discovered fire and the wheel and remain a basically savage society. Why not recognize our own limited capacity to understand complexity?

Our perception of complexity derives from our sense of scale in daily events. Is it any surprise that from this perspective, the evolution of life is beyond our grasp to comprehend? Intelligent design, like other creation myths, is just another way for us to make sense of our world.

A simpler alternative is to embrace our limited ability to comprehend and move on from there.

Richard W. Grant, M.D.
Boston, Feb. 7, 2005

A rather more obnoxious version of the same thought was this brief missive:

It is time for both dogmatic evolutionists and adamant religionists to show some humility in the face of the grand mysteries of the universe.

Jay Winer
Brooklyn, Feb. 7, 2005

The view expressed by Mr. Winer, and to a lesser extent Dr. Grant, is often considered very clever and sensible. Only crazy extremists would actually take a stand on this issue. More reasonable people see the big picture and are properly awed by it.

I'm all in favor of showing humility in the face of grand mysteries, it's just that the evolution of life is not one of those mysteries. Evolution is a modest theory about the development of life once it appeared, not a grand theory of everything.

The fact is that we are perfectly capable of understanding the major processes of evolution, Dr. Grant's ruminations notwithstanding. You can find the basic facts in any textbook on the subject.

But the real reason I found the letters dissatisfying was that no one got around to making the obvious point: Behe is wrong when he claims that complex molecular machines pose a fundamental challenge to evolution as we know it. He is wrong to claim that there are no plausible scenarios for describing how specific biochemical systems came to be. He is wrong when he suggests that we can infer design in biological systems by the same process we use to infer that Mt. Rushmore was designed. Behe's arguments should be rejected not because they are unscientific (which they are), or because he is arguing from ignorance (which he is), but because the assertions he is making are demonsrably false.

But no one pointed this out (no one who got published, anyway). And this is in the New York Times, for heaven's sake.


At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sanders: philosophical speculation like Dr. Behe's is vital to our understanding, too.

Rosenhouse: I don't agree that Behe's speculations provides anything that can be construed as “understanding.”

I don't think Sanders was implying that Behe's speculation, specifically, is understanding or can be construed to lead to it. However, speculation is one of the more important parts about science. One has to have an idea that may seem off the beaten path before one can gather evidence to support it. What makes scientific speculation different from Behe's form of speculation is that 1) no amount of evidence can exist to support the more important parts of his speculation, on which the rest of his argument rests, 2) he won't admit the fact that the evidence doesn't support what little claims he actually has made that can be supported through evidence, and 3) he won't admit that #1 means that his case it not a scientific one. (except on the grounds that he, like the rest of the ID crowd, are trying to change the very definition of science to include their form of speculation).

So no, Behe specifically is useless to scientific understanding. However, other off-the-beaten-path ideas, seemingly easily disproved to the point of just being ignored by the vast majority of the community, do eventually gather enough evidence to support their case as a possibility. The difference being the evidence was possible to gather in the first place, even if just conceptually (like transitional fossils can be conceptually gathered even if we don't actually find them). The best example for this I can think of recently was the discussion on the possibility that Earth suffered a global ice-age 600 million years ago, presented on the Science channel a month ago.

Otherwise, I agree that nobody really "took down" Behe's unsupported and incorrect assertions as being plain wrong. Plenty of the letters in the comments would have...on the other hand, anything too agressive about pointing out how utterly wrong Behe was also has the side-effect of pointing out that 1) the Times was utterly wrong to publish it, even as an op-ed, and 2) the Times was in fact USED as a tool in the Wedge strategy just as badly as the school boards are being used.

Nobody likes being used for someone else's gain. Even more so nobody likes being told they were being used. The Times has had enough of that recently already in their embarrasments about killing articles that might have changed the election, and even more so at their journalistic core by hiring a plagerizer.


At 4:36 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Fair enough. If your interpretation of the letter writer's comments is correct, then I agree with the rest of your remarks. On a first reading I tool the letter to mean that Behe specifically had contirbuted something, but rereading it I realize it's not so clear.

At 4:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I love the blog. Not to be an arrogant jerk, (though I definitely am one) but I submitted a letter to the times and thought it was pretty good.

Here's the text:

"Michael J. Behe argues that "we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence." Where is Professor Behe's scientific evidence which supports the claim that life could have been designed by a designer?

Professor Behe similarly asserts that "in the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life." Unfortunately, for intelligent design theorists, science does not operate on either/or dichotomies. One is only scientifically justified in thinking something if there is scientific evidence to show that it might be true. The fact that one theory has not been proven means nothing as to whether a competing theory is true or not."

I thought it was pretty straightforward in debunking his "because evolution can't explain everything, there must have been a designer" argument. I didn't think I had much of a chance, and I definitely had even less chance since I'm just a legal assistant and not a biologist.

At 10:52 PM, Blogger newton man said...

hi, I wrote the Dr. Grant NYT post. My point was not to be in awe of creation, but that we are neurologically unprepred to deal with probabilities in the 1-in-1 billion range. If someone wins the lottery 3 days in a row, nothing will shake them of the conviction that "something" was going on, probably God. The odds of winning the lottery 3 days in a row are entirely probable on the universal scale, which is just not comprehensible to us. So, bottom line, we are too simple to accept as possible the realities of chance that have lead to our evolution.


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