Sunday, May 29, 2005

Orr in The New Yorker

H. Allen Orr has a typically excellent article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Here's an excerpt:

Dembski’s arguments have been met with tremendous enthusiasm in the I.D. movement. In part, that’s because an innumerate public is easily impressed by a bit of mathematics. Also, when Dembski is wielding his equations, he gets to play the part of the hard scientist busily correcting the errors of those soft-headed biologists. (Evolutionary biology actually features an extraordinarily sophisticated body of mathematical theory, a fact not widely known because neither of evolution’s great popularizers—Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould—did much math.) Despite all the attention, Dembski’s mathematical claims about design and Darwin are almost entirely beside the point.

Exactly right. Dembski's probability calculations are numerology, pure and simple. He assigns numbers to objects in essentially random ways and then hopes, by manipulating the numbers, to learn something about the objects. In reality he is only learning something about the way he assigned the numbers.

And his use of the obscure “No Free Lunch Theorems” are no better. Even the authors of the theorems have pointed out that he's full of it, for heaven's sake!

I also liked this part:

It’s also hard to view it as a real research program. Though people often picture science as a collection of clever theories, scientists are generally staunch pragmatists: to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena. By this standard, Darwinism is one of the best theories in the history of science: it has produced countless important experiments (let’s re-create a natural species in the lab—yes, that’s been done) and sudden insight into once puzzling patterns (that’s why there are no native land mammals on oceanic islands). In the nearly ten years since the publication of Behe’s book, by contrast, I.D. has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology. As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics.

Now go read the whole thing.