Monday, June 27, 2005

The Globe States it Plain

Today's Boston Globe has this excellent editorial about the recent shenanigans of the ID folks:

PROPONENTS OF the intelligent design concept contend that life is so complex and the earth so perfectly positioned to sustain it that a great designer must be responsible. There's not a bit of sound science in their thinking, but proponents have managed to enlist the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in legitimizing these notions. The Smithsonian, a symbol of the federal government's commitment to advancing knowledge, should fend off any more attempts to infiltrate this quasi-religious doctrine into its scientific work.

Well said. I also liked this (the article being referred to is “The Origin of Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” by Stephen Meyer. Regular readers of this blog will recall that this was the one published, under very questioable circumstances, in The Procedings of the Biological Society of Washington):

The article does not make much of a scientific argument. The ''Cambrian explosion," as it's called, lasted millions of years, plenty of time for evolution to work. Evolution has been a mainstay of the biological sciences since Charles Darwin first propounded the theory in 1859 because it has consistently provided convincing explanations of natural phenomena. Darwin's theory may not yet completely explain the Cambrian explosion, but that does not invalidate evolution -- it merely invites further research. Intelligent design, on the other hand, does not advance scientific inquiry. Evolution does not disprove the existence of a god or gods, nor does it bar a belief in intelligent design, as long as it is considered a philosophical concept, not a scientific theory.

I would only add that our current lack of a definitive explanation for the Cambrian explosion reflects a lack of data, not a lack of theoretical robustness.

Predictably, the Discovery Institute's John West was less impressed by the editorial:

Today’s Boston Globe carries an inane editorial attacking intelligent design that demonstrates how a little learning (in this case, very little) can be a dangerous thing. The Globe editorialist no doubt thought he was valiantly defending good science, but instead he simply exposes how uninformed he is. The editorial starts by dismissing Dr. Stephen Meyer's peer-reviewed journal article from the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. According to the Globe

What did the editorialist write to merit this abuse? Well, elsewhere in the essay he did refer to Stephen Meyer as Scott Meyer, so he did make a genuine error. But otherwise West focusses entirely on the editorial's dismissive attitude toward Meyer's “Cambrian explosion” argument.

Of course, the editorial is right to be so dismissive. The Cambrian explosion is a complete non-issue. But West does say one thing that merits a response:

Meyer's article makes three major points: (1) The mechanism of neo-Darwinism (natural selection plus random mutation) does not seem capable of accounting for the origin of animal body plans during the Cambrian explosion. (2) Other explanations that have been proposed to shore up the neo-Darwinian mechanism have problems of their own. (3) Intelligent design may offer a promising explanation for the origin of animal body plans for several reasons, including the fact that we know that intelligent causes are capable of producing the kind of complex specified information required to build animal body plans.

All three of those points are ridiculous, but that third one doesn't get commented on as much as it should. West tells us that intelligent causes are “capable of producing the kind of complex specified information required to build animal body plans.”

What utter nonsense! Can West offer a single example of an intelligent cause producing the information to build animal body plans? Of course he can't. The reason he can't is that the task of building such information into the genomes of organisms is way beyond the ability of any intelligent agent we know about.

In explaining the Cambrian explosion you can either invent out of whole cloth an intelligent designer with powers that are orders of magnitude beyond any known intelligence, or you can believe that one of the many mundane scientific explanations based on known mechanims is the correct one. Does anyone really believe that ID is the better explanation in this case?


At 11:41 AM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

The Boston Globe is wrong (there's a surprise). If the editorialist had not conflated biological ID and cosmological ID, he would have been on firmer ground. But there is copious, sound science when it comes to the question of the earth sustaining life i.e., fine-tuning. The editorialist is just parroting the dogma of the evolutionist fundamentalists. I doubt if he would recognize sound science if it smacked him in the face.

At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Heddle wrote:

"But there is copious, sound science when it comes to the question of the earth sustaining life i.e., fine-tuning."

How about some leading references or reviews in peer-reviewed literature?

Joe Magrath

At 1:58 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


Sure thing, how many do you want? You can start by looking at my blog, which today references two peer-reviewed journal articles related to lunar fine-tuning.

If you would like more on cosmological constant fine-tuning, nuclear chemistry fine tuning, physical constant fine tuning, etc., just ask.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Jason said...


You act as if evidence of “fine-tuning” is automatically evidence of design. It is not.

Also, I'm afraid you are the one who is using the term “intelligent design” in a non-standard way. Most people use that term to refer specifically to the evolution/creation dispute. It is clear from the context that that is what the editorialist has in mind. Since you seem to agree that the biological case for ID is pretty weak, I think your harsh tone towards the editorialist is unwarranted.

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You sure rocked my world. At your site you wrote:
"This collision blasted away a poisonous atmosphere and left the earth with a "just right" mass such that its gravity can retain water vapor but not the slighter lighter (and toxic) ammonia and methane."

For 40 years I have labored under the assumption that the formula weights were water> ammonia> methane. Also, I must be lucky to be alive since I never recognized that methane was toxic beyond its ability (shared with water) to suffocate.


At 2:43 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


The editorialist wrote:

"... earth so perfectly positioned to sustain..."

this is in the domain of cosmological ID, not the evolution debate since, as I am often reminded, the origin of life (and by extension the habitability of the planet) is not in the province of evolution.

I do not know if the case for biological ID is weak, I do know that I am not competent to judge its merits.

Perhaps "most" people use ID to refer to the evolution debate. But enough also use it in the fine-tuning discussion that "non-standard" is probably not accurate.

You are correct that fine-tuning is not automatically evidence of design. In a single universe scenario it is also potential evidence for the only alternative explanation: incredible, blind luck.

At 2:57 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


I think you must be referring to this paragraph from my blog:

"The moon probably formed as a result of a collision of a Mars-sized object with the earth, when our planet was about 250 million years old. This collision blasted away a poisonous atmosphere and left the earth with a "just right" mass such that its gravity can retain water vapor but not the slighter lighter (and toxic) ammonia and methane."

The molecular weight of water vapor is 18. Ammonia is 17. Methane is 16. This is consistent both with what I wrote and your comment:

"For 40 years I have labored under the assumption that formula weights were water> ammonia> methane."

So I have no clue why you are employing sarcasm.

The adjective toxic applies to ammonia. Methane, while not inherently toxic, would nevertheless result in an atmosphere that could not sustain complex life.

At 5:43 PM, Anonymous Les said...

"Methane, while not inherently toxic, would nevertheless result in an atmosphere that could not sustain complex life."

What a completely ridiculous statement; certainly a reasonably competent designer or god could swing it, and I wouldn't count out natural selection either.

At 11:35 AM, Anonymous George said...

ID is creationism that intentionally leaves god out so as to position it better. Those that believe in god acting in there daily lives will have very little trouble believing that god created all life and all forms.

There is no argument against such beliefs just as no one can argue that the world was not created just minutes ago with everything the way it is as misleading as that might be it cannot be ruled out.

So we need to attack ID on the basis of science as we cannot attack a belief, but rather we need to connect ID to creationsim to god as it deserves to be. Then it takes its rightful place as a religious belief and gets out of the realm of science.


At 10:42 AM, Blogger Freethought Cafe said...

Has anyone read Rare Earth(Amazon Link below). This thread reminded me of it.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Mikko Sandt said...

Can't believe that this shit is actually going on in the United States - and that it's actually gathering publicity. Luckily - it's highly unlikely that any of that will reach the shores of Europe.

At 2:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My house is situated so perfectly between a Welsh pub with the greatest cheeseburgers in the world (with Guiness on draft) and a microbrewery with absolutely fantasic stout that I can only conclude that there is a higher power at work.


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