Monday, October 03, 2005

Recent ID Talks

P. Z. Myers provides a revealing account of a talk by Michael Behe in Minneapolis:

His game begins with Mt. Rushmore. Look at Mt. Rushmore; it's complicated and contains specific, recognizable forms; therefore it is designed. This is the key first step in his rhetoric, getting the audience to agree that because something looks designed, therefore it was designed. Of course, he's glossing over the fact that we also know that Gutzon Borglum hit that mountain with dynamite and jackhammers, and that the mountain is shaped in specific ways that other mountains in our experience are not, and that it has been given a detailed resemblance to specific organic forms with which we are familiar…we have evidence that it was designed and built by an intelligent agent. That wouldn't serve his purpose, though, so he plays the game of claiming we know it is designed just by looking at it.

Then he throws out a picture of a bacterial flagellum, and claims that because it looks complicated and machine-like, it is therefore designed. One big problem: knowing that one complicated thing (Mt. Rushmore) is designed does not mean that every complicated thing is designed. He has not established the premise of his argument.

He went on and on with the misleading comparisons, talking of the cell as filled with highways and trucks and factories and all kinds of machines, and quoting Dawkins and Alberts as using the word “machines”. To Behe, machines must be the product of purposeful design, and therefore every time Richard Dawkins uses the word “machine”, he is validating Behe. This is dishonest nonsense, of course—he is loading his use of the word “machine” with a bunch of rhetorical baggage that Dawkins and Alberts are not. His audience of religious fans, though, share that baggage so it sails through without a complaint.

Meanwhile, Tara Smith discusses a recent talk by Privileged Planet author Guillermo Gonzalez:

At this point, he went into Dembski’s Design Inference, and he made a big deal out of this being a “peer-reviewed” book. He then talked about specified complexity. He said that IC is a special case of SC—an indicator of activity of an intelligent agent, and used SETI (man, does he love that SETI example), archaeology, and forensics as examples. He then trotted out the Mt. Rushmore example, and said that complexity plus specificity always are a sign of intelligence.

Next he touched on the explanatory filter. Again, used the example of Contact and SETI (poor Sagan must be rolling in his grave). He asks first, do we have contingency? If yes, do we have complexity? If no, it’s chance. If yes, go on to ask—do we have specificity? If no, it’s again chance; if yes, then we can infer design. (I was looking around at this point; the crowd reaction was hilarious. Some literal jaw-drops, lots of laughing, and generally a group of people that weren’t swayed by the BS). The reaction was even better when he half-described Dembski’s calculations, and threw out his 10 to the 150th-power figure. I swear I heard guffaws.

Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box was one of the first books I read when I got interested in this subject. At the time I read it I knew very little about evolution, or biochemistry. I was a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics.

It quickly became clear that Behe had a single argument: If a biochemical system required numerous, well-matched parts to function, then it could not have evolved via a gradual step-by-step process. That, in its entirety, was the content of his book. The rest was simply a lot of irrelevant biochemical minutiae.

That argument is transparently wrong. It's wrong as a matter of logic, for the simple reason that the fact that a modern system needs all of its parts does not imply that all of those parts have always been necessary. It wasn't difficult for me to hypothesize various scenarios (based on elimination of redundancy, for example) for how Behe's irreducible complexity could evolve gradually. It was gratifying later to read the responses of actual biochemists, and find that my scenarios were biologically plausible.

Meanwhile, Dembski's arguments about specified complexity are likewise ridiculous. If you know the basics of probability theory and biology, you realize immediately that the sorts of calculations Dembski is discussing can not be carried out in nontrivial, real life situations.

So here we have two of ID's biggest stars parroting brain-dead arguments to lay audiences. The arguments Gonzalez and Behe are making are wrong as a matter of fact, not opinion.

Myers notes:

I can't say that it was an entirely wasted evening, though. I learned that Intelligent Design creationism is still dead in the water, and that one of the few legitimately credentialed scientists working within the movement is still an empty babbler without a whisper of scientific support; the most amusing part of the talk was his opening line, when he gave a disclaimer that the provost of his university wanted him to say, that his views do not represent Lehigh University.

I'm not surprised Lehigh is embarrassed by Behe's conduct. I'm sure Iowa State feels the same about Gonzalez. ID folks like to portray themselves as martyrs; unwelcome in university science departments because of their religious views. Actually, it is only rank stupidity that science departments find distasteful.


At 7:30 PM, Blogger Bill said...

I think Gonzalez is on the Behe Tenure Track to Nowhere. Behe has to read a disclaimer before he gives a talk. How soon before Gonzalez is more of a liability than an asset to ISU? I hear Barnum and Baily is hiring.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Heath Watts said...

Why don't the universities fire these people before they get tenure? At most universities, if new faculty don't publish in peer-reviewed journals, they don't receive tenure. Why does Behe have tenure and if Gonzalez doesn't yet have tenure, why doesn't ISU fire him?

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Michael "Sotek" Ralston said...

Behe IS published.

Just, y'know, on mathematics.

He's well known for his religious wackjobbery, but he actually has the ability to produce a mathematical paper that meets the standards of quality required by peer review.

Too bad he didn't just stick to that.

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