Sep 04 2007

Answering the ID Crowd

From time to time I will post a blog entry that is a response to an e-mail question or comment sent to me. I choose those e-mails that I feel reflect common and typical beliefs in the public, are representative of the e-mails I receive on the topic, or that provide a window into the propaganda and “framing” that is being foist upon the public. Part of the mission of this blog is to promote the public understanding of science, so while high level debates among experts in an area are extremely useful, addressing questions from the public are likely to promote this mission more effective.

Today I received an e-mail from one John Foster in South Korea that I simply could not resist taking apart because it deals with one of my favorite topics – evolution and ID, with some philosophy of science thrown in. He begins:

In what sense is Intelligent Design not science? We’re not talking about creationism. If your point is that ID is not falsifiable then are you willing to toss out theories such as Darwinism, black holes, string theory, Chaos theory, and so on.

You have to admire the density of logical fallacies and false premises in this letter. Creationism is a well-worn pseudoscience. Its rhetoric is finely crafted nonsense – which translates into densely packed error. Let’s take it piece by piece.

The Dover trial demonstrated quite conclusively that ID is creationism. The definitive chain of evidence were drafts of the book Of Pandas and People, which was originally written as a piece of creationist propaganda, but the later drafts did a literal search and replace, substituting the words “intelligent design” for “ creationism.” The fact is there is no substantive difference between any of the claims of ID and traditional creationism. The only difference is window dressing – the deliberate and strategic substitution of the vague intelligent designer for the Christian God. Creationists seem perpetually impudently frustrated that they are not fooling anyone.

John correctly anticipates that the primary reason ID is not science is because it is not falsifiable, but he attempts to counter this with the tu quoque logical fallacy (incorrectly applied with false assumed premises). In other words, he is saying that even though ID is not falsifiable, so other alleged scientific ideas are not, committing the “you too” logical fallacy. A falsifiable hypothesis is a necessary (if insufficient) criterion for any claim to be scientific. An idea that cannot be tested is not within the realm of science.

ID is not falsifiable in the worst possible way, by its very formulation (as opposed to not being falsifiable for practical or technological reasons). ID states that all life on earth was designed, but expressly refuses to make any statements about the nature of the designer or the process of design. What this means is that any possible observation of nature is compatible with design. It doesn’t matter how much homology we find among species, it doesn’t matter if we find examples of apparently poor design or vestigial structures. The designers could have designed life to look like anything, so matter what we find that’s the way it was designed.

ID does not (as evolutionary theory does) make any predictions about what we should or (more importantly) cannot find in nature. This is the reason that there is no ID research program – there is nothing to research. The best ID proponents can do is point to questions that have not yet been answered by evolutionary theory, or types of evidence that have not yet emerged. ID is nothing but a giant argument from ignorance – and it even fails at that, for the classic examples of alleged irreducible complexity (structures or biochemical pathways that could not be explained by evolution) have already been largely explained since their invocation by ID’ers. Again – during the Dover trial papers and books were presented filling in the infamous gaps that ID proponents were gleefully pointing to.

Further, John has the question wrong (even though I have just nicely answered it), or rather backwards. The real question is: why should ID be considered science?

What about the sciences that John claims are also not falsifiable? They are all bad examples, and for separate reasons. Of course, “Darwinism” is the most relevant. Darwin’s theory of evolution is absolutely falsifiable. Here is a quick list of lines of evidence that could have potentially falsified evolution, but instead verified it:

– Evolution requires that the units of heredity are not infinitely dilutable. This was a major contemporary criticism of Darwin. The discovery of genes – discrete inherited units that are not diluted – dodged this potentially falsifying bullet.

– Evolution requires that all life is related and developed over time through descent with modification. This leads to several falsifiable predictions, including that:

– Fossil evidence will tend to fill in the morphological gaps between extant species.

– Fossils will exist in an evolutionarily compatible temporal sequence (no horse fossils in Cambrian strata)

– We will not find, either extant or extinct, any impossible chimeras or creatures with novel structures that have no possible antecedents. Therefore, no horses with winged feathers.

– Different independently derived maps of evolutionary relationships will generally agree. Therefore, the apparent pattern of relatedness among species from a morphological analysis will overlay with a genetic map of relatedness, a biochemical map, and a temporal and geographical map.

All of the above requirements for evolution have been verified. A single unequivocal vertebrate fossil native to a Cambrian fossil bed would falsify evolution, or at least require a major revision or addition. If chimps were biochemically and genetically more similar to snakes than to people, that would falsify evolution. Our observations of nature have provided countless opportunities to falsify evolution – and yet there is not a single piece of solid evidence that is incompatible with evolution and its many detailed requirements.

Similarly, black hole theory makes predictions about what astronomers will observe. Chaos theory makes predictions about how complex systems with behave –specifically it sets limits on our ability to predict the future behavior of complex systems. String theory, technically, is not a scientific theory. It is rather, at this point, a mathematical model. Whether or not it graduates to a scientific theory depends largely on if someone can figure out a testable prediction that it makes.

John next writes:

It is proposed that ID be taught as an alternate theory, not a fact. It is certainly as valid a theory as Darwinism which at it’s core cites a random event as the origin of life.

That ID proponents want it taught as theory, not fact, is not a defense but rather a straw man (critics of ID of never, to my knowledge, charged or even vaguely inferred that they want it taught as fact). The problem is that ID is not an alternate theory – it’s not a scientific theory. Further, that life on earth is the product of organic evolution has been established to a sufficiently high degree that it should be considered a scientific fact. So in one stroke John and ID proponents want to promote ID to a theory and demote evolution to “just a theory.”

John then commits the tired crusty canard of confusing evolutionary theory with life origins. The two are distinct. Evolutionary theory deals with the subsequent evolution, once a system capable of evolution (self-replicates with error and differential survival) arose. How such a system arose is entirely irrelevant.

John next descends to this:

It seems far more logical to assume that the initial event was not random. If you find a watch in the desert do you assume that wind blew particles of sand randomly into a watch or do you assume someone probably made the watch?

Ah…the watchmaker analogy. I wonder if John is aware of the rich irony that he simultaneous maintains that ID is not creationism and then resorts to a classic creationist analogy – the watch in the sand. A watch is not a self organizing, self replicating system capable of using energy for growth and reproduction. It is inanimate. This, of course, breaks the analogy to bits. I invite my reader to ponder the depth of intellectual dishonesty or simple confusion necessary to make such a poor analogy.

He goes on:

Perhaps you should apply your skepticism to the darwinian notion that it all started with “random magic”. Or are you not defenders of Darwinism?

Straw man – no one claims the origin of life was magical. Further, I do apply my skepticism to the claim that the origin of life on earth occurred through essentially random natural processes. After doing so, I find this notion entirely plausible, consistent with available evidence, and better than any alternate theory.

John concludes:

It seems to me that not only should many different theories be taught in schools but that the controversy surrounding these various theories should be taught as well. You should not be afraid to present students with a variety of options. What baffles me is that skeptics or at least the ones on your show fail to see that darwinism is full of giant holes and leaps in logic. It is not falsifiable and it gives no objective definitive cause for initial creation. It is, after all, a theory.

Scientists and skeptics do want all viable alternative theories taught, we do think that science education should properly reflect genuine controversies within science, and that the strengths and weaknesses of any theory should be accurately conveyed. None of this, of course, is a defense of ID, which is not a scientific theory. ID’ers do not represent any genuine controversy and do not present and real weaknesses of evolutionary theory. I no more want ID taught as science than I want the geocentric theory taught as an alternate to the heliocentric model of our solar system, nor do I want the humoral theory of illness taught as an alternate to the germ theory of infectious disease, nor do I want the expanding earth theory presented as a viable alternative to the tectonic plate theory.

Defenders of every stripe of pseudoscience cry “unfair” when they are excluded from the ranks of legitimate science. They all appeal to fairness, to a conspiracy against them, they all portray scientific consensus as dogma and claim that all they want is all options to be presented.

John is “baffled” that we fail to see the “giant holes and leaps in logic” in “Darwinism.” Like what? ID proponents have had their chance (as creationists did before them) to present their case in books, articles, now on blogs and podcasts. They have utterly failed. Their claims are intellectually dead, they are based upon false premises and faulty logic – which has been proven over and over again. They have had their chance to make their case in various courts of law, where there are rules of evidence and fairness, and have been found to be intellectually dishonest and bereft of any legitimacy.

Now they whine about being excluded from science despite their pathetic failings. They even made a movie about it – Expelled, hosted by Ben Stein.

So here is an open challenge to John, or any other ID proponent for that matter. Show me a gaping hole in evolutionary theory and I will happily link to an article that already debunks it. If you manage to come up with something that has not already been shown to be vacuous nonsense, then maybe I will have to expend some time to debunk it myself. I’m waiting.

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