Apr 22 2008

More Witless Self-Contradiction from the Discovery Institute

The two most recent blog entries on Evolution News & Views (the primary function of which is to spread pro-Intelligent Design propaganda) are both by Robert Crowther. I could not help but notice that these sequential blog entries by the same author directly contradict each other – and I suspect that Crowther is ignorant of the contradiction.

This happens frequently over at the Discovery Institute. I recently pointed out that ID proponents, on the same DI blog, reject the evidence from breeding for the power of selection as relevant to evolution through natural selection (because breeding is artificial), but then use the Nazi holocaust – which was a program of artificial selection – as evidence that evolution is evil. The ID propagandists are susceptible to tripping over themselves like this because they are engaged in deception in defending an a-priori belief, not an honest and sincere quest for scientific knowledge. Valid science must agree with itself – lies are not so constrained.

I just happened to remember the prior blog entry on breeding and made the connection to the recent defense of the “Nazi Gambit” made in the new propaganda film; Expelled. This time, however, Crowther made it easy by contradicting himself in sequential blog entries.

For background, Richard Dawkins tells the tale of how he was tricked by Ben Stein into answering questions about evolution and ID that Dawkins thought were going to be used to explain these concepts to a lay audience. Instead, Stein was trolling for excerpts he could take out of context to ridicule Dawkins. At one point he was asked if he could think of any scenario under which life on earth could have been designed, and Dawkins gave the highly speculative scenario that life on earth could have been seeded by an advanced alien race. Dawkins writes:

This ‘Ultimate 747’ argument, as I called it in The God Delusion, may or may not persuade you. That is not my concern here. My concern here is that my science fiction thought experiment — however implausible — was designed to illustrate intelligent design’s closest approach to being plausible. I was most emphaticaly NOT saying that I believed the thought experiment. Quite the contrary. I do not believe it (and I don’t think Francis Crick believed it either). I was bending over backwards to make the best case I could for a form of intelligent design. And my clear implication was that the best case I could make was a very implausible case indeed. In other words, I was using the thought experiment as a way of demonstrating strong opposition to all theories of intelligent design.

But – Stein got his quote, and he made fun of it in the movie, implying that Dawkins believes in space aliens. The Discovery Institute is now picking up that ball and running with it as far as they can. In yesterday’s post Crowther writes:

Richard Dawkins’ concession that the design we see in nature could be the result of alien activity continues to be a hot topic. CSC senior fellow David DeWolf e-mailed me with some interesting insights.

“The point of Dawkins’ concession in the movie [Expelled] is not that panspermia is a preferable alternative to evolutionary theory, but rather THAT IT CAN BE STUDIED SCIENTIFICALLY. (Sorry for shouting, but I get excited about these things.)

“Dawkins concedes that you could scientifically investigate whether or not the origin of life reflected natural processes or whether it was likely the result of intervention from an external, intelligent source.”

So they are saying that Dawkins is admitting that ID can be studied scientifically, based upon Dawkin’s thought experiment (taken out of context) about an advanced alien race seeding life on earth.

Two days ago, however, Crowther quotes Jonathan Wells in his post as saying:

According to intelligent design, however, it is possible to infer from evidence in nature that some features of the world and of living things are better explained by an intelligent cause than by undirected natural processes. Although ID says nothing about the nature of the designer (other than calling it intelligent), it leaves open the possibility that the designer is God.

And here we have the contradiction. Admittedly, you have to understand a little something about how science operates in order to see the contradiction, and Crowther gives no evidence that he does. The reason that ID is not testable scientifically, and therefore is not a scientific theory, is precisely because “ID says nothing about the nature of the designer.” That is it. If the designer is not constrained in any way – by the methods that they can employ, the power and resources at their disposal, by the laws of nature, or by any knowledge of their intent or purpose – then there is no way to test or falsify the notion that the designer is responsible for what we see in nature.

For example, an ID proponent can look at any structure in nature and no matter what they see they can confidently state – that is the way the designer must have intended for it to look and function. What about the copious genetic evidence for branching descent? Well, the designer chose to make it that way. If there is nothing the designer cannot or would not do, then there is no way to falsify the designer – and therefore such a version of ID is not a scientific theory.

So while Crowther is crowing that Dawkins apparently admits that ID is testable, he quotes Wells who is blatantly admitting that ID is not testable – and Crowther is blind to the whole thing. This ignorance is not excusable. The Discovery Institute is the most visible institution of ID. This is the primary point of contention over ID with respect to its admissibility in the classroom. That Crowther does not know this issue inside and out is inexcusable. So either he is grossly incompetent as a representative of ID, or he is being intellectually dishonest – or some combination of the two.

What about the design of alien biologists? This is a completely different notion. An alien race, even one vastly more advanced scientifically than current human technology, would still be constrained by the laws of nature. We can make inferences about what they could or could not do – very much unlike ID’s mysterious and unconstrained designer.

The point that Crowther and his ID cronies miss entirely (whether deliberately or out of ignorance is hard to tell) is that it is not the notion of design that is outside the bounds of science – it is the notion of a designer about which we are not permitted to speculate at all or constrain in any way. But of course this is the bit that ID proponents cannot surrender. Because as Wells writes (in uncharacteristic candor):

…it leaves open the possibility that the designer is God.

50 responses so far

50 Responses to “More Witless Self-Contradiction from the Discovery Institute”

  1. DevilsAdvocateon 22 Apr 2008 at 10:55 am

    It’s Evolution 36,845 and Intelligent Design 0 in the 1st inning, no outs, and the ID team has changed its pitcher yet again….

  2. jasonnybergon 22 Apr 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Panspermia is a poison pill for ID… It lets a scientist decouple design from origin.

    You can judo-flip any ID argument from natural vs. supernatural design to God vs. Aliens, _and it takes zero effort_.

    Superficially, this technique looks non-scientific; but it forces the IDer to play defense, eliminates their pseudo-scientific weapons, and actually shines the spotlight on the non-scientific nature of their argument.

    An “ID=Aliens” meme will make them sound to _everyone_ like the crackpots they are.

    Of course, scientists can continue the scientific demolition of the ID arguments; but they’re offloaded from the task of being the primary line of defense.


  3. rochabillon 22 Apr 2008 at 12:49 pm

    “If there is nothing the designer cannot or would not do, then there is no way to falsify the designer – and therefore such a version of ID is not a scientific theory”

    I don’t see why any discussion needs to continue any further than this. This God, err designer can basically do anything it wants; it can bend or break any established laws/theories simply through its divine will to do so. Any evidence that may be presented is simply the “intention” of this designer. To start with this conclusion, that there is a designer and then finding the gaps that seem to fit into it is the very definition of pseudo-science. Where would we be as a society or indeed as a civilization if science were carried out in this manner?

  4. DevilsAdvocateon 22 Apr 2008 at 12:54 pm

    A theocracy.

  5. Roy Nileson 22 Apr 2008 at 3:34 pm

    “If there is nothing the designer cannot or would not do, then there is no way to falsify the designer – and therefore such a version of ID is not a scientific theory.”

    Ah, but aren’t they also saying that it’s a science that doesn’t require a theory, precisely because the theory involves the designer and not the product? That once designed, the nature of the product was inevitable?

    And haven’t they then moved the question to one of the very existence of a designer, rather than of just it’s nature? Because if the design was predicable in every way, the designer would need to operate in a deterministic universe. Yet such a universe would have no room for a designer at all. And in a non-deterministic universe, any prospective designer would have its powers of prediction severely limited.

    And the possibility that the designer is God has been more closed than left open as a result of their Dawkins shenanigans.

  6. _Arthuron 22 Apr 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Panspermia is an hypothesis just as solid as ID, supported by no evidence so far.

    But, unlike ID, panspermia _can_ be scientifically demonstrated, say by discovering DNA seeds in comets.

  7. Simonon 22 Apr 2008 at 6:47 pm

    Hold on, of God did intelligently design us and the Universe to look billions of years old just 6000 years ago, then he’s gone seriously out of his way to cover his tracks- almost as if he _wanted_ us to think he didn’t exist (After all if you take the “Argument from infinities” God is infinitely modest!).

    Therefore the God squad is only going to piss him off by insisting he exists when he’s trying really hard to get us to think he didn’t.

  8. badrabbion 22 Apr 2008 at 7:26 pm

    OK, so ID is not science in the sense that its hypothesis can not be tested or falsified. Ok. But the question is whether it is true.

    Did God create the universe and the organisms within it? You seem to be saying that science can not answer that question. So who can?

  9. pecon 22 Apr 2008 at 8:32 pm

    Darwin’s theory “… is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. ”

    That’s a quote from Dawkins. He doesn’t even know that Darwinism has nothing to say about the origin of life.

    “What about the copious genetic evidence for branching descent?”

    Most ID scientists believe in evolution, and I can’t imagine where you got the idea that they don’t.

  10. daedalus2uon 22 Apr 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Tell us what you mean when you use the terms “God”, “create”, “the universe”, “organisms” and “in it”.

    If the question cannot be posed in a well formed way (i.e. where each of the terms in it have an unambiguous meaning), then an answer is not possible, or rather any answer is as good as any other. It is like asking what is the answer to the following question.

    Zzl,erx@pc #$s sle%&poc h90%%.SER= +! #@$NaRE{{[[87^&**%$ SA})*&~WeA?

    I know even Dr Novella with all of his science and logic is completely powerless to answer this one; maybe you can use something else.

  11. skidooon 22 Apr 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Has a consensus developed yet as to whether pec is willfully disingenuous or merely mentally deficient?

  12. mindmeon 22 Apr 2008 at 11:01 pm

    My car won’t start in the morning. I want my mechanic to first explore all material causes for the breakdown. I don’t want him to waste his time and my money first trying to exorcise a demon. I’m sure the ID people would feel the same way. So I’m not sure why anyone would want our scientists doing the same. Before we start to look for god-did-it explanations, it seems to me we have a lot of natural avenues we need to explore and exhaust.

    Further, I do not assume because my mechanic first tries to find a material explanation for the observed phenomenon, in this case a non working 1995 Pontiac Firefly, that he is godless and without ethics.

    I don’t want my mechanic to first consult the bible about car repair, but I wouldn’t mind my mechanic, who professes to believe in a good and ethical god, to base his business ethics and his credit terms on the teachings of his good and ethical god. If my mechanic were an atheist and likewise professed a life philosophy that encompassed good business ethics and easy credit terms (because that brings him more business, not the comforting knowledge he’s avoided hell once more), I’ll patronize him as well. Whatever they tell themselves to justify their ethical behavior, it doesn’t matter to me. In the end, we both win. At the end of the day, they’re both good businessmen.

    To my god believing mechanic, I would much rather his church spend their time trying to teach him to just live by the morals the faith professes and not tell him that to be a good Christian he first must believe my car broke down because of divine intervention.

  13. mike Don 22 Apr 2008 at 11:03 pm


    Our blessed Darwin’s book was entitled “On The Origin of SPECIES” not “On The Origin of LIFE.”

  14. DevilsAdvocateon 22 Apr 2008 at 11:17 pm

    Mustn’t overlook the five-ton problem of ‘who created the designer?’

  15. Roy Nileson 22 Apr 2008 at 11:42 pm

    It’s designers all the way down.

  16. Gated Clockon 22 Apr 2008 at 11:52 pm

    “Did God create the universe and the organisms within it? You seem to be saying that science can not answer that question. So who can?”

    No one. Watch out for those who claim they can.

  17. markVAon 23 Apr 2008 at 1:29 am

    on badrabbi’s comment, he says ” You seem to be saying that science can not answer that question.”

    I think the flaw with this question is that assumption that knowledge falls into different categories, i.e., scientific vs. spiritual

    But, this fundamentally misunderstands what ‘science’ really is. It is a framework by which claims to truth can be tested, and the methods of science are how we assess degrees of certainty.

    Religious/mythical/supernatural claims are hypotheses; however, empirical investigations have outstripped humanity’s ability to infer about the world we interact with. An example would be a point of difference between Hindu & Buddhist points of view on ‘the soul.’ The basic difference is whether there is an unchanging kernel of a being, what nowadays we describe as the ghost in the machine. Classically, this would be the atman vs. the anatman. Interesting & intriguing as this line of argument can be, I am glad to live in a time when the answers to these sorts of fundamental questions about what it means to be alive and conscious are being sketched out for the first time.

    The neurosciences are illuminating the true nature of consciousness and the mind. So a field of study that is decades old is making more progress on this question than thousands of years of philosophical argument & debate. Mighty impressive

  18. badrabbion 23 Apr 2008 at 1:37 am


    Question #1: Did God create the universe and the organisms within it?

    Question #2: Zzl,erx@pc #$s sle%&poc h90%%.SER= +! #@$NaRE{{[[87^&**%$ SA})*&~WeA?

    Are these similar?

    OK, perhaps I can tighten my question a bit. Perhaps I can define “god” for you. But really, you think that the 2 are basically the same? Really?

    Perhaps that’s the problem!

  19. badrabbion 23 Apr 2008 at 1:41 am


    Humbly I claim ignorance to what you said. I read the sentences and individually most sentences make sense. I seem to be missing the totality of what you are saying though.

  20. badrabbion 23 Apr 2008 at 1:48 am

    I ask the question about God’s creating the universe because many scientists seem to get shy when it comes to God, spirits and religion.

    Did God create life? It seems to me that we can do as daedalus2u says, tighten up the question, and go about trying to answer it.

    But why shy away from it? Why claim that “it is not science” as if science is reserved only for a certain kind of knowledge? Either God is out there or not. Either way, science can and should be used to answer the question. Either there is an intelligent designer (God) who designed this Earth or not. Again, what is wrong with asking science to answer this question?

    Why take metaphysics out of the realm of science?

  21. Steve Pageon 23 Apr 2008 at 6:39 am

    Still trolling, pec. You’re getting very boring.

  22. daedalus2uon 23 Apr 2008 at 8:48 am

    badrabbi, if you can give us the definition of God that you are using, that would be a start. So far, no definition has been proposed that would allow us to distinguish between an actual God, and something like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Until you tell us what you mean by the term, your question is indistinguishable from:

    Did the Flying Spaghetti Monster create the universe and the organisms within it?

  23. Steven Novellaon 23 Apr 2008 at 9:17 am


    Science is reserved for a certain kind of knowledge – scientific knowledge. The universe may contain truths that we cannot examine scientifically – we have to be content that they are just unknowable. Wanting to know isn’t enough.

    Science requires that ideas can be tested, at a very minimum. You cannot test within the laws of the universe something that lies outside the laws of the universe.

  24. pecon 23 Apr 2008 at 10:20 am

    “There were very likely variation and selection at play in the forming of the first organisms from non-living chemicals.”

    You have no evidence whatsoever for saying that.

  25. DevilsAdvocateon 23 Apr 2008 at 10:27 am

    Challenged to scientifically determine whether or not God exists, the first two questions are:

    1) How do you define God?
    2) What would you accept as evidence that God doesn’t exist?

    Until those two are answered there’s not much point in proceeding.

  26. badrabbion 23 Apr 2008 at 10:28 am


    God = one or more entity(ies) possessing power and knowledge beyond our own, who has (have) caused the existence of parts of or all universe together with its contents. His (their) power may be limited by known laws of the universe, though that is not clear.

    Regarding flying spaghetti monster, you could give an equivalent definition to it as well. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

    Now the question is whether the existence of such an entity falls beyond scientific endeavor. I am wondering why Dr Novella seems to think that it does not….

    Suppose that we have a large scientific budget, and we employ a SETI like project to seek God out. And just suppose we happen to hit upon His location and were able to thus communicate with Him. Such endeavor would actually constitute scientific evidence for His existence, right? Now, mind you, this is just a thought experiment and I am by no means suggesting that SETI start trying to communicate with God! What I am saying is that if we treat God as a scientific problem, then we can come up with scientific ways to deal with the issue of His existence. Why rule out any reasonable effort to scientifically deal with Him?

    What is special about God, spirits, and metaphysics that transcend scientific thinking?

    Or is it that we are attempting to pander to the religious community, in effect providing them with a magisterial in which they can play, safe from science’s reach?

  27. Steven Novellaon 23 Apr 2008 at 11:07 am

    pec wrote: “‘There were very likely variation and selection at play in the forming of the first organisms from non-living chemicals.’

    You have no evidence whatsoever for saying that.”

    We can extrapolate from what we do know about life – that variation and selection acting upon a self-replicating system can accumulate complexity – to conclude that it is probable that self-replicating chemicals (primitive RNA) could have also evolved under selective pressures to form the basic biochemistry of life. There is no direct evidence that this actually happened, but this is a viable hypothesis and there is much to infer that it is likely correct.

    And keep in mind – this was a response to your claim that Darwinism has NOTHING to do with the origin of life. Meanwhile it is central to our current hypotheses about how life arose. I never said anything was proven.

  28. Steven Novellaon 23 Apr 2008 at 11:14 am

    Badrabbi – you hit upon the key to this question. It all depends upon how you define god or whatever. If you define it as a testable scientific hypothesis – then it can be tested. If you define it as something inherently mysterious and outside the physical laws of the universe – then it cannot be tested scientifically.

    My very point is that ID proponents define the designer in such a way that it cannot be tested. Our open challenge to them – come up with a falsifiable version of the designer and ID and we can talk. Until then your beliefs are religion masquerading as science.

    Let’s look at your SETI example – let’s say we do communicate with a god-like figure. How do we know it’s not just an alien intelligence millions of years advanced beyond us pretending to be God? Can you design a test (even theoretically – forget about practically) to make that distinction?

    Also – let’s say we have surveyed the entire visible universe in the entire EM spectrum (hey – it’s just a thought experiment) and we still have not found any god-like entities. Would that prove that God does not exist? Or would the faithful just say that God does not communicate through EM energy. Perhaps he uses an undetectable spiritual means. Or perhaps he just chooses not to communicate. Perhaps the dragon is an invisible floating heatless dragon.

  29. DevilsAdvocateon 23 Apr 2008 at 12:16 pm

    We’d have to perform a completely gapless examination of the universe(s), lest God proponents park God in said gap(s).

    In essense, to find God you gotta be God.

  30. pecon 23 Apr 2008 at 12:30 pm

    ” it is probable that self-replicating chemicals (primitive RNA) could have also evolved under selective pressures to form the basic biochemistry of life. There is no direct evidence that this actually happened, ”

    It isn’t probable. Even Dawkins admits it is utterly improbable. There is no “direct” evidence, and you are not being straightforward when you imply there is some indirect evidence. There is no evidence for your hypothesis and even devout materialists admit the odds against it are astronomical.

    How can you test your hypothesis? What reasons have led you to this belief, other than no other explanation fits your philosophical bias?

  31. Steven Novellaon 23 Apr 2008 at 1:09 pm

    Again you misinterpret Dawkins. It is improbable – if it were to occur at random. The whole point is that evolution is not random. Very improbable things can happen through accumulated non-random processes, like selection. That is the whole point of Climbing Mount Improbable. So again you get it completely wrong.

  32. Roy Nileson 23 Apr 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Life’s existence is only improbable from a predictive standpoint. From a consequential standpoint, it is fait accompli.
    But your philosophical bias seems to be telling you that everything should be predictable for it to exist, and so there has to be a great predictor somewhere.
    But that would seem to require a deterministic cosmos that allowed for such effective predictability – where even the great predictor could only predict what was already in the works. In which case, no designer need apply.
    Or is it within your philosophy that everything is not predictable to any degree of certainty? And then what type of designer would fit in that philosophy?

  33. pecon 23 Apr 2008 at 1:46 pm

    “Again you misinterpret Dawkins. It is improbable – if it were to occur at random. The whole point is that evolution is not random. Very improbable things can happen through accumulated non-random processes, like selection. That is the whole point of Climbing Mount Improbable. So again you get it completely wrong.”

    No — you got it completely wrong! Dawkins says it is utterly improbable — you must not be aware of his views. He’s not quite as wild an extremist as you are.

    There is no natural selection before there are reproducing organisms. The theories about pre-organic natural selection are just materialist speculation.

  34. pecon 23 Apr 2008 at 1:49 pm

    No Roy Niles. I don’t believe things have to be predictable. I DO believe things should be scientifically plausible before we decide they are true! Life originating by chance is NOT a fait accompli, unless your philosophy dictates that it must have happened by chance. Then, of course, what you believe MUST be true, because you believe it!

  35. Roy Nileson 23 Apr 2008 at 2:50 pm

    I would have thought what I said was consistent with what you then said. That everything that has happened would seem to have been improbable prior to the time it was discovered to have happened.

    If the universe is deterministic, then improbability in retrospect was only an illusion. If non-deterministic, then a deterministic designer would be the illusion.

    If you don’t believe things have to be predictable, how would a heretofore supernatural designer have designed life except by trial and error? Saying things don’t have to be predictable is not an answer to the question of whether things would need to be predictable for life to have had a non-accidental design.

  36. pecon 23 Apr 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Roy Niles,

    I think that our universe has a natural tendency to self-organize in creative ways. The outcomes are never predictable; all we can predict is that some kind of evolution will occur.

    All that ID theorists are really asking is that we move on from old-fashioned and simplistic reductionism, towards something like chaos theory.

  37. Roy Nileson 23 Apr 2008 at 4:10 pm

    Would that be deterministic chaos by any chance? Because again, no designers need apply.

  38. daedalus2uon 23 Apr 2008 at 4:30 pm

    What ever the prior probability of the likelihood of living organisms arising “at random”, it is non-zero because there are only a finite number of possibilities for self-replicating organisms of finite complexity.

    However, the prior probability of an infinitely complex entity arising by chance is zero.

  39. daedalus2uon 23 Apr 2008 at 4:41 pm

    pec, what part of chaos theory postulates an ID? All systems of multiple coupled non-linear parameters exhibit chaos. That includes even very simple things like 3 bodies in certain gravitational interactions, or more complicated things such as weather.

    Because weather is chaotic we should abandon “old-fashioned and simplistic reductionism” and adopt something like weather gods? The equivalent of “intelligent design” for the weather?

  40. DevilsAdvocateon 23 Apr 2008 at 5:01 pm

    Given enough years, say millions and billions, and the improbable might arguably become inevitable.

  41. Roy Nileson 23 Apr 2008 at 5:05 pm

    In a non-deterministic universe, everything would have been ultimately effected by an element of chance.

  42. Roy Nileson 23 Apr 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Inevitability is only consistent with determinism. And with a fatalistic world view. Which is the paradoxical position embraced by religions that believe the inevitable required a creator.

  43. weingon 24 Apr 2008 at 10:15 am

    Zzl,erx@pc #$s sle%&poc h90%%.SER= +! #@$NaRE{{[[87^&**%$ SA})*&~WeA?


  44. pecon 24 Apr 2008 at 10:27 am

    “Given enough years, say millions and billions, and the improbable might arguably become inevitable.”

    Yes, that is the standard argument for the origin and evolution of life by random accident. We could use the same argument to prove that pigs will definitely be able to fly some day.

  45. DevilsAdvocateon 24 Apr 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Not at all, unless natural selection favors a flying pig.

    (Argument from absurdity)

  46. pecon 24 Apr 2008 at 7:59 pm

    I think flying pigs would have a great advantage over other pigs.

  47. mindmeon 24 Apr 2008 at 8:45 pm

    “I think flying pigs would have a great advantage over other pigs.”

    But they wouldn’t over birds. You also have to consider the species occupying the current niche.

  48. Roy Nileson 24 Apr 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Those would be the flying dinosaurs of course. (Stegosaurus were said to have pig-like features, but I digress.)

  49. jasonnybergon 25 Apr 2008 at 10:56 am


    A) You hold evolution up to a higher standard of evidence than your own undefined alternatives,
    B) An event that has a probability of occurring once in a X years is likely to happen within X years (by definition), and
    C) Pigs can already fly. (The flying pigs look much different than the regular ones, of course.)

    Regardless, let’s just assume for a moment that ID theories are all correct: What do the ID’ers have against aliens being the designers?

  50. […] More Witless Self-contradiction from the Discovery Institute (Steven Novella, 4/08) […]

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