Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Paucity of Intelligent Design

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 07, 2005

Re: Why Intelligent Design Is Going to Win

This must be comedy Friday at Tech Central Station. Well, let's go through the author's (*cough*) argument point by point.

ID will win because it's a religion-friendly, conservative-friendly, red-state kind of theory... families that reproduce people tend to reproduce ideas, as well.

Someone tell that to the Chinese. They outnumber everyone, yet the international language is English, the dominant world religions are Christianity and Islam, and the world economy is driven by capitalism, not communism.

Sure, the United States may well turn to a religion-dominated policy and social agenda; it has happened before. That's what the Islamic world did a couple of centuries ago. Look where it got them.

The world does not end at the American border, and having a majority inside the U.S. only constitutes no useful majority at all. The rest of the world will move on.

ID will win because the pro-Darwin crowd is acting like a bunch of losers. "Ewww... intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science."

Ewww... intelligent design people! They're just buck-toothed Bible-pushing nincompoops with community-college degrees who're trying to sell a gussied-up creationism to a cretinous public! No need to address their concerns or respond to their arguments. They are Not Science

Oh, wait, I said I would disprove the argument.

The point is, intelligent design is a religion-driven anti-intellectual position adhered to (and directed toward) mostly uneducated people, and it is Not Science.

Asserting this does not make an opponent of intellectual design a loser, merely untactful in stating the truth.

Perhaps were evolutionists to adopt a slick fallacy-filled propaganda campaign, fed through the revenues of dishonest evangelicals that fleece little old ladies out of their life savings, forming an unholy alliance with corporations and others who wish to trade on public ignorance to promote socially irresponsible and dangerous public policy, then it would be more 'plausible' and evolutionists 'not losers'.

After all, if you can get people to disbelieve scientists over this evolution thing, you can get them to disbelieve scientists over global warming, or over hurricane dangers. You can save your company a pile of money on emission reductions or levee building taxes. And if people are caught in the floodwater, well, that's the will of God. Intelligent design and all, you know?

But scientists don't work that way. They know that science is not - as Kern's whole column seems to suggest - some sort of propaganda exercise designed to maximize influence or profits. Science is about observation and reason, about evidence and justified belief. About seeking the truth, and when found, telling the truth.

People like me look with disdain at intelligent design not because they are losers; they look at it with disdain because it's fraud - massive psychotic cold-hearted fraud.

ID will win because it can be reconciled with any advance that takes place in biology, whereas Darwinism cannot yield even an inch of ground to ID... The entire edifice of Darwinian theory comes crashing down with even a single credible demonstration of design in any living thing. Can science really plug a finger into every hole in the Darwinian dyke for the next fifty years?

That's a bit like arguing that a belief in Santa Claus will succeed because Santa Claus can explain math, but math can't explain Santa Claus.

To be sure, an instance of Santa within the domain of math - the calculus version of flying reindeer, for example - would pose a problem for math. It might even shake math to its very foundations, like Hilbert spaces did.

But it's not like science cannot handle such counter-examples. It has happened before. Consider physics: the world believed in Newtonian physics until nature intervened and bent light. And consequently, physics advanced from Newtonian physics to relativism.

The question is, though, does intelligent design pose such a problem? Is there "even a single credible demonstration of design in any living thing"? What would count as such a demonstration? Why hasn't such a demonstration been brought forward? Why is it always described in the hypothetical, as it was above?

This point is merely the assertion that "evolution is true - unless it isn't." Well, fine. It's true, and until some actual evidence is adduced to the contrary, will continue to be true.

ID will win because it can piggyback on the growth of information theory, which will attract the best minds in the world over the next fifty years. ID is a proposition about information. It contends that the processes of life are so specific and carefully ordered that they must reflect deliberate action.

We can believe that 'all the best minds are in information theory' but it is a bit harder to believe that 'all information theorists are proponents of intelligent design', which is what you would have to believe in order to believe the preceeding point.

Moreover, the author demonstrates what appears to be a willful misunderstanding of information theory. "Is it possible to speak of a "science" of concepts? Right now, the scientific establishment says no." (You see, in real science you'd need to reference this.) Information theorists would be quite puzzled by Kern's assertion here - I mean, what the heck is logic? Or semiotics? Or, for that matter, information science? Of course there's a science of concepts - and Kern is spreading misinformation when he says there isn't.

In any case, contemporary information theory can offer a great deal of support, not to intelligent design, but to evolution. Consider, for example, 'signal drift' - the idea that a message, through a series of successive transmissions, changes into a new message (gossip is like that too, and nobody claims that gossip is evidence in favour of intelligent design).

Or consider social network theory, an area transfixing information theorists. Mathematics, observation and analysis have combined to show how order can emerge spontaneously from networks of interconnected, autonomous, and (importantly) undirected entities - hordes of crickets, for example, chirp in chorus, not because of some design, but because they can hear each other chirp.

To suggest that information theory supports intelligent design is laughable.

ID will win because ID assumes that man will find design in life -- and, as the mind of man is hard-wired to detect design, man will likely find what he seeks.

Um... sorry, I have to go laugh for a couple of minutes...

OK, I'm back.

Yes, humans detect design (they aren't exactly hard-wired (read up on neuroplasticity), but they detect design (or, more accurately, patterns of relations... but 'design' is close enough)).

But this supports intelligent design if - and only if - every instance of 'design' in the universe is an instance of 'intelligent design'.

Now that's going to be a tough sell.

Take a handful of coins. Toss them in the air and watch them as they fall to the floor. Now - irrefutably - they have landed in some sort of pattern, a design.

But was it 'intelligently designed'? Or is it just some schmuck tossing a handful of coins randomly in the air.

Look more closely at the coins now. You will notice that the coins have been arranged in triangles. Now before you tossed the coins, did you intend to create a bunch of triangles? Almost certainly not! And yet - there they are.

So clearly - there are instances of unintelligent design. Which means that proponents of intelligent design, if they want to make the 'hard-wired for design' argument work, need to show (a) that there is some way to tell the difference between intelligent design and random design (good luck on that one - may I recommend teleology as a place to start), and (b) that humans are wired specifically to detect instances of intelligent design, and not random design.

Moreover, in the words of the immortal Mick Jagger - "You can't always get what you want." Even if humans are hard-wired to look for something, there is no guarantee that they'll find it.

Which reminds me - where did I put my fat-free chocolate doughnuts? Must... have... doughnuts...

The only remaining question is whether Darwinism will exit gracefully, or whether it will go down biting, screaming, censoring, and denouncing to the bitter end.

Again, Kern writes as though this were some sort of political campaign.

We don't teach that 2+2=5 in math class, and nobody accuses us of censorship as a result.

We don't teach it because it's not math, and moreover, people brought up to believe that it is math would be dangerously misinformed.

So why do people say intelligent design is not a science?

Two reasons.

First, science is a system of principles and methodologies employed to determine whether a given principle is true or a given methodology is truth-preserving.

In other words, the whole point of science is to distinguish between things that are true and things that are not true.

Does intelligent design do this? No.

- first, there's no way to tell whether or not intelligent design itself is true or not true. There is no proof, that could subsequently be tested. There's no distinction between evidence that would count in its favour, and evidence that would count against.

- second, intelligent design itself offers no guidance on whether anything else is true or not true. Was all grass purple ten thousand years ago? Intelligent design not only doesn't tell us, it gives us no advice on how we would proceed to find out.

These are not trivial flaws. They are critical, and failing to take them into account leads to dangerously misleading information.

Take, for example, flu vaccines.

The flu virus, as we know, mutates. We know this because we can look at the virus one year to the next and see that they are different.

For people who design flu vaccines, a critical question is, what will the flu virus mutate into next year? Now it's true they don't know exactly. But before you jump all over them (as ID theorists tend to do), ask yourself, what does intelligent design say about this?

Will the flu mutate into a pink elephant next year? Evolution tells us, 'probably not'. Intelligent design? Haven't a friggin clue! There is nothing in intelligent design that will tell us whether or not the flu will mutate into pink elephants.

Think about that for a moment. What the heck kind of science is that?

Now - why is this dangerous? Well, people who think there's just no telling what the flu will be like next year are also the sort of people who can be disposed to think that flu vaccines are more harmful than the flu, and therefore, don't take them.

Never mind history, which tells us that the flu killed millions of people in 1918-19. Never mind science, which tells us that the flu will mutate into something humans have no natural immunity against.

No - such people are just as likely to believe people who thing flu vaccines are some sort of communism, or people who don't want their taxes to pay for flu research and vaccine distribution. Such people cannot distinguish between assertions that are and are not scientific, and as a result, expose themselves to serious illness for no reason.

Second, science is a system of principles and methodologies designed not merely to describe but also to explain why something is the case.

That's what evolution does. It not only sais that, say, primates evolved into humans, it also explains why, say, primates did not evolve into pink elephants.

Intelligent design is silent on this question.

Telling us why things are the way they are helps us in our daily lives.

Which engineer will you trust? The one who when asked why the bridge will stand, explains in terms of tensile strength, mass and gravitation? Or the one who, when asked the same question, says 'Because God wills it'?

Knowing why plants grow distinguishes between those farmers who fertilize and irrigate their crops from those who pray for rain.

In summary:

- You can't know whether or not intelligent design is true, and

- Even if it is true, you can't do anything useful with it.

The author may think that an empty and unprovable theory will succeed. But, obviously, reason and evidence played no role in the drawing of this conclusion.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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