Thursday, November 17, 2005

Intelligent Design

There seems to be a minor blog storm (at least on the blogs I frequent) about intelligent design. It started with Scott Adams claiming the no one on either side of the origins debate is believable and both sides misrepresent the positions of the other. I've stood on both sides of the issue and have over five years of in-depth study under my belt, so I figure I must be able to talk as intelligently about the subject as someone who draws (damn funny, if you ask me) cartoons for a living.

I agree with Scott Adams' main point: the two sides talk past each other, not necessarily out of a deliberate attempt to confuse (although that certainly happens), but more from the fact that there just isn't any point of contact between your average fundamentalist and your average scientist. They exist in different worlds and talk about different ideas using opaque language, or, worse, use the same words to mean very different things. And just to keep things interesting, we have fundamentalists who are unbelievably weak on doctrinal issues, and a publicly educated general population that is completely ignorant of what the scientific method is. (I learned it in the 4th grade, had it reinforced in 5th and 6th grade, studied historical cases of it put into practice in 7th and 8th grade, and put it into personal use in 9th through 12th grade. This was in a dirt-poor fundamentalist Christian school. Why the average public school is unable to accomplish this is beyond my ability to comprehend.)

This isn't going to be real organized. Sorry.

The idea that there is some intelligent agency "behind" the physical world that gives us a purpose is shared by a large majority of Americans, including scientists. This belief would imply the idea of an intelligent designer that somehow affects physical reality. But here things quickly get ugly. What do I mean by "affecting reality?" I could mean anything from God tweaked the constants of the universe to make it conducive to self-aware life forming through wholly naturalistic means, to God created the entire universe 6,000 years ago in six days, and sustains it second-by-second with His thoughts (the belief I was raised on).

To confuse matters more, there is a political movement called Intelligent Design (ID) spear-headed by the Discovery Institute (DI). In spite of a $7 million annual budget, the DI does absolutely no research in the lab or in the field. Instead, these assclowns use that $7 million to con local school boards into trying to shove ID into high school biology classes. Their goals and methods are all clearly outlined in a memo known as the Wedge Document. The result is invariably a lawsuit by the parents that always goes against ID. In the most recent case (Dover, PA; Kitzmiller v. DASD), voters didn't even wait for the judge's decision and voted out the entire school board.

So what is the DI stand on the origins question? Well, that's a little tricky. In an attempt to gain as wide of a support base as possible, they employ a big-tent methodology that makes figuring out what ID stands for about as easy as nailing Jello to the wall.

Take one simple example: the age of the earth. Scott Adams states that one of the ways evolutionists misrepresent Intelligent Design is to claim they believe the earth is 10,000 years old. This, according to Adams, is not true; ID accepts that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. In reality, some advocates of ID accept that, some think it is somewhere in the millions, some think the earth is 10,000 years old. Some simply refuse to answer the question, even when directly asked in a courtroom. I wish I could find the link in the transcript from the Kansas hearings (the problem with being a pack rat is you have everything, you just can't ever find the one thing you are looking for), but there was one ID defender who dodged, ducked, dipped, dived, and dodged the direct question, "How old is the earth?" until he was finally forced to concede that he thought the earth was somewhere between 10,000 and 4.5 billion years old. Wow. Them's some big-ass error bars.

Another example is trying to find out just what did God (or god, or The Designer, or a designer, or little green men, or...) design? Cosmological ID says God set up the constants of the universe to make sensient life more or less inevitable through natural means. Biological ID says that the universal constants make the rise of self-replicating cells very unlikely, thus God made green goo. Michael Behe says that the human eye, the blood clotting cascade, and bacterial flagella are "irreducibly complex" and could not have evolved. Well, ok, so the blood clotting cascade and the eye did evolve, after all. But not the flagella. No way. God designed it so intestinal bacteria could more-efficiently give me the shits. William Dembski says... well, no one is really sure what the hell Dembski says other than it is mathematically impossible to deal a game of solitaire, because the odds of the cards coming up in any given pattern exceeds his universal probability limit.

OK, lets assume God really likes seeing people people doubled over from intestinal distress (not to mention killing tens of thousands of children every day). How did God design the flagellum? Did he tweak a gene sequence? Does he reach down after every cell division and glue one on? How can we tell? These questions have been directly asked to Behe, Dembski, and countless others. No response.

There are many other questions that the DI fellows don't like to answer, like what is the theory of ID? How can this theory be tested? Why do you take money from Christian Reconstructionist goofballs that don't believe in the germ theory of disease and desire the violent overthrow of the United States government in order to establish a theocracy?

Now to pick on the evolutionist side. Are there arrogant pricks in biology? Sure. They infest every other human endeavor, so why should science be exempt. Do scientists do a good job of explaining their work to the lay public? No. Part of the problem is that our science education is so bad that the average man-on-the-street has no chance of following even a high-level conversation on, say, the evolution of the blood clotting cascade. Another part is that science is moving so fast, not even those working in a scientific field have any hope of keeping up. There are only so many hours in a day, and most people are not going to spend several hours of each one reading up on the latest research on fruit fly genes. Do scientists ever explain what they mean by words like data, hypothesis, or theory? I've never seen it. Does the popular media airbrush out all the might's and maybe's and the-data-currently-suggests's from scientific papers? You bet. Are there scientists who view (and say publicly) that anyone who believes in God is brain-damaged? Most certainly.

But here is the difference between science and ID: ID rests on personalities; science rests on data, repeatability, and falsifiability. It doesn't matter how big a prick Dr. X is; if his work pans out, is supported by the data, can be repeated by other scientists, generates predictions that are then born out, his hypothesis will be accepted. If it continues to succeed in the face of new data, it may one day become a theory. Someone like Dembski has nothing other than a loud group of disciples. There is no data, no experiments to repeat, no hypothesis to falsify. Nothing but politics and hot air.

Worse, much of what ID supporters say to their faithful is provable lies. This is what drove me out of the church. Growing up, all I ever heard was how close-minded scientists were; how dogmatic; how devoted to scrubbing the world clean of God; how willing to ignore and suppress inconvenient data; and even, how satanic. When I began looking closely at the claims by both sides, what I discovered is that description of science perfectly describes the Discovery Institute and much of the ID movement. The scientists I now talk to on a routine basis are exactly the opposite. Do scientists get stuck in a rut? Is it hard for them to break away from orthodoxy when a new idea is proposed? Sure. They are human, after all, in spite of the assertions of fundamentalists to the contrary. But the ones I know understand this and actively guard against it. In the long term, the data wins, not the dogma.


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