Sunday, March 19, 2006


On Whistling and Graveyards II

Continuing where I left off concerning Keith Pennock’s critique, at the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News & Views, of an article by Robert Pennock, "Pennock's Dover response," Keith takes a side trip to criticize Judge Jones for allegedly stating in his decision "that ID proponents have published no peer-reviewed science literature supporting their views." Keith claims the Judge made a "universal generalization" that is "refuted" if a single counterexample is produced.

Right off the bat, this argument merely raises the question of when "vanishingly small" equals "none." As has been noted elsewhere, even if you grant as valid all the supposedly peer-reviewed material that ID supporters claim, the total output after nearly two decades of the modern Intelligent Design Movement is a fraction of the weekly output of peer-reviewed science supporting evolutionary theory. Therefore, at worst, Keith’s criticism is literary one: the Judge should have said "practically no" instead of "no peer-reviewed science literature."

But was that what the Judge was really saying? This being from the Discovery Institute, it is wise to check the source (pp. 87-88):

A final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant is the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory. Expert testimony revealed that the peer review process is "exquisitely important" in the scientific process. It is a way for scientists to write up their empirical research and to share the work with fellow experts in the field, opening up the hypotheses to study, testing, and criticism. In fact, defense expert Professor Behe recognizes the importance of the peer review process and has written that science must "publish or perish." Peer review helps to ensure that research papers are scientifically accurately, meet the standards of the scientific method, and are relevant to other scientists in the field. Moreover, peer review involves scientists submitting a manuscript to a scientific journal in the field, journal editors soliciting critical reviews from other experts in the field and deciding whether the scientist has followed proper research procedures, employed up-to-date methods, considered and cited relevant literature and generally, whether the researcher has employed sound science.

The evidence presented in this case demonstrates that ID is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications. Both Drs. Padian and Forrest testified that recent literature reviews of scientific and medical-electronic databases disclosed no studies supporting a biological concept of ID. On cross-examination, Professor Behe admitted that: "There are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred." Additionally, Professor Behe conceded that there are no peer-reviewed papers supporting his claims that complex molecular systems, like the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade, and the immune system, were intelligently designed. In that regard, there are no peer-reviewed articles supporting Professor Behe’s argument that certain complex molecular structures are "irreducibly complex."[17] In addition to failing to produce papers in peer-reviewed journals, ID also features no scientific research or testing.

[17] The one article referenced by both Professors Behe and Minnich as supporting ID is an article written by Behe and Snoke entitled "Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues." (P-721). A review of the article indicates that it does not mention either irreducible complexity or ID. In fact, Professor Behe admitted that the study which forms the basis for the article did not rule out many known evolutionary mechanisms and that the research actually might support evolutionary pathways if a biologically realistic population size were used. (Citations omitted)

Now let’s see . . . Keith claimed that Judge Jones said there was "no peer-reviewed science literature supporting [ID advocates] views." Now that makes Keith’s claim a "universal generalization," doesn’t it? But right there in the decision the Judge is discussing the Behe and Snoke article. Well, that refutes Keith and we can all go home . . .

Okay, going beyond the Discovery Institute form of propaganda . . . err . . . argument, what Keith has done is mischaracterize what the decision said. Judge Jones wasn’t saying that there was no peer-reviewed material that ID advocates have published, he was pointing out that none of the material (that they were willing to talk about at the trial) supports ID as a positive research program. Instead, almost without exception, the cited articles merely question the adequacy of some evolutionary mechanisms to explain some feature of life. Sparse attacks on some parts of evolutionary theory do not qualify ID as itself a science but is merely the manifestation of the updated "contrived dualism," borrowed from "creation science," that claims that everything that fails to support evolution is evidence of design. The Judge addressed that fallacy elsewhere in his decision.

Keith only points to one supposedly peer-reviewed article as his "refutation" of Judge Jones’ decision: Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117(2) (August, 2004):213-239. He also waves in the direction of other articles that were also cited to in an appendix to the amicus brief submitted by the Discovery Institute.
First of all, I hate to break it to Keith but a citation to an article in an appendix to an amicus brief is not evidence in court. The Judge was fully justified in ignoring what, at best, would be an attempt by Discovery Institute to circumvent the rules of evidence.

The history of Meyer’s article, including the highly questionable circumstances of its publication, has been too widely discussed to be rehearsed here. But it should be noted, as a measure of the incestuous nature of the publication history, that Richard Sternberg, the former managing editor of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, who shepherded the article into publication with, at best, questionable review, was recently recommended by the Discovery Institute to South Carolina State Senator Mike Fair as a witness to testify in favor of the ploy of adding "critically analyze" to its educational guidelines on evolution. Fortunately, that effort recently failed. In any event, given the Judge’s obvious annoyance with dissembling by ID advocates, the lawyers from the Thomas More Legal Center probably made one of their few good tactical decisions by not wading into that quagmire.

But, even if the Judge had any obligation to consider it, what did Meyer’s article establish about ID? Even as the Discovery Institute describes it, the article was:

An experience-based analysis of the causal powers of various explanatory hypotheses [that] suggests purposive or intelligent design as a causally adequate -- and perhaps the most causally adequate -- explanation for the origin of the complex specified information required to build the Cambrian animals and the novel forms they represent.

In other words, when translated from babble, "a designer could have done it." Well, duh! The most devastating criticism of ID is that there is nothing it can’t "explain," in the sense that, as noted in the first part of this discussion, there is no way to rule out design by an entity with resolutely undescribed abilities and attributes. It doesn’t require naïveté about falsifiability to see that a "theory" that refuses to allow for any limitation on what its proposed force can do can never be ruled out as a cause, making falsification impossible. And while falsification is not a reliable demarcation criteria for science in general, it is still certainly true that any proposition, like ID, that by its own terms cannot ever be falsified cannot be science.

The rest of the articles cited in the Discovery Institute’s appendix suffer similar difficulties. The few articles close in form to actual science argue, according to the Discovery Institute’s own descriptions, that evolutionary theory fails in one way or another without any empiric evidence of a designer or that "design" is a better explanation. Most of the rest come from the book Debating Design edited by William A. Dembski and Michael Ruse (where the only peer review necessary would be "is this an argument actually used for or against design?"); or from Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, a book edited by an ID advocate, John Angus Campbell. Two of Dembski’s books are cited but, as a philosopher and mathematician, it is unlikely that those would have been reviewed by anyone truly familiar with evolutionary biology.

To sum up then, Keith Pennock actually makes the logical error he accuses Judge Jones of, misrepresents what the decision actually said, displays his ignorance of how evidence is handled in American courts, cites to articles and other materials that do not support the idea that ID advocates are actually doing science and otherwise fails to make a case. And I haven’t even plumbed the entire depth of what Keith gets wrong in this article. For example, he accuses Judge Jones of being an activist, an issue I’ve already addressed.

All in all, as a commentator on matters philosophical, legal or scientific, Keith Pennock is well advised to keep his day job.

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