Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Navel Warfare

Dr. Michael Egnor, the Discovery Institute's highly skilled meat cutter who understands little about science, is having another tilt at Dr. Steven Novella, who, besides being a medical doctor, is also a scientific researcher. The issue is whether Intelligent Design is "falsifiable." I'll leave most of Egnor's semantic games to the gentle ministrations of Dr. Novella. It is always an amusing spectacle ... if you find gladiatorial combat between Hulk Hogan and Pee Wee Herman amusing, that is. Watch Dr. Novella's NeuroLogica Blog for more.

What interested me was this from Dr. Egnor:

ID and Darwinism are merely two opposite conclusions drawn from the same question: is there teleology in biology? If there is, ID is true. If there isn’t, Darwinism is true. The falsification of intelligent design is Darwinism. The falsification of Darwinism is intelligent design. Either biology shows evidence of intelligent agency, or it doesn’t. Either intelligent design and Darwinism are both science, or neither is science. If you can’t test the hypothesis of intelligent agency in biology, then you can’t test Darwinism, and Darwinism is immune from evidence and must simply be accepted on faith.
Now, Sir Karl Popper's notion of "falsifiability" as constituting a "demarcation criteria" between science and pseudoscience has been largely rejected by present-day philosophers of science as unrealistic -– scientists do not merely make hypotheses and attempt to discover evidence against them. Science, like the human beings who practice it, is too complex to so easily summarized. But it remains true that any proposition that, by its own terms, cannot be falsified by scientific evidence, cannot be science. The most famous example was Philip Henry Gosse's Omphalos, the proposition that God created the Earth with the "appearance of age." Omphalos is the Greek word for "belly button" and the notion was that Adam and Eve would have been created with physical evidence of having been connected to placentas, because God chose to create them as typical adults. But, obviously, no evidence from nature could refute this sort of creation, since any evidence could be explained as God's whim. Omphalos was as strongly rejected by theologians as it was by scientists because it proposed a "trickster God."

IDers aren't so blatant as to take Gosse's tactic outright. But they get to the same point, as in this from Egnor:

Darwin’s theory is this: all natural biological complexity arose by the mechanism of random non-teleological heritable variation and non-teleological natural selection. Intelligent design theory is this: some aspects of natural biological complexity show evidence of teleology. By teleology, I mean purpose, intelligent agency — design. [Emphasis added]
Notice the asymmetry involved here. "Darwinists" are required to show that all biological complexity arose through mutation and selection (off the bat ignoring other mechanisms, such as genetic drift, evolutionary development, etc.), while IDers can be content to pick and chose what claims of design they want to try to defend.

First of all, this is, of course, a demand for an unreasonable degree of evidence. Human beings have scientifically studied only the tiniest fraction of the stars in the observable universe. Yet, based on those observations, science reasonably concludes, and schools reasonably teach children, that stars "shine" because of fusion reactions in their cores powered by the intense heat and pressure caused by the star's gravity. While science goes on looking (and, if it finds some anomalous star, it will be studied intensely), it would be, in Stephen Jay Gould's phrase, "perverse" to withhold provisional assent from the conclusion that stars are powered by fusion. If that standard of what counts as scientific knowledge is accepted, then ID is already refuted. That's why ID has to insist on different rules for science than the "rules" scientists play by.

Contrary to the practice of science, IDers decline to present any positive evidence for design. Their arguments are wholly negative and dependent on a false dichotomy: any complexity whose evolution can't be presently explained by science must be designed. Nor will IDers even speculate who the "Designer" is, much less postulate anything about when or how or why the Designer does whatever he does, which would, at least potentially, permit their hypothesis of a Designer to be tested in the real world. The closest thing to evidence they offer is an analogy to human design (an argument already demolished by Kant before Paley even wrote about the watchmaker), while they avoid any of the hallmarks of manufacture that enables science to identify human design.

And even in their negative arguments, they demand unreasonable evidence, as Behe did on the stand in Kitzmiller, demanding a "step-by-step, mutation by mutation analysis" before he'd concede that the vertebrate immune system evolved, while his assertion that it was designed was based on nothing more than his failure of imagination in seeing how it could. And even if he or other IDers concede the immune system evolved, they will just move along to some other thing that science does not yet know.

In Paley's time it was the vertebrate eye that was supposed to be the canonical example of design but science subsequently did too good a job of explaining its evolution. So they moved to the bacteria's tail and, eventually, when that is well explained, they will move on again; nomads hiding from the sight of science so that their incantations will seem more concrete under the cover of night. This is Omphalos on the installment plan.

In short, ID is nothing but an argument from ignorance, skulking in the dark places human knowledge cannot yet illuminate ... such as deep in Dr. Egnor's navel.

His basic formulation is goofy from the start. Saying that there are only two explanations, "Darwinism" and "Intelligent Design" is like saying that there are only two flavors of ice cream: strawberry, and every other flavor.

He's basically taking on the one hand a supernatural explanation that has virtually no explanatory content whatsoever, and then trying to fold every single possible explanation that doesn't fit that mold all into one.

But the reality is that we cannot possibly exhaust natural, testable explanations no matter how many we rule out: we have no idea what the bounds of natural law or explanation are. As long as ID remains theoretically capable of explaining anything at all: consistent with anything, and thus indicative of nothing, there's no useful binary there.
I have to agree with bad here ... the title alone indicates a false dichotomy and thus makes the article not worth reading, unless you need to raise your blood pressure for medical reasons.

I do laud you for trying, though. It's like arguing with a whack-a-mole game with these people:

IDers: "[Lies!]"
Skeptics: "[Facts.]"
IDers: "[Illogic!]"
Skeptics: "[Logic.]"
IDers: "[Lies, illogic, straight-up bull$hit!]"
Skeptics: "[Annoyance, frustration.]"
IDers: "OMG, I'm being persecuted by Big Science!"

Keep fighting the good fight.
It's not just that they are hiding from reality on this question of whether ID can stand up to rigor.... If you get them into a corner, they just change the subject [silently reserving the right to claim later that they won this particular point].

'whack-a-mole' is an apt analogy.
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