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New Scientist Issue on ID

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The July 9th, 2005 issue of the New Scientist is titled “The End of Reason: Intelligent Design’s Ultimate Legacy.” For this issue, I was interviewed at length for the article titled “A Skeptic’s Guide to Intelligent Design” (for this article, go here). The issue as a whole and the article in particular were disappointing, not because the issue was critical of ID but because it gave such a shallow picture of it. I expected much better, the reason being that on June 20th, 2005 I received the following email from one of the reporters who co-authored “A Skeptic’s Guide to Intelligent Design”:

Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2005 12:20:49 -0600
From: Bob Holmes [bholmes+@nasw.org]
Subject: New Scientist reporter would like to talk
To: William Dembski [william_dembski+@baylor.edu]


I’m a Canada-based reporter for New Scientist magazine, an international newsweekly of science and technology. I’m working on an article about intelligent design, and would very much like a chance to talk with you by phone in the next few days. It seems to me the media coverage of intelligent design has mostly failed to present your case on scientific grounds, and I’d like to remedy that.

Would you have some time tomorrow (Tuesday) or Wednesday that we could talk by phone about the evidence (real and potential) for intelligent design, the kinds of observations that could distinguish between Darwinian evolution and intelligent design, and the kinds of observations that might falsify (or refute, if you prefer) the two? Please let me know what time works best for you, and what number I should call you at. My deadline is the end of Thursday, so I’d very much prefer to talk Tuesday or Wednesday.

Thanks for your help.


Bob Holmes
New Scientist magazine
(780) 989-0974

In this email, I was particularly heartened to read, “It seems to me the media coverage of intelligent design has mostly failed to present your case on scientific grounds, and I’d like to remedy that.” During the phone interview, which lasted well over an hour, Holmes asked good questions and seemed to be tracking at key points in the discussion. For instance, on the question of testability of ID, I remarked that proponents of materialistic evolution invariably invoked as evidence for their theory experiments in which structures of biological interest evolved reproducibly. But for the results of an experiment to be reproducible, they must occur with high probability. Thus, if high probability confirms evolutionary theory, shouldn’t, by parity of reasoning, low probability disconfirm evolutionary theory? If not, the theory is insulated from empirical falsification. I offered as an example the original success of the Miller-Urey experiment in origin-of-life research and the subsequent failure of that origin-of-life research to explain information-rich biomacromolecules. Holmes seemed to “get it” during our interview, but none of this appears in his story.

The article, instead, continues in exactly the same vein as the other media stories against ID that Holmes seemed to want to rectify. In other words, it constitutes media coverage of intelligent design that yet again fails to present our case on scientific grounds. Indeed, all the cliches and stereotypes are there. ID is repeatedly conflated with creationism. Additionally, the designer of ID is claimed to be “supernatual,” when in fact the nature of nature is precisely what’s at issue, and the designer could be perfectly natural provided that nature is understood aright. Moreover, no indication is given that ID is now going international and bursting the bounds of evangelical Christianity. And, to close the article, Discovery Institute and the Wedge document are invoked as showing that ID is more politics than science. Finally, to drive home the ridiculousness of ID, the article following this one has a cartoon in which a blackboard displays SCIENCE VS. RELIGION with “Theory of Evolution” appearing in smaller letters under SCIENCE, these being crossed out, and “Intelligent Design” appearing under RELIGION, with the teacher pointing to “Intelligent Design” and asking the class whether the Earth really does go around the sun.

This way of framing the discussion will be enough for most of the New Scientist‘s readers to discredit intelligent design. Yet the worst part of the article is that in what little space the article devotes to the actual content of ID, it misrepresents the positive case for ID. Caricatures of our arguments are presented and then followed with refutations by ID critics (refutations that seem decisive because our case was misreporesented in the first instance). No indication is given that ID has developed methods of design detection that are now widely being discussed (see my book The Design Inference). The closest thing here is a reference to the probabilistic hurdle faced in evolving irreducibly complex molecular machines, a hurdle known as the interface compability problem. Holmes and his co-author indicate that this problem has been addressed in two papers by ID proponents, but cites no references (the references are M.J. Behe and D.W. Snoke, “Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features That Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,” Protein Science, 13 (2004): 2651-2664 and my article “Irreducibly Complexity Revisited” at www.designinference.com).

This probabilistic argument is then refuted by Ken Miller, who claims that it commits the “retrospective fallacy.” It doesn’t, since the argument I make for interface compatibility asks for the probability of independently formed/evolved proteins in general sharing interface compatibility and not the probability of two proteins, in retrospect, being interface compatible. I got my Ph.D. in probability theory from the University of Chicago with Patrick Billingsley and did post-docs in probability at MIT with Dan Stroock and at Northwestern University with Mark Pinsky. Miller, to my knowledge, has no formal background in probability theory, and yet the New Scientist is happy to employ him as the expert in probability to refute my probabilistic claims. Holmes could easily have contacted me and asked me whether I thought I was committing a retrospective fallacy and how I would respond to Miller’s criticisms. No such luck.

In the same vein, the article rehearses uncritically the standard refutations of Mike Behe’s irreducible complexity argument. Thus, for instance, readers are told the bacterial flagellum could have evolved because there are simpler flagella than the 40 part flagellum in E. coli (I pointed out that there are such simpler flagella in chapter 5 of my book No Free Lunch and indicated there why this fact didn’t vitiate Behe’s argument). Or, again, readers are told the flagellum could have evolved because it contains a microsyringe (the type three secretory system — TTSS) that could be the object of section pressure and that therefore might have evolved into the flagellum (problem: the best evidence points to the TTSS as devolving from the flagellum; moreover, simply finding a functioning subsystem of an irreducibly complex supersystem still doesn’t answer how that supersystem evolved — see my article “Still Spinning Just Fine”).

In the future, when reporters like Bob Holmes come on to me, urging me that they really want to understand ID to present it fairly, I’m going to give them a reading list and ask them some pertinent questions to make sure that they in fact understand our arguments and the current state of the controversy over ID. The problem in the past has been that I’m asked to educate these people about the very basics of ID, after which, with their deficient understanding of it, they, being themselves ill-disposed toward ID, go to critics to have our arguments shot down. Let them first demonstrate facility with our arguments, go next to the critics to have our arguments shot down, and then come to us to see how we respond to the critics. This seems a better use of our time and a better way of keeping these reporters honest.

This is now the second time in short succession that I’ve been suckered into giving my time to media people whose end product gave no evidence that they needed to speak to me at all. The other case involved a fact-checker for Allen Orr’s piece in the New Yorker, who, despite the numerous items of information I gave him to show that Orr’s criticisms were out-of-date and had been met, incorporated none of this information. For the details in this case, go here.

eswrite writes: "it should be possible to use specified complexity detection to differentiate between functional (coding or structural) DNA sequences and those alleged to be junk" It's not possible to do this as far as I can determine. Specification is determined empirically, not mathematically. For instance, the difference between a flagella and a random pile of protein is that the flagalla has specified function (propelling bacteria) whereas the random pile of protein does not. Both have similar levels of complexity. Functionality is what separates complex information from complex specified information and the functionality is observed not calculated. You are presuming that functionality is a calculable property when in fact it is not. DaveScot
Why, even film critics can get in on the action. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050328/COMMENTARY/503280301 Charlie
Since these stories give the appearance of being inspired, if not instigated, by the NCSE, perhaps another good question to ask of a prospective journalist would be "what ID materials has Eugenie suggested you read?" Charlie
"...the media is mostly constituent of half-wit journalists..." Karl Kraus noted: "Journalists write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write." (Half-Truths and One-and-Half-Truths :73) mynym
How you are describing information is seen, as I have said, a pre-given world. A pre-given world presupposes an ultimate intelligence, which is what you are trying to explain. First off, some biologists reject the idea that information is transmitted (this is the old Shannon-Weaver explanation). Secondly, it depends on what you define information as. Your comment about eye color, finger length, etc presupposes how these traits are "passed on". Information occurs, not by generation (that is a naive view), but how information is inhibited. As I have noted earlier from Shaw and Turvey (1999), theyy claim that, "Modern physics is not about finding the causes that make something’s existence lawfully necessary. It is about the exclusion or censorship of those things not allowed. And in the case of change, no positive cause for it is required of even possible. For one thing to exist rather than another, it needs to be most compatible to become actualized" (116). Thirdly, information is gathered through what is called circular causality. Information is found to be emergent (I know Dembski wrote against emergence, but he tried to find a causal mechanism in ONE entity, instead of realizing that emergence occurs between two different entities). Information, as I stated above, co-evolves with the organisms motor activities. This is found in the enactive approach in neurophenomenological studies with Francisco Varela, Natalie Depraz, Evan Thompson, etc. Thus, two different conceptions of information occur. ID proposes that specification must occur through a mental activity. How I am defining it (and others in the ecological and enactive approaches) view that specification is not mental, but rather natural. The natural specification means that the natural world must be redifined. The natural world is now defined as the co-evolution with organisms that is meaningful through this co-evolution. In fact, the meaningful world occurs without organisms if information is defined as a lively interaction field of energy, as Swenson (in my above post) defined it. To conclude, what you say abouve eye color, finger length, etc., is irrelevant since eye color is not just color (as Gibson has shown, the color of a banana is information about its ripeness). All information is defined as meaningful action. As was seen above, the genes as you speak about are the emergent activities (from exclusion of information) of highly interacting information. Thus, different interactions is how children are born with certain traits. What you are speaking about are the constraints of information. However, constrainsts are still considered action based (another way to think of them are obstacles). As I have said before, ID has not read the contemporary literature on these subjects. The world does not have to be defined as either material or immaterial. The mind does not have to defined as such either. These have profound implications for how information is defined as well. Information is not these logical names, such as eye color, finger length, etc. These enities occur where the other information is weakened, not generated by some mentalist mind. Conor sartre
Let us stipulate for a moment that information is not stored. Are you also denying that information is not transmitted by biological systems? When a parent passes on genetic traits to its progeny, i.e., eye color, finger lenght, etc., this does not constitute a transmission of information? If we do consider this passing of genes from generation to generation as an information stream, can't we still apply ID principles, as posited by Dembski, et. al, to infer design? Now, let us return to the point of storage. Prior to transmission of genetic traits, does this information exist anywhere? Is it held in que anywhere? Yes on both counts. eswrite
The one problem that I have (both in evolutionists and ID theorists) is that they seem to think that information is stored. Psychology ran into this problem where cognitive theorists held the belief that the brain was the storage of information (such as memory) and the person had to retrieve this information in order to act and perceive. However, this presupposes what information is. Is information a representation? Is it linguistical? Etc. However, as in psychology, others in biology and physics are seeing that information is not stored in a biological system. "Putting aside the problem of dualist interactionism that fatally wounds all such schemes, living things do not contain blueprints or programs in any ordinary sense of the words, and the putative "replicators" of Dawkins and Dennett are a myth-the result, as Levins and Lewontin have correctly asserted, of fetishism and reification (see also Fleischaker, 1990, & Goodwin, 1982). DNA molecules in cells constitute a very particular kind of cellular component that, along with proteins among other things, are used as part of the end-directed autocatakinetic componentproducing system as a whole. (Swenson pg 24 [from net]). Available at http://dennett.philosophyofscience.net/ . The entire article criticizes Dawkings and Dennett and the materialistic trend in science. However, not all of science (in biology/physics/psychology) is materialistic. To group them all into one fell swoop is utterly false. In addition, the post of Penrose against the mind being materialistic does not confirm an immaterial mind. Materialism and immaterialism have the same problems, which deals with (using phenomenological terms) pure beings. A better way to interpret the organism is the both/and structure of quantum mechanics and Eastern thought processes. As James J. Gibson states, "An affordance [what an object means] is neither subjective nor objective, or it is both if you like. It cuts across the subject/object dichtonomy to show its inadequacy" (Ecological Approach to Visual Perception pg. 129). As he saw it, information specifies both the observer and the environment, thus information is not stored anywhere. Furthermore, information (in the natural world) is ambiguous (which moves away from any materialistic interpretation). It is through interaction of the organism with the world that brings the ambiguous to the concrete. This is known as squeezing out degrees of freedom (Turvey and Shaw, 1999; "Ecological Foundations of Cognition I. Symmetry and specificity of animal–environment systems" in Reclaiming Cognition: The Primacy of Action, Intention and Emotion Ed. by Freeman and Nunez). What is commonly seen as stored information is actually the shaping of the world from the interaction of the organism where the world becomes familiar through this shaping. But it is not stored anywhere. Conor sartre
Bill, I couldn't help but notice that "on the question of testability of ID, I remarked that proponents of materialistic evolution invariably invoked as evidence for their theory experiments in which structures of biological interest evolved reproducibly. But for the results of an experiment to be reproducible, they must occur with high probability. Thus, if high probability confirms evolutionary theory, shouldn’t, by parity of reasoning, low probability disconfirm evolutionary theory? If not, the theory is insulated from empirical falsification." Can you see how that might look like an elegant deflection? IOW, no discussion of testability of ID per say. I have proposed one way to test ID itself -- rather than using it to cast aspersions about evolution. For the 3rd time, by treating DNA as an information stream, it should be possible to use specified complexity detection to differentiate between functional (coding or structural) DNA sequences and those alleged to be junk. If the ID camp were to formulate, develop and run such a research project (heck, just proposing it would be huge), many of the accusations of ID as pseudo-science (due to its lack of testability) would vanish. How about it? eswrite
Bill, we have exactly the same problems in Germany and Austria. The misinterpretations of ID are not only similar here in the german speaking area, but moreover the same. It's fascinating and a little bit frustrating;-) I think that ID has indeed problems and need for progress - there is work to do. But the most critics are unable to show the weaknesses of ID because they do not understand ID. Markus Rammerstorfer
Bill, you are fighting hard! Although, people present ID as something irrelevant or religious, in the end it might just win. As history moves on, this stumbling block will be remembered as how hard-headed and closed-minded the skeptics were. And your name will be remembered for eons to come. Benjii
Bill, How immensely frustrating that must be, so many seemingly promising opportunities to make a positive case for ID in the media turning out to be nothing more than the manipulations of journalists as they constantly dissemble the facts. The real problem here (with regards to the media) is that no one seems to realize how closely our press resembles the "Orwellian Thought Police" until their views run counter to the media's predetermined slant. What would probably irritate me the most (in your case) is that the media is mostly constituent of half-wit journalists who could only dream of extending the frontiers of science...they seem to think that they have a right to condescend to those scientists they disagree with irrespective of how intellectually out-classed they are! Skeptical Dualist, (new post on Penrose non-computability of mind argument) http://dualisticdissension.blogspot.com/ (new post on the anthropomorphizing of science) hptt://reflections-on-reality.blogspot.com Skeptical_Dualist

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