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 [email@example.com]
Subject: New Scientist reporter would like to talk
To: William Dembski [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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.
New Scientist magazine
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, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features That Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,Ã¢â‚¬Â 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.