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Shermer on ID in Scientific American — As Good As It Gets?

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Earlier on this blog, DaveScot cited Michael Shermer’s account of the Word Summit on Evolution that took place in the Galapagos Islands last month (go here for Shermer’s account in the Scientific American). TomG then raised the following question (for the thread in which he did so, go here):

The Shermer piece that DaveScot really makes me wonder… all the arguments he raised against ID are, well, easy ones. I mean, this was supposed to be the great world conference on evolution, the “Woodstock” of evolution. It was supposed to represent the best. And they don’t have a clue about ID. They raise old, easily (and frequently) answered objections like “god-of-the-gaps.” Shermer thinks that to ID proponents, ID and God are “one and the same” which is so laughable it’s sad. Or so sad it’s laughable. Or something.

I’m fumbling here with my words, which is because I’m so astonished at how their best have fumbled. It knocks me quite off balance to see such brilliant people make such basic errors.

Bill, when you debate evolutionists in real forums, do they do any better than this? Even as an ID supporter, I have to say I hope so.

Yes, there are more thoughtful critics of ID out there than Shermer. But to be a thoughtful critic, you have to admit that ID is raising questions of real intellectual merit. Take Elliott Sober. He is as allergic to ID as Shermer, but he frames his critique in terms of the nature of statistical rationality, arguing that my approach to detecting design through specified complexity cannot be given a rational statistical foundation. I’ve argued at length that his argument doesn’t work (see chapter 33 in The Design Revolution). But his is a thoughtful critique and one that has helped me clarify my thinking about design inferences. Shermer, on the other hand, isn’t ready to concede, even tacitly, that ID raises any questions of intellectual merit, so he has to shoot it down easily and quickly (to trade in more than soundbites and one-line arguments would itself give ID way to much credit, as far as he is concerned). Just so we know what we’re talking about, here are his comments about ID in his Scientific American report:

I was slated as the keynote entertainment for Saturday night, and gave a lecture on Intelligent Design creationism. Since I certainly did not need to explain evolution to this eminent group, I focused instead on the IDers own works, beginning with their intellectual leader (these are slides from my Powerpoint presentation):

“Intelligent design is a strictly scientific theory devoid of religious commitments. Whereas the creator underlying scientific creationism conforms to a strict, literalist interpretation of the Bible, the designer underlying intelligent design need not even be a deity.” –William Dembski, The Design Revolution, 2003

Baloney. (I used a stronger descriptor this evening.) The fact is that virtually all Intelligent Design creationists are Evangelical Christians who privately believe that ID and God are one and the same. There is nothing wrong with that, but if they would at least be honest about it I would respect them more. In point of fact, this is just a public façade constructed for public school consumption. In other venues they are forthright. For example:

“Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration.” –William Dembski, “Intelligent Design’s Contribution to the Debate over Evolution: A Reply to Henry Morris,” 2005

“The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.'” –Phillip Johnson, “Missionary Man.” Church & State magazine, 1999

As I also demonstrated in my talk, IDers are disingenuous about their “science.” They are not doing science and they know it. To wit:

“Because of ID’s outstanding success at gaining a cultural hearing, the scientific research part of ID is now lagging behind.” –William Dembski, “Research and Progress in Intelligent Design,” 2002 conference on Intelligent Design

“We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’–but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.” –Dr. Paul Nelson. “The Measure of Design.” Touchstone magazine, 2004.

To drive home the point, I show that even Christian biologists have no use for ID, as in this observation from Dr. Lee Anne Chaney, Professor of Biology at the Christian-based Whitworth College, from their house publication Whitworth Today, 1995:

“As a Christian, part of my belief system is that God is ultimately responsible. But as a biologist, I need to look at the evidence. Scientifically speaking, I don’t think intelligent design is very helpful because it does not provide things that are refutable–there is no way in the world you can show it’s not true. Drawing inferences about the deity does not seem to me to be the function of science because it’s very subjective.”

I then summarized the cognitive style of ID thusly:
1. X looks designed
2. I can’t think of how X was designed naturally
3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally

This is the old “God of the Gaps” argument: wherever there is a gap in scientific knowledge, God is invoked as the causal agent. This is comparable to the “Plane problem” of Isaac Newton’s time: the planets all lie in a plane (the plane of the ecliptic). Newton found this arrangement to be so improbable that he invoked God as an explanation in Principia Mathematica: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Why don’t IDers use this argument any more? Because astronomers have filled that gap with a natural explanation.

I also summarized ID in practice thusly:
1. Scientists do not accept ID as science
2. Therefore ID is not taught in public school science classes
3. I think ID is science
4. Therefore I will lobby the government to force teachers to teach ID as science

This is what I call the “God of the Government” argument: if you can’t convince teachers to teach your idea based on its own merits, ask the government to force teachers to teach it. By analogy, in the early 1990s, I published a series of articles applying chaos and complexity theory to history. It is, of sorts, a theory of history, and I had high hopes that historians would adopt my theory, put it to practice, and perhaps even teach it to their students. They haven’t. Maybe I didn’t communicate my theory very clearly. Maybe my theory is wrong. Should I go to my congressman to complain? Should I lobby school board members to force history teachers to teach my theory of history? See how absurd this sounds? I particularly like this approach to ID because most IDers are Christians, most Christians are politically conservative, and most conservatives are in favor of small government. In fact, I close my lecture with an analogy between natural selection in nature and the invisible hand in the economy, where both produce design complexity without a top-down designer. Since most conservatives understand and support the workings of free markets, they should intuitively embrace the analogy.

What I find so interesting is the easy dismissal of ID here, as though it were an inherently out-to-lunch idea that nobody in his right mind, and only if driven by irrational religious impulses, would take seriously. Whenever I read too much of this stuff, I like to pick up Paul Feyerabend. I was reading recently in his book Farewell to Reason the following:

Many once utterly ridiculous views are now solid parts of our knowledge. Thus the idea that the earth moves was rejected in antiquity because it clashed with facts and the best theory of motion then available; a recheck, based on a different, less empirical and at the time highly speculative dynamics convinced scientists that it had been correct after all. It convinced them because they were not as adverse to speculation as their Aristotelian predecessors had been. The atomic theory was frequently attacked, both for theoretical and for empirical reasons; during the second third of the 19th century some scientist thought it hopelessly outdated; yet it was revived by ingenious arguments and it is now a basis of physics, chemistry and biology The history of science is full of theories which were pronounced dead, then resurrected, then pronounced dead again only to celebrate another triumphant comeback. It makes sense to preserve faulty points of view for possible future use. The history of ideas, methods and prejudices is an important part of the ongoing practice of science and this practice can change direction in surprising ways. (pp. 32-33)

It seems to me that the proponents of evolution at World Summit don’t want any surprises and are all too happy to have the final word. If I’m right, Shermer’s closing comment in his account of the World Summit is more revealing than he might have realized when writing it:

The World Summit on Evolution, like most scientific conferences, revealed a science rich in history and tradition, data and theory, as well as controversy and debate. From this I conclude that the theory of evolution has never been stronger.

Why is it that you never read of physicists remarking “the theory of quantum electrodynamics has never been stronger”? Indeed, it has never been stronger, now sporting an accuracy to 14 decimal places. But if you have a strong theory within a serious science, you don’t need to tell people that the theory is strong. Such reassurances signal a theory about to come unglued. I suspect that Shermer at some level realizes this, if only because for years now he has not been engaging the actual issues raised by ID (Shermer and I have known each other since 1999).

What annoys me most about some skeptics is their inability to even allow for the possibility that some of these biological structures bear the hallmark of intelligence. Just once i'd like to see one of them say "Hey you know what, maybe, just maybe, intelligence was invovled "somehwere" in the formation of this thing?" They don't have to admit it is designed, they can even acknowledge ignorance with regards to the design question, perhaps forever, but at least admit it as a real possiblity. Plump-DJ
[...] Bill Dembski has blogged about Michael Shermer’s piece in Scientific American. Sherm [...] Telic Thoughts » Shermer at Woodstock
Shermer's argument from his history theory seems to indicate that he wants to leave it up to the teachers to decide what to teach. Does this mean he supports the right of any individual teacher to teach ID if that teacher is convinced of its merits? Or does he support the "Evolution of the Government" argument: If any individual teacher is not convinced about evolution, ask the government to force them to teach it? taciturnus
I don't believe Shermer knows what he is talking about! Benjii
i wish you a great day esteemed professor Dembski.I decided to become a member of your blog so that i post my comments on the subjects that you raise every day.i live and work in greece and i am 34 years old.I recently read your book 'the design revolution' and i was impressed by the subtlety and clarity of your arguments.I am looking forward for your next publication as well as for your previous ones.Concerning the remarks by professor Shermer i am not qualified to make a judgement on his opinions.However i am certain that a fierce battle is taking place right now among intellectuals over the subject of evolution and the extent to which it can explain the origins of life.As a philosophically oriented person i believe that bexind the world's complexity there is the highest intelligence which i believe to be identical with the christian god.That is why i endorse your scientific efforts with all my heart and i only wish that i cold contribute in one way or the other to your project. with the deepest respect,nikolaos s. stathopoulos. nikolaosstathopoulos

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