[[Derbyshire continues to embarrass himself regarding ID — see his most recent remarks in The Spectator — so I thought I would remind readers of UD of a past post regarding his criticisms of ID. –WmAD]]
John Derbyshire has written some respectable books on the history of mathematics (e.g., his biography of Riemann). He has also been a snooty critic of ID. Given his snootiness, one might think that he could identify and speak intelligently on substantive problems with ID. But in fact, his knowledge of ID is shallow, as is his knowledge of the history of science and Darwin’s writings. This was brought home to me at a recent American Enterprise Institute symposium. On May 2, 2007, Derbyshire and Larry Arnhart faced off with ID proponents John West and George Gilder. The symposium was titled “Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes.” The audio and video of the conference can be found here: www.aei.org/…/event.
Early in Derbyshire’s presentation he made sure to identified ID with creationism (that’s par for the course). But I was taken aback that he would justify this identification not with an argument but simply by citing Judge Jones’s decision in Dover, saying “That’s good enough for me.” To appreciate the fatuity of this remark, imagine standing before feminists who regard abortion for any reason as a fundamental right of women and arguing against partial birth abortions merely by citing some court decision that ruled against it, saying “That’s good enough for me.” Perhaps it is good enough for YOU, but it certainly won’t be good enough for your interlocutors. In particular, the issue remains what about the decision, whether regarding abortion or ID, makes it worthy of acceptance. Derbyshire had no insight to offer here.
What really drove home for me what an intellectual lightweight he is in matters of ID — even though he’s written on the topic a fair amount in the press — is his refutation specifically of my work. He dismissed it as committing the fallacy of an unspecified denominator. The example he gave to illustrate this fallacy was of a golfer hitting a hole in one. Yes, it seems highly unlikely, but only because one hasn’t specified the denominator of the relevant probability. When one factors in all the other golfers playing golf, a hole in one becomes quite probable. So likewise, when one considers all the time and opportunities for life to evolve, a materialistic form of evolution is quite likely to have brought about all the complexity and diversity of life that we see (I’m not making this up — watch the video).
But a major emphasis of my work right from the start has been that to draw a design inference one must factor in all those opportunities that might render probable what would otherwise seem highly improbable. I specifically define these opportunities as probabilistic resources — indeed, I develop a whole formalism for probabilistic resources. Here is a passage from the preface of my book THE DESIGN INFERENCE (even the most casual reader of a book usually persues the preface — apparently Derbyshire hasn’t even done this):
Although improbability is not a sufficient condition for eliminating chance, it is a necessary condition. Four heads in a row with a fair coin is sufficiently probable as not to raise an eyebrow; four hundred heads in a row is a different story. But where is the cutoff? How small a probability is small enough to eliminate chance? The answer depends on the relevant number of opportunities for patterns and events to coincideÃ¢â‚¬â€or what I call the relevant probabilistic resources. A toy universe with only 10 elementary particles has far fewer probabilistic resources than our own universe with 10^80. What is highly improbable and not properly attributed to chance within the toy universe may be quite probable and reasonably attributed to chance within our own universe.
Here is how I put the matter in my 2004 book THE DESIGN REVOLUTION (pp. 82-83; substitute Derbyshire’s golf example for my poker example, and this passage precisely meets his objection):
Probabilistic resources refer to the number of opportunities for an event to occur or be specified. A seemingly improbable event can become quite probable once enough probabilistic resources are factored in. On the other hand, such an event may remain improbable even after all the available probabilistic resources have been factored in. Think of trying to deal yourself a royal flush. Depending on how many hands you can deal, that outcome, which by itself is quite improbable, may remain improbable or become quite probable. If you can only deal yourself a few dozen hands, then in all likelihood you wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t see a royal flush. But if you can deal yourself millions of hands, then youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll be quite likely to see it.
Thus, whether one is entitled to eliminate or embrace chance depends on how many opportunities chance has to succeed. It’s a point I’ve made repeatedly. Yet Derbyshire not only ignores this fact, attributing to me his fallacy of the unspecified denominator, but also unthinkingly assumes that the probabilsitic resources must, of course, be there for evolution to succeed. But that needs to be established as the conclusion of a scientific argument. It is not something one may simply presuppose.
There’s a larger issue at stake here. I’ve now seen on several occasions where critics of design give no evidence of having read anything on the topic — and they’re proud of it! I recall Everett Mendelson from Harvard speaking at a Baylor conference I organized in 2000 decrying intelligent design but spending the whole talk going after William Paley. I recall Lee Silver so embarrassing himself for lack of knowing anything about ID in a debate with me at Princeton that Wesley Elsberry chided him to “please leave debating ID advocates to the professionals” (go here for the Silver-Elsberry exchange; for the actual debate, go here). More recently, Randy Olson, of FLOCK OF DODOS fame, claimed in making this documentary on ID that he had read nothing on the topic (as a colleague at Notre Dame recently reported, privately, on a talk Randy gave there: “He then explained how he deliberately didn’t do research for his documentary, and showed some movie clips on the value of spontaneity in film making”). And then there’s Derbyshire.
These critics of ID have become so shameless that they think they can simply intuit the wrongness of ID and then criticize it based simply on those intuitions. The history of science, however, reveals that intuitions can be wrong and must themselves be held up to scrutiny. In any case, the ignorance of many of our critics is a phenomenon to be recognized and exploited. Derbyshire certainly didn’t help himself at the American Enterprise Institute by his lack of homework.