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Why James Q. Wilson couldn’t consider the argument for design

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Photo of James Q. Wilson, Ph.D.

In “’Broken Windows’ in the Evolution Debate” (Evolution News & Views, March 4, 2012), David Klinghoffer reflects on the late James Q. Wilson’s approach to ID. Wilson was famed for the “broken windows” theory in criminology, one of the few theories that actually made a difference when applied – and a theory that is quite compatible with ID. More on that last point in a moment.

In a world where conventional criminologists argued that law enforcement should target the most serious crimes, Wilson said no because the conventional view ignores the psychology of crime. He believed that societies should target public social disorder – unrepaired broken windows, graffiti, masses of litter – all signs that no one cares much what happens, and people don’t see themselves as the joint owners of their neighbourhood.

New York tried Wilson’s idea, and the crime rate collapsed. So much so that in the late Nineties I wrote an article for Canadian tour operators, reassuring them that – contrary to past experience – New York was now a safe tourist destination for their clients (who were unused to high crime rates). His thesis seemed instinctively right to me: When the implicit message of a neighbourhood is, “Someone cares about every little thing here,” the risks of crime are too high for most who are tempted.

But, as Klinghoffer reports,

James Wilson was among a number of conservative heavyweights in academia and journalism who should have known better but, in the context of the 2005 Dover trial and after, condemned intelligent design while knowing hardly anything about it. John West wrote about Wilson and others in his book Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.

For example, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (“Faith in Theory,” December 26, 2005), Wilson defined ID in the usual simplistic, inaccurate terms: “Proponents of intelligent design [say] that there are some things in the natural world that are so complex that they could not have been created by ‘accident.'” Coming from James Q. Wilson, of all people, this makes you want to cry.

Yes, because ironically, his own theory of crime was in some respects a theory of design! The broken window thesis does not theorize about how evolution might naturally select a “crime gene.” Wilson asked what information about a neighbourhood does vandalism and disorder convey to people tempted by crime?  (He did espouse genetic theories, but they weren’t his signal achievement.)

Klinghoffer notes,

It’s hard to think of a public debate more plagued by misinformation, bias, sloppiness and shallowness — by sheer mayhem — than the evolution debate. In no other controversy is it more routine or acceptable to spout off without even minimally understanding what people on the other side have to say. This is true not only of rigid materialists but of journalists, bloggers, and others who, on other topics, sincerely want to be objective and consider all sides of a question before rendering a verdict.

Hmmm. Actually, there are some other debates where a reasonable discussion is simply impossible. For example, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray discusses the decline of marriage. That’s a brave act.

Usually, rational public discussion of the risks of lone motherhood as the social norm is engulfed in a fireball of righteous anger on behalf of lone mothers. Note, I said, righteous anger on behalf of lone mothers. The people who see the risks, as Murray does, are not offering condemnation to the mothers. Murray merely observes that the bad social outcomes are undisputed among sociologists, regardless of the position they take. (I address some of the reasons for bad outcomes here.)

Men like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson, for all there is otherwise to admire about them, have been the broken windows in the evolution debate. If they had taken the trouble to read and think seriously about it, the controversy over Darwin v. Design might be very different than it is: more fruitful and substantive, casting light more than darkness.

Yes indeed. But consider this: When people like Wilson have been in conflict with received opinion for decades about issues they care about a great deal – and know for sure that the facts support them – they sometimes award themselves brownie points for emitting approved nonsense on other subjects.

They feel a bit less stressed and lonely. So they can’t see, for example, that the people who say Darwin’s math does not add up are in precisely the same position as they are. Not only that but it is in their interests, for peace of mind, not to look into the matter too closely …

Darwin’s math does not add up. But it takes far more than contrary evidence, demonstrated improbability, and justified charges of falsehood to topple a colossal elite idol like that. Because Darwinism is only one materialist error among many, Klinghoffer is right: A few more hands pulling on the same ropes would be a welcome change from everyone pulling on different ropes, attached to different idols, in the zaniest temple in world history.

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"sociology and criminology would do well to avail themselves of ID-thinking" - johnnyb How do you propose to connect studies of bacterial flagelli and RNA with studies of organized crime or managerial behaviour? Are there varieties of 'intelligently designed' crime and deviance? "intelligent design is about the actions of agents and their affect upon the world." - johnnyb Which agents? Are all agents 'intelligent' (in degree or kind) or just some agents? Would this make ID an 'agent-centric' approach? Gregory
Gregory - Intelligent design is about the actions of agents and their affect upon the world. As such, sociology and criminology would do well to avail themselves of ID-thinking, if they don't already (I imagine that they in fact do to some extent). You might be interested in a conference coming this summer which touches on some issues related to ID in other contexts. The conference is Engineering and Metaphysics, and it should be a fun one! Several UD contributors will be there. johnnyb
The question above suggests a limit (appropriate or not) upon design detection if we should include human-bound examples to the supporting data on the subject. But not all analyses are created equal. If I should find the letters of recognizable English words scribbled across the ground, I can contemplate design because the symbols of the English language are not a product of material law. I do not need to know the agent’s name, or physiology, or purpose, or anything else - the evidence is in the artifact. In this particular instance, the only thing I need to know (that an agent ultimately caused the artifact) are the protocols of the English language. By having possession of those protocols, I am aware that the markings are symbolic representations within a formal system, and thus the artifact of a living agent. But the validity of the analysis is not strictly dependent upon there being a human being involved. In the most rigorous analysis, it is the presence of physical representations and physical protocols (and their resulting effects) that is the key to detecting agency involvement, not the species of agent itself. An ant producing pheromones for the other ants to respond to (as set out by the protocols within their communication systems) embodies the same physical dynamic - as does the dancing bee, the howling wolf, or any other example in an unimaginable range of representations and protocols that exist within the living kingdom. The presence of these two things (the physical representation, as exemplified by the arrangement of matter to contain a representation, and the physical protocol, as exemplified by an arrangement of matter to establish the relationship between the representation and the effect it is to represent) working together within a formal system is the intractable artifact of agency involvement. Upright BiPed
"ironically, his own theory of crime was in some respects a theory of design! The broken window thesis does not theorize about how evolution might naturally select a 'crime gene'." - Denyse O'Leary Is this suggestion to be understood that Wilson's 'broken window theory of crime' that "was in some respects a theory of design" was so because it studied human designers and solutions to human-made problems? Iow, can sociological &/or criminological theories count as examples of 'intelligent design'? Gregory

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