Atheism Creationism Culture Darwinism Intelligent Design Philosophy Religion Science

Putting Peer Review in Its Place

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In the Darwinism debates, ‘peer review’ is often invoked as a panacea – quite mistakenly, since these debates presuppose a much more free-ranging intellectual universe than the one in which peer review is effective. By ‘peer review’ I mean the process by which colleagues in the field to which one aspires to contribute vet articles before they are published. To be sure, peer review has its uses. It catches obvious errors of fact, curbs overstretched inferences and enables an author to phrase things so that the intended message is received properly.

In other words, peer review is a kind of specialist editing – full stop. It is not the mechanism by which disputes concerning overarching explanatory frameworks are usefully settled, since these typically involve judgements about the relative weighting given to various bodies of evidence that one would explain in a common fashion. Substantial disagreements over such judgements typically have less to do with factual issues than deeper, philosophical ones about what a field is ultimately about.

So, peer review might have stopped Michael Behe from saying that Darwinian processes could not possibly explain the bacterial flagellum. Rather it would have limited him to saying that no agreement has been reached on such an explanation, and that it is difficult to see how agreement could be reached on the matter. This re-specification would have spared Behe from having to face a plethora of alternative accounts of how the flagellum could have evolved, none of which have been shown to be correct – but are no less possible. Peer review is good at preventing this sort of fruitless dispute that, to this day, takes up an enormous amount of space in the ID literature.

Peer review might also usefully intervene in an issue that Cornelius Hunter repeatedly raises, namely, the theological commitments of Darwinist claims. Surely, Hunter and I are not the only two people who find it absolutely bizarre that atheists routinely make claims about what God would or would not have done vis-à-vis the design features of nature. The people making these claims don’t even believe that theology has a real subject matter, yet they make claims as if it did and are then expected to be taken seriously by people who not only believe that theology is a real subject but also know something about what it says. Moreover, it is not that these atheists have disproved the existence of God and hence officially invalidated the domain of theology. At least, such disproofs have not appeared in peer-reviewed publications.

The fault here really lies with professional theologians and clerics who let claims by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, etc. pass in silence rather than calling for peer review over their claims. For example, theodicy starts with the assumption that the design features of nature are not especially intelligible if one considers particular organisms or events in isolation. So anyone who tries to cast doubt on God’s existence by pointing to the seemingly awkward construction of an organism is like the ignoramus who denies the earth’s motion because the ground appears still to him. An argument of comparable stupidity that would not pass muster in physics should not be allowed to pass muster in theology.

So, my view on peer review is as follows: It has an important but limited role in Darwinism disputes, which have been overextended in some respects but underutilised in others. In particular, editorial errors relating to natural science matters are often illegitimately leveraged into grounds for censoring alternative explanatory frameworks, while blatant ignorance of theology is allowed to pass as reasonable counterargument in the spirit of ecumenical tolerance. A balancing of the dialectical ledger is in order.

56 Replies to “Putting Peer Review in Its Place

  1. 1
    gingoro says:

    While I agree that peer review makes it hard for new ideas to become widely known, I think that it does have it’s place even in ID writings. For example in Dr Dembski’s writings I realize that my knowledge of statistics is too limited to know if his extensions and calculations are valid, is his use of statistics is part of accepted practice etc. Here I am not talking about what he is trying to demonstrate but simply the mathematics being employed. For example when he multiplies probabilities are the events in question truly independent. I simply do not understand enough statistics to be able to draw a conclusion.

    Dave

  2. 2

    Why would honest peer review have stopped Michael Behe from saying that Darwinian processes could not possibly explain the bacterial flagellum? Behe was advancing an argument to say that non-trivial IC cannot evolve by Darwinian processes, or if you prefer nobody has advanced any naturalistic mechanism by which these structures could have come into being. Either you can point to a flaw in his argument or you can’t, in which case his claim should stand.

    Now other papers may advance counterarguments, and any honest survey of the literature, for as long as this situation continues, would have to observe that no consensus has been reached.

    A reviewer could of course advance arguments that would partially skittle Behe’s arguments, and insist consequently on watering down the claims, but surely they have to introduce new facts or point to a logical flaw to do so.

  3. 3
    Nakashima says:

    I realize that you are just throwing out the names of Dawkins and Coyne as recognizable authors. I’m not familiar with work by Dawkins in the peer reviewed literature, though Coyne obviously does publish in peer reviewed journals.

    Just to ground the discussion a bit, do you have a citation to a peer reviewed article where the authors make the kind of argument you refer to? A peer reviewed article that says “Feature X would never have been designed this way by God, or at least not by a benevolent God.” Citations like this must be pretty common, no?

    If I understand your prescription correctly, editors of scientific journals should be sensitive for language like this, and if it exists, then theologians should be invited to participate in the peer review process. Is that correct?

  4. 4
    Steve Fuller says:

    To senseorsensibility: My point is that Behe tripped up rhetorically by overstating his claim, which in context had to do with his wanting to meet Darwin’s own original rhetorically exaggerated claim. A good editor could have ensured that Behe never explicitly claimed that something is ‘impossible’. ‘Improbable’ would have sufficed for his purposes. I really think a change that cosmetically simple would have saved an enormous amount of grief for all concerned.

    To Nakashima: You’re missing the point. Of course, the atheist scientists who make claims about what God could or could not do are not publishing in peer review journals — because the relevant peer review journals would be in theology, not biology. And these scientists couldn’t care less whether they pass peer review in theology because they don’t believe the subject really exists. This is why I say that it’s up to theologians to insist on peer review for such claims and not let them simply free float in the public domain without any professional scrutiny.

  5. 5
    Graham says:

    To Steve Fuller,

    it’s up to theologians to insist on peer review for such claims

    That I would like to see.

  6. 6

    Steve Fuller: I am very sympathetic to your line of thought, but I remain a perplexed.

    As I understand it Michael Behe was advancing a critique of the (IMHO) lazily held orthodox position that natural selection plus all the other biochemical mechanisms we know about could account for every biological system in nature, including all those in the cell. The point about his Irreducibly Complex formulation was that it gave us a way of thinking about the situation that revealed that the standard accounts that we were being expected to believe were utterly incredible. Those standard accounts are what everyone agrees to call ‘Darwinian processes’.

    So I would argue that an honest peer review would have to either point out a problem with the facts or the inferences or let the conclusion stand that Darwinian processes, as currently understood (will that do?), cannot account for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum.

    My point is that this surely goes far beyond professional pride and a point of rhetoric. If Natural Selection is truly in the field of knowledge for these guys then it should have been tremendously exciting that someone had come up with a new way of thinking about this that challenges their hypothesis. Indeed they should have been wondering why nobody had thought to do this before.

    But as I think we all know, this doesn’t belong in the field of knowledge but they see it as stitched into the methodological fabric of their discipline, and I am sure given the sheer incoherence of their thought on this, into their metaphysical belief systems.

    In hindsight, no toning down of the rhetoric was going to help: they would instantly realise the consequence without the dots being joined for them.

    I certainly agree with you that it would be desirable to find some path for main-stream science to absorb these important insights. But that is going to require more than rhetorical innovation–the orthodox (hyper-materialistic) narrative for understanding biology is going to have to be liberalised.

  7. 7

    I am sorry for the typos above–its late here.

    I just wanted to add that George Monbiot has just posted an article at the Guardian detailing the collapse of an effort for him to debate climate change with a climate-change sceptic (Monbiot is well a known writer on climate change in the UK). He opens his article thus:

    Creationists and climate change deniers have this in common: they don’t answer their critics. They make what they say are definitive refutations of the science. When these refutations are shown to be nonsense, they do not seek to defend them. They simply switch to another line of attack.

    As I say the the end of a blog post: I would pay good money to see George Monbiot debate someone from Uncommon Descent on both ID and the reality of climate change.

  8. 8
    Nakashima says:

    Dr Fuller,

    You’re right, if you’re point was that theologians should have insisted on the right to peer review “The God Delusion” or “God is not Great” I have missed it. I thought you were siding with Dr Hunter, who does object to “God wouldn’t do it this way” appearing in peer reviewed biology papers. Now it appears that all evidence to the contrary, you are not concerned about peer reviewed biology articles, but rather popular books.

  9. 9
    PaulBurnett says:

    Steve Fuller (#4) wrote: “…not publishing in peer review journals — because the relevant peer review journals would be in theology, not biology.

    Are there really peer-reviewed theology journals? Something equivalent to Science or Nature or Cell? Wouldn’t they be compartmentalized by denomination? Can somebody name one or two?

  10. 10
    Mapou says:

    Peer review is a joke, in my opinion. It really means censorship by the majority opinion. It works for a while but soon turns into an incestuous form of knowledge production that keeps on feeding on itself. Eventually, due to a limited meme pool and a lopsided selection mechanism, it engenders hideous monsters such as time travel, parallel universes and lifeforms evolving from dirt. It’s scary and laughable at the same time.

    As an example, I have given up on trying to convince the physics community that their understanding of motion is fundamentally flawed. The physicist’s definition of motion denies causality because it fails to give a cause for inertial motion. This means that Aristotle was right to insist that motion requires a cause. But you will not see a mainstream physicist admit to this even if they know it’s true. It would be a career killing move on his or her part. The fear factor is very much a part of the peer review process. Even an idle comment on the internet can ruin one’s career.

    If you’re interested in knowing more about the true nature of motion and why it means that we are moving in an immense sea of energetic particles, you should read my article, Physics: The Problem With Motion.

  11. 11
    Upright BiPed says:

    ..another excellent post Dr Fuller.

  12. 12
    vjtorley says:

    Dr. Fuller’s post is a very thought-provoking one. I do however have a question about the following comment:

    So, peer review might have stopped Michael Behe from saying that Darwinian processes could not possibly explain the bacterial flagellum.

    When did Michael Behe actually say this?

  13. 13
    ellazimm says:

    From Mapou’s link: “I believe that having a correct foundational model of movement will unleash an age of free energy and extremely fast transportation. It will be an age where vehicles have no need of wheels, move silently at enormous speeds with no visible means of propulsion and negotiate right-angle turns without slowing down.”

    When are you going to write this up? I noticed your links are in place but no content has been added yet.

  14. 14
    Steve Fuller says:

    To Nakashima: Does ‘God would not have done it this way’ style of arguments appear in peer-reviewed biology journals, at least so explicitly? I have seen some slighting remarks against ID-style explanations, which suggest that a phenomenon could not have been possibly intelligently designed. But usually that’s a rhetorical flourish and not a substantive part of the argument. My impression is that these crypto-theological arguments really appear only in the popular settings — but they are taken quite seriously (more than they deserve to be).

    To PaulBurnett: I hope you were joking when asking whether there are peer-reviewed journals in theology! Of course, there are! But you’re right, they can be denominational — or at least with a noticeable doctrinal bias. But that’s really no different from what we have in the social sciences and humanities, where there is also plenty of peer review but you generally know the ideological slant of the journal you’re dealing with, so you make a point of sending your stuff to one place rather than another. The difference from the natural sciences here is that the hierarchy of leading journals is not so obvious, so that’s why there is nothing quite like Nature or Science. One non-natural science field that provides a partial exception is economics but there you get accusations of stuff being unpublishable simply because the editors won’t accept an explanatory concept like, say, ‘surplus value’. This is not so different from natural science journals that have principled objections to the appeal to any ID-based concepts.

  15. 15
    Mapou says:

    ellazimm,

    I’m not sure what you mean by my links having no content. Send me an email because I don’t think this is the right place for this.

  16. 16
    BGOG says:

    Another perspective on peer review can be found here, particularly in the comments section:

    http://www.badscience.net/2009.....aids-test/

  17. 17
    Steve Fuller says:

    To vjtorley: Behe doesn’t actually say that the Darwinian mechanisms can’t possibly explain the bacterial flagellum. Rather, Darwin at one point issues a challenge for doubters to come up with an example of something in nature that could not be possibly explained in terms of natural selection — and Behe mistakenly takes the rhetorical bait (in Darwin’s Black Box). To see why this was a mistake, you need only recall, from the Dover trial, the pile of articles and books that the ACLU lawyer brought out as evidence of attempts to provide evolutionary explanations of the flagellum — which proved that such explanations were indeed possible. Of course, that doesn’t make them probable, let alone true. But it makes them possible.

  18. 18
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Theological Journals?

    There are a vast number of Theological peer reviewed journals. There’s the Harvard Theological Jorunal, Biblioteca Sacra, and many others out of various denominations. Of course, there may be some ideological differences of opinion from one to another. HTJ tends to be more on the liberal side, while Biblioteca Sacra is (and has been) published by the conservative Dallas Theological Seminary since 1935. It is the oldest Theological journal in the Western hemisphere, dating back about 160 years.

    I wonder though, just how valuable peer review is when differences of opinion arise from one publication to another. I think that peer review is rather a measure of a person’s adherence to the orthodoxy of a particular publication.

    ID loses out by default due to its unorthodox position.

    Also, PaulBurnett, you stated in another thread regarding this subject that a Wikipedia article you linked to was peer reviewed. I would agree (to an extent). However, peer review obviously does not filter out bias. I think you realize this, because you placed Conservapedia in the same category.

    But it makes one wonder the value of peer review other than as a means of evaluating and/or correcting orthodoxy.

  19. 19
    Steve Fuller says:

    Is Wikipedia peer reviewed?!

    It never crossed my mind to think of it in those terms. Peer review is more than simply a review process that works according to mutually agreed criteria. The reviewers also need to have a special relationship to the subject matter that is recognised outside the self-appointed group. Peer review only makes sense in contexts where you can imagine a group claiming proprietary rights over a field because it is through them that one acquires competence in the field. Once that additional condition is met, then you can start talking about bias, etc. But Wikipedia doesn’t meet that additional condition. On the contrary, what’s noticeable is when a Wikipedia editor openly requests an expert to edit an entry that is subject to some unresolved matter amongst the normal editors.

  20. 20
    Nakashima says:

    Dr Fuller,

    I think Dr Hunter sees these rhetorical flourishes as revealing deep religious commitments that are the true motivation of the author. But if that really is the kind of text we are talking about, can you provide a citation?

  21. 21
    jerry says:

    “Darwin at one point issues a challenge for doubters to come up with an example of something in nature that could not be possibly explained in terms of natural selection — and Behe mistakenly takes the rhetorical bait (in Darwin’s Black Box).”

    Do you have the exact language Darwin used? And just how Behe took the bait? We are talking about really slight semantics here. My feeling from reading Behe and it could be wrong is that he couches everything in possibilities but very low ones. My understanding is that he is always open to the possibility that anything could have happened naturally but the evidence is that it didn’t and the reason for it was the high hurdles nature had to leap over in order for it to happen.

    It also could be the case that when writing Darwin’s Black Box, Behe did not realize the firestorm he was unleashing and might have protected himself a little more in what he wrote if he had known. The whole discussion is not a rational one from one side but a rhetorical one with the objective to destroy not an argument but the person.

    This is just an irrelevant aside. As an American living in the UK, do you use American spelling when writing in their journals and publications or American spelling? Do UK journals require spelling conventions or can you use what you want? This is just curiosity.

  22. 22

    Darwin at one point issues a challenge for doubters to come up with an example of something in nature that could not be possibly explained in terms of natural selection — and Behe mistakenly takes the rhetorical bait

    I am sorry to be so persistent, but wasn’t Darwin precisely right about this. If Natural selection is an object of knowledge then (as Denyse O’Leay says) if it can’t be denied then it can’t be believed either. If it were an object of scientific knowledge then folks should be trying to disprove it yet Biology has made no serious efforts to test (i.e., disprove) natural selection. Quantum mechanics, by contrast, is regarded as our most solid scientific theory, because such a sustained effort has been made to destroy it and save classical physics. As Einstein spent his latter years trying to kill quantum theory Feynman spent his latter years trying to extract predictions from his Parton theory–i.e., trying to kill it. Only once it begins to survive this process should it credibly be considered a candidate for scientific knowledge.

    Darwin was right to make the challenge and Behe to take it up–it is central to the scientific process. What is amazing is that it took so long for anyone to take it up, by which time it had become such an article of faith, such a pillar for the discipline, that any move to test it was going to be met with forceful resistance.

    You seem to be suggesting that there was some way that Behe could have built his programme unmolested inside the temple, if only he had used better rhetorical packaging, matching the biochemical insight with political savvy. In some ways I would like to think it is true, but I can’t shake the suspicion that any move to tamper with the sacred pillar would be met with immediate ejection.

  23. 23

    Thank you for this interesting discussion of peer review. The process does have the potential to rein in overzealous claims, but one major problem plagues the peer review process. It cannot stop liars.

    Major journals such as Nature have unwittingly published falsified data, or bold claims that later turned out to be nonrepeatable when other scientists tried to verify the claims. (Whether the original scientist falsified the data or was simply too lazy to double-check it is unknown). Despite having a strict peer review process, respected journals get taken in by shysters.

    Interestingly, many of the big journals (like Nature) insist scientists keep their discoveries secret until publication if they want their papers published in the journal. Maybe journals could avoid some of the embarrassment of publishing false data, and having to print retractions, if they lifted the secrecy.

    I invite everyone to check out my article on falsified data for more info:

    http://evolutionconspiracy.com.....d-fudging/

    Lisa A. Shiel
    author of The Evolution Conspiracy
    http://evolutionconspiracy.com/

  24. 24
    Steve Fuller says:

    To Nakashima: I don’t pretend to have access to the psychology of atheists like Dawkins and Coyne. I find atheism a bit baffling as a positive point of view — and I am not even especially religious. I can understand why people don’t like superstition, ritual, priests, sanctimoniousness, and all the other things associated with conventional religion. If that’s all atheism is, then there is no need to speculate about what a non-existent God might or might not have done. Who exactly is supposed to be persuaded by such an argument? Atheists presumably don’t need it, and theists — unless they’re extremely suggestible — wouldn’t buy it and would perhaps find it insulting.

  25. 25
    BillB says:

    Lisa A. Shiel:

    I suppose the counterbalance to the problems of liars in peer-review, at least in science, is the need for experiments and results to be reproducible. When you see interesting novel results from physicists you will quite often see a flurry of follow up experiments by other researchers that will either confirm, or fail to confirm a result.

    The problem of secrecy is interesting as well. There is a lot of competition in science, particularly when bidding for grants, and I know of a few people who were too generous with the results of experiments prior to publication, and ended up seeing their own research published by others first.

    You quite often see this with astronomy where scientists who book time on instruments like the Hubble telescope are allowed something like a year to analyse and publish results before the images are made public – if the images were made public straight away then other research groups could possibly use the data and publish something first – very irritating of you worked hard to raise the funds, and bid for time on the telescope, in order to do your own research.

    This has led to some conspiracy theories about NASA keeping images out of the public domain so they have time to airbrush the UFO’s out 😉

  26. 26
    Joseph says:

    Steve,

    At the Dover fiasco the plaintiffs lawyers droped done books on the evolution of the immune system.

    Dr Behe made it clear that “evolution” wasn’t being debated.

    Also to date no one has demonstrated the references the lawyer dropped actually contradict Behe’s claims.

    IOW it was a bluff and the judge bought it.

    Page 203,4, Darwin’s Black Box:

    Might there be some as-yet-undiscovered natural process that would explain biochemical complexity? No one would be foolish enough to categorically deny the possibility. Nonetheless, we can say that if there is such a process, no one has a clue how it would work. Further, it would go against all human experience, like postulating that a natural process might explain computers.

    Behe does not say it is “impossible”.

    Anything else I can help you with? 😉

  27. 27
    Steve Fuller says:

    Here is the quote from Darwin that Behe cites (DBB, p. 39) which launches his response: ‘If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous,successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.’ (I discuss this in my own book, Dissent over Descent.) The operative word is ‘possibly’. It renders Darwin’s claim unfalsifiable, if taken literally. Insofar as Darwin’s claim is more than a rhetorical flourish, ‘possibly’ should be read as ‘probably’. Behe should have at least noted the point and then continue with his argument. But he didn’t, and all the ‘refutations’ he receives from Ken Miller, the ACLU, etc. bear witness to this. These guys never show that Behe’s own account is wrong. Rather they show that there is a possible evolutionary alternative, and since evolution is the dominant paradigm, it’s the alternative that should be taken seriously. Behe’s rhetorical misstep — yes, it is only semantics — has driven this side of the ID debate for the last five years. Of course, Behe may have been rejected anyway, but the opposition would not have been able to score such easy debating points against him. And I’m afraid those things matter in the public arena — especially given that that is the only arena in which both sides are treated as anything like equals.

  28. 28
    StephenB says:

    —-“Behe should have at least noted the point and then continue with his argument. But he didn’t, and all the ‘refutations’ he receives from Ken Miller, the ACLU, etc. bear witness to this.”

    Since, as Joseph points out, Behe qualifies his language by insisting that no one could “categorically deny” the possibility, he has covered his bases. The qualification need not happen in the same paragraph. [Books are meant to be read all the way through].

    Thus, the problem at Dover [and elsewhere] was not Behe’s words but rather the way his words were twisted at some places, ignored at other places, and omitted in still other places. The idea is always to put words in his mouth. The same thing happened when Behe explained that ID would likely be more “plausible” for those who believe in God [using the set-up language of his adversaries who posed the question]. Judge Jones, following the ACLU, wrote in his final decision that Behe had said that ID’s plausibility DEPENDS the extent to which one believes in God. Obviously, he said no such thing.

    Behe fairly summarizes the views of his adversaries, but his adversaries consistently misrepresent his views. It is that long list of misrepresentations that drives the debate, not Behe’s alleged missteps.

  29. 29
    VMartin says:

    That’s right. I have often encountered an opinion that ID-ist do not publish in peer-reviewed journals. But who cares? It seems to me that darwinian peer-reviewed journals is some kind of bastion that ID-ist must siege. But I am afraid that only one attack in future would suffice to destroy the whole darwinian mythical town.

    http://cadra.wordpress.com/

  30. 30
    tragic mishap says:

    Steve:

    My point is that Behe tripped up rhetorically by overstating his claim, which in context had to do with his wanting to meet Darwin’s own original rhetorically exaggerated claim. A good editor could have ensured that Behe never explicitly claimed that something is ‘impossible’. ‘Improbable’ would have sufficed for his purposes.

    Perhaps he did, but I doubt the response would have been any different. It’s unlikely the peer review process could have done anything to eliminate the loathing that Darwinists have for Behe.

  31. 31
    kairosfocus says:

    Mr Fuller is right.

  32. 32
    jerry says:

    Darwin’s challenge is in chapter 6 and the full quote is

    “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, around which, according to the theory, there has been much extinction. Or again, if we take an organ common to all the members of a class, for in this latter case the organ must have been originally formed at a remote period, since which all the many members of the class have been developed; and in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct.”

    Notice Darwin said he could not find any case. Which was as a congressman said recently, “You lie.” The truth is that not even one case exists that could have formed by gradualism. The problem is that gradualism leaves a trail and no trails exists, only a few speculative intermediaries.

    Sorry to divert from peer review but what they did to Behe makes the whole process of honest research a sewer of which peer review is part.

  33. 33
    Nakashima says:

    Dr Fuller,

    I wasn’t asking for telepathy, only a citation to the subject of your post.

  34. 34
    Steve Fuller says:

    On Behe: The issue concerning his rhetorical misstep is not whether his own views are true or even plausible, let alone whether he is fair to his opponents. What the misstep allowed his critics to claim was that he was incompetent in the relevant evolutionary literature. To this day, that charge hangs most heavily over him and ID supporters more generally. But it is something that could have been prevented through a peer review process — not by censoring his own positive claims but refocusing the terms of engagement with his opponents. He may still have been ignored by the Darwinian establishment but at least there wouldn’t be an excuse to call him incompetent. This lesson highlights the one — perhaps only — virtue of peer review: It can help you ensure that you pick the fights you want to pick and not the ones you don’t.

  35. 35
    SingBlueSilver says:

    Steven,

    …atheists routinely make claims about what God would or would not have done…

    I don’t get it. These are usually answers to claims of design by IDists.

    ID: We think x appears to be designed in y system. Therefore, a designer was involved.

    Evo: But z in y system appears to be bad design, thus refuting your argument.

    ID: How do you know what the designer would or would not have done? You’re arguing theology!

    Evo: *scratches head in confusion*

    ?????

  36. 36
    PaulN says:

    SBS,

    The perception of “bad design” not only fails to refute the design argument, but in fact most cases of “bad design” have been found to be very well suited for the given organism.

    First you’ve got to question how one qualifies bad design according to the goal of what the design was meant to achieve. As Gil has illustrated, he’s gone back to some of his own programs that he’d written years ago, immediately spotted an apparent error with the code, fixed it, and then the program collapses. After this he realized why it was written the way it was.

    You’ve also got to realize that what may have been an optimal design in the past may have degraded over time to what it is now via mutations.

  37. 37
    PaulN says:

    Also, I believe Steven’s statement is certainly valid. I’ve seen a college debate involving Michael Shermer where he put up an image on the projector screen of a dwarfed mis-proportioned humanoid type creature and said, “This is what life would look like if it were designed.” Needless to say this left me completely flabbergasted.

  38. 38
    CJYman says:

    SBS,

    Adding on to what PaulN just illustrated …

    1. The “rust feature” on a car does not look like a good design by any stretch of the imagination. Does that mean that the car itself is not the product of design?

    2. There is no way to establish a scientific standard of good vs. bad design except to measure the degree to which the design meets its designer’s objective. Thus, without any insight into the motivations of the designer (philosophy/theology) we can’t make any determination of good vs. bad design.

    However, if we can objectively measure a pattern and conclude that it was most likely the result of intelligence (and not merely law and chance absent intelligence), we can then assume that the intelligence was indeed aiming at a target and then we can measure the efficiency at which the pattern provides its function.

    Of course, one must keep in mind that a design is always operating within constraints and efficiency must usually be given up in one area in order to optimize efficiency in another area. Dembski’s illustration of a coat hanger is a good example. In order to provide a light hanger which can also lift a certain load, a balance must be struck between weight and strength/support. You can’t point to a basic coat hanger and say that it obviously wasn’t designed because it can’t support the weight of a truck — “it breaks under that weight and therefore it is an example of bad design.”

    Is this making things more clear for you?

  39. 39
    CJYman says:

    PaulN:
    “I’ve seen a college debate involving Michael Shermer where he put up an image on the projector screen of a dwarfed mis-proportioned humanoid type creature and said, “This is what life would look like if it were designed.” Needless to say this left me completely flabbergasted.”

    You can’t be serious?!?!?!?!?! Is that what Shermer passes off as the result of even a semi-intelligent analysis?

    I would love to know how he came to that conclusion. Poor students, being fed such garbage … especially from someone whom otherwise seems to have a descent grasp on logic.

  40. 40
    PaulN says:

    Oh I’m dead serious, I almost couldn’t believe what just happened after watching it. I’ll see if I can find the video when I get home tonight and possibly provide a timestamp =).

  41. 41
    SingBlueSilver says:

    My point is not whether the “bad design” arguments are good or not, but that you can’t criticize someone for coming to fight on the grounds you invited him to.

    IDist: makes argument for design
    Evo: makes argument against design
    IDist: you are making design, and thus, theological arguments
    Evo: wha?! but that’s what you invited me to argue about!

  42. 42
    CannuckianYankee says:

    “This lesson highlights the one — perhaps only — virtue of peer review: It can help you ensure that you pick the fights you want to pick and not the ones you don’t.”

    IOW, peer review ensures you that you will appear scientifically respectable.

  43. 43
    Clive Hayden says:

    SingBlueSilver,

    The IDist brings an argument of design, not an argument of how good the design is, so the argument against design, by claiming bad design, is not the same as arguing against design.

  44. 44
    SingBlueSilver says:

    Clive,

    The IDist brings an argument of design, not an argument of how good the design is, so the argument against design, by claiming bad design, is not the same as arguing against design.

    That is still outside my point, which is that evolutionists arguing about design (good, bad, whether it exists, whether it doesn’t exist) is a response to those arguing for design, so to suddenly claim that they are being religious is asinine.

    They are arguing on grounds brought up by the IDists, and now being criticized for doing so.

  45. 45
    Clive Hayden says:

    SingBlueSilver,

    Not true, you have changed the terms of the discussion. The opponents of ID argue that the designer wouldn’t have done it this way, which is religious, because their argument is not merely “descriptive” (which the design advocate asserts), but is rather “prescriptive” about what the designer “should” or “should not” do or did. Very different. Arguing prescriptively against a description is the fallacy and the religious assumption of the ID opponent.

  46. 46

    Steve, by you admission the establishment have no interest in the truth of the matter and are playing rhetorical games. If that is really so then I think there is nothing that Behe could do. They are the gatekeepers and are arguing in bad faith. We saw just this with the latest exchange he has documented on his blog.

    I still think Behe’s original thesis was reasonable: that he had identified a case that Darwinian evolution, as currently understood, can’t explain. Nothing is ever certain in science; all one can do is marshal the evidence and present the arguments and his argument still looks sound to me. After all we live in a world where the macroscopic laws of physics are only statistically true, and if we were to parse everything in the way Behe’s opponents suggest then science (and all rational discourse) would quickly collapse.

    I have seen no grounds for calling Behe incompetent; in almost every exchange with his critics I have seen signs of gross incompetence in his opponents in one point or other, and of course they rarely argue in good faith. But one things we can be sure of; however he packaged his arguments his critics would call him incompetent and worse (as they so plainly do).

    If one side is determined against rational discourse then little that can be done by the other side to bring it about.

    Could Behe have set up a different less inhospitable dynamic, one that raised less hostility and presented a smaller target? This is an intriguing question, and I would very much like to read Dissent over Descent to see if I could get any more clarity on the issue.

    Thanks for the excellent discussion.

  47. 47
    PaulN says:

    CJYman,

    Alas, I found it. At 26:20 in the following video, you can see Shermer wrapping up one of his final comments. After taking a second look, it’s actually hard to tell if he was being jovial or serious, but just looking at the amount of detail contained within the slide itself does signify a more serious note- at least on behalf of whoever produced it.

    Video here

    This is an old debate between Hovind and Shermer, and while I don’t believe Hovind is the best representative of ID, I thought I’d at least post the link for the sole purpose of that particular video segment. Either way, the capacity for man to judge the design of a remarkably superior intelligence is sorely lacking, as various factors accounted for within the design itself may have never even crossed the mind of the unsuspecting and skeptical observer.

  48. 48
    CannuckianYankee says:

    PaulN,

    “Either way, the capacity for man to judge the design of a remarkably superior intelligence is sorely lacking, as various factors accounted for within the design itself may have never even crossed the mind of the unsuspecting and skeptical observer.”

    Thanks for this. I watched the video and noticed one peculiar statement from Shermer. He stated “Skepticism is science.”

    Hovind’s definition for science as a “search for truth,” was more accurate. All skepticism gives us is a way to counter what may or may not be true, while a search for truth at times involves an element of skepticism, combined with a true desire to know something based on evidence, with no partiality.

    I have many disagreements with Hovind, but he clearly understands that science is more than merely skepticism. Perhaps Shermer doesn’t limit science to skepticism, but this is what he stated. I have to think based on that statement, that he has a limited understanding of the scientific method.

    Nonetheless, the issue here is whether Darwinists are using a religious argument when they posit evidence of imperfect or non-optimal design, as evidence for no design.

    The issue is not whether they are arguing for design, because they clearly are not. The real issue is that they are not making simple observations about nature, but interjecting a metaphysical assumption on that observation. This is what makes it ‘religious.’

    When science parts from a methodology of impartial observation to a methodology of skeptical interjection based on assumptions of what ‘ought’ to be (given a designer), they have not followed the scientific method. Shermer’s absurd drawing of what a human should look like if there is design, is an example of parting from the scientific method.

    It may be true that they are following the invite of creationists and ID theorists when Darwinists do this, as SingBlueSilver suggests, but that is beside the point. What they are doing is assuming that the design theorist has necessarily made a theological or religious argument for design in nature, and in order to counter that argument, he/she uses a similar religious or theological argument. But as IDists are clearly pointing out, one does not have to be religious to make a design inference. Antony Flew comes to mind here. Rather, based on the evidence, design is a better inference than chance and necessity.

    It’s not true that IDists are inviting arguments about the intentions of the designer. This is the whole point in ID not even identifying the designer. ID theorists, by doing so, avoid making and/or inviting value judgments on the design or the designer. So when Darwinists make assertions that non-optimal design means no design, they are not acting on countering what ID theorists are saying, but acting quite independent of what ID theorists believe or are saying. There may be reasons other than poor design for why organisms appear to be less than optimal at this point, and ID theorists have in their own thinking and beliefs, counter arguments to such notions. However, such questions are irrelevant.

    An archeologist doesn’t make value judgments regarding a particular ancient artifact, when determining that such a discovered fragment among a rubble of rock is in fact a piece of pottery. He/she doesn’t look at it and say, “well, this looks designed, but it can’t be designed, because it is so poorly done.” Rather, he/she determines if the material is consistent with his/her knowledge of a particular civilization, and also determines that the material is outside the natural environment of the rubble.

    The only value judgements I can percieve an archeologist making is in comparing artifacts to known civilizations with greater or lesser creative abilities or expression; but in doing so, he/she is only making such comparisons in order to establish that such an artifact was produced (for example)at the time of the Phoeneciasns, rather than the Greeks, or some such purpose. It is still within a inference to design. The archeologist is able to make this distinction, because he/she has knowledge of what the Phoenecians’ typical artifacts are like, compared to the Greeks.

    When the Darwinist states “poor design means no design,” he/she is making an assertion based on no knowledge of what a designer would or would not do. In that sense, it is a ‘religious’ assertion; but I prefer to be kinder, and call it a ‘metaphysical’ assertion.

  49. 49
    Steve Fuller says:

    To Nakashima: Way back in number 33, you asked – as if you were in doubt – for an example of a Darwinist in print who appeals to the bad design argument against the existence of God. Dawkins’ latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, actually includes a chapter part of whose title is ‘evolutionary theodicy’ – so he knows what he’s doing. I plan to comment on this in another posting. However, on pp. 368-9, he talks about the pervasiveness of back pain amongst humans as evidence for lack of design in nature. And he accounts for this in a characteristically Darwinian way, namely, that at one point in the distant past it was adaptive be upright all the time, but now that we spend so much of our time hunched over our desks, it’s become maladaptive. The idea here is that what originally by accident gave us an advantage now, equally by accident, gives us a disadvantage. An explanation of that sort only makes sense if you look at the structure of the human back in isolation of everything else in nature that an intelligent designer might be concerned about. Otherwise, one might argue that back pain is a fair price to pay for all the benefits that come from being hunched over (e.g. from reading and writing). Now, I don’t deny theodicy’s controversial status within theology itself. After all, not only does it second guess God’s thoughts but it also presumes that God, in some sense, is constrained by matter, so trade-offs and efficiency savings need to be made in creation. Many religious believers would rather resort to mystery than go down that route – though historically that route gave us political economy in the 18th century…

  50. 50
    kairosfocus says:

    Folks:

    Pardon a refocussing.

    Kindly, take time to read Rick Trebino’s remarks on his year-long struggle [in 123 “easy steps”] to try to correct an erroneous finding in a previously published paper that undercut his previous work, here.

    Observe, especially, on evident abuse of gatekeeper’s veto powers at both editorial and reviewer levels, and on the way that authority and power-positions were abused to frustrate the goals of truth and fairness.

    Remember, this is in a non-contentious field, in which only egos were at stake. [Cf actual full comment — which seems significant and relevantly corrective [though I ain’t no “eggs-purt” on optics!] — that was appar. never published.]

    The observations will sound ever so familiar.

    Ever so sadly familiar.

    Project from this — which as Mr Trebino reports was not an exactly unique experience — to the general state of peer review in the sciences.

    Then, multiply by the contentiousness that ever so sadly surrounds ID.

    BOTTOMLINE: Peer review ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    At least, if science is to be an unfettered (but ethically and intellectually responsible) progressive, self-correcting pursuit of the truth about our world; in light of empirical evidence and reasoned discussion on same [including mathematical analysis of course] among the informed.

    Something is broke in the state of early C21 science, and it needs to be fixed.

    Desperately.

    GEM of TKI

  51. 51
    CannuckianYankee says:

    KF,

    I wonder; do scientific journals submit to potential authors disclaimers regarding the fact that their work may/will be subjected to negative scrutiny?

    In the Rick Trebino essay, the journal editors in question seemed to take extreme care in protecting the integrity of the author. Wouldn’t this be a conflict of interest? If I were an author, wouldn’t professional integrity be my own responsibility? Therefore, shouldn’t professional journals welcome the well established criticism of commenters without having to protect their authors? There should be a price to be paid for making erroneous statements, in my view.

  52. 52
    crandaddy says:

    A bit late to the party, but I must remark on this brilliant observation from Fuller’s original post:

    So anyone who tries to cast doubt on God’s existence by pointing to the seemingly awkward construction of an organism is like the ignoramus who denies the earth’s motion because the ground appears still to him. An argument of comparable stupidity that would not pass muster in physics should not be allowed to pass muster in theology.

    Hear, hear!

    I confess that I’ve become so completely immune to this all- too-standard “objection” to ID that I hardly even notice it anymore.

    It seems to me that the reason it’s tolerated in academia is that it interferes neither with the operation of the good professors’ iPhones, nor with the economic environment which allows them to possess them.

    And there’s enlightenment for you.

  53. 53
    kairosfocus says:

    CY:

    The problem is when something gets locked into the prestige system, and someone has something to say that cuts across somebody powerful’s interests, ideology/agenda, worldview or ego.

    That’s not hard to happen, even in the case of something as esoteric and relatively uncontroversial as advanced optics and signal processing. (And look at how basic errors do creep in in even high level contexts — sometimes on both sides of the issue. In this case, correcting a basic and demonstrable error of mathematics was VERY hard to get through, probably because of whose corns were being mashed and their connexions. Observe also how punctiliously the rules were used to block Trevino’s access to the erroneous data on the part of the authors, while somebody leaked his draft comment and allowed a refutation of an unpublished correction to be put in the record before the fact. [Never mind that the original paper in effect boiled down to — on basic errors — implying potentially career-shattering fraud or utter stupidity on the part of one who had previously had a paper of the year in the SAME journal; not to mention his grad students, starting with Ms Xu who he had the grace to grant co-authorship status to.])

    In short, one set of rules for the power circle, another for those beyond the pale of that anointing.

    If these sound all too familar and sound all too like the shenanigans of mainstream media houses that are proving themselves ever so incapable of self-policing [the BBC just came up for some public critiques in the UK, that sound all too consistent with my experience of a complaint that went all the way to the Trust’s editorial standards committee over the past year or so . . . not to mention two experiences with Jamaica’s gleaner and two leading columnists over the past decade; and the complaints on the US MSM sound a lot like this too . . . ] this is revealing of a deep and widespread problem in our civilisation.

    We plainly have a neo-magisterium in key areas, and the bad habits of imposing censorship over truth and fairness, in defence of power interests are spreading far and wide like a radioactive cloud from a reactor in meltdown. And, the powers that be are in denial over the problem.

    In short, on too many subjects scientific journals are no more credible than ideologically biased dominant newspapers trading on their now fast fading reputations and prestige from past glory days.

    To the merits, to the merits, to the merits we must go!

    GEM of TKI

  54. 54
    CannuckianYankee says:

    Since I don’t publish (not that anyone would read it 🙂 ), I’m not too familiar with the dynamics of professional journals. I read what I can get my hands on for free on the internet, and from time to time I will pay for access to an article. I’m not a scholar, so I do this for my own edification and education. But given what you have described, and from my own experience in general, it is really a cautionary tale. We shouldn’t believe everything we read, even if it has an air of scientific respectability.

    Given how history seems to repeat itself – i.e., we believe that we have done away with tyrannies that existed just 60-100 years ago – yet, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    I appreciate our posts, KF. I don’t always follow everything you are saying, because I don’t have the education you appear to have gained, but for the most part, I follow you, and agree. Thanks for your input.

  55. 55
    kairosfocus says:

    Onlookers:

    On drawing some “interesting” parallels:

    Pardon such a tempting target for diversion as the recently cut off Cotnest 10 thread, but this in parallel with the RT case will show how “hostile” peer review exchanges as well as blog debates can run into all sorts of complexities, side trails and side issues, obscuring the value of an in fact sound original point.

    (This has unfortunately been a characteristic problem with ID issues and even with some of the points made by the even more despised Creationists, e.g. when they — correctly — drew attention tot he implications of thermodynamical reasoning and science on the utter unlikelihood of origin of complex function based on information and algorithms out of in effect randomly formed molecules and interactions in some lightning-struck pond in the remote past.)

    On points of interest:

    1] Let’s confess straight up: I made an admitted error of interpretation on the Eqn 22 in p 1055 of the M & D IEEE paper [cf also that in the same context, a critic who often posts on mathematical issues at UD made a very similar error of interpretation of an eqn and apparently missed how a more sophisticated analysis of a step would yield the same result (how many probabilities we look at are not “conditional” at all?)] and on correcting it showed that the demonstrated case of implicit latching fits into a modified frame on the eqn, noting that the illustrative example for latching and ratcheting are unlikely to come from a real run.

    2] I have maintained all along that the explicitly illustrative- didactic example of latching-ratcheting by M & D was unrealistic: five additional letters going correct while preserving two already correct ones on one real-world toss is utterly unlikely; but could be used as a reasonable or plausible didactic example (absent the high hostility rhetorical climate we see . . . ).

    3] M & D have calculated active info for the case of s = 100% — using my model parameter, which [as I pointed out, but which was overlooked] would not properly apply to such a case — with probable direct reference to explicitly latched search. On the evidence of BW and NS c 1986 — and despite much contention by CRD’s supporters — this is a valid explanatory model for the evident latched, ratcheted showcased runs of generation champions in Weasel at that time (recall that Australian university dept that on simply reading Weasel took it as presenting an explicitly latched model . . . ). But on balance of evidence over 23 years since [and in absence of credible code c. 1986 forthcoming — notice the parallel to reticence with key data from authors in the RT optics case! And, to that on certain hockey-stick etc related climate change cases . . . ], esp from 2000 on inclusive of claims made by CRD and his spokesmen it is not the best one. However, even a 100% mut per letter case would be unlikely to give a run with the five go correct at once on gen 1 of a run, while retaining two already latched ones.

    4] The M & D analysis/model can — as shown in my simple extension to “catch and keep” — be extended to the case of clearly implicit latching where in each gen pop size and mut rate are such that no-change cases are very likely present and single step advances are likely to be otherwise picked by the filter, leading to implicit latching. (More complex cases are of course possible, but take my simplistic extension as a pointer to the possibilities.)

    –> It is to be noted as well that there is plainly no one M & d algorithm to be contrasted with a “the” CRD algopr of 1986.

    –> For, the lab they sponsor, EIL puts up a cluster of various forms of algors for Weasels [and both explicitly latched and proximity reward search algors are capable of replicating the apparent results of 1986 as showcased by CRD . . . i.e. implicit latching is also possible),
    and . ..

    –> there is no forthcoming definitive credible code c 1986 from CRD. (This key point — and consistent pattern of reticence on decisive original data on the part of high-power authors in the system — keeps coming up and is just as frequently brushed aside in exchanges over ID themes and climate change matters etc. Such reticence even plays a role in the optics case with RT.)

    5] Already, if one has not been following exchanges at UD — the ones in hostile fora elsewhere are simply too distorted to be helpful [similar to how the issues in the UD Weak Argument Correctives are being mishandled not only on the web but in many institutional science, education, court and even parliamentary contexts] — over months closely, one would be easily lost in the details of exchanges. This of course holds in far greaster degree for highly technical and sophisticated points in contention, such as the optics case of RT. But equally, it holds for the way that too many issues in the design theory controversy have been handled. Such a tsituaiton of course invites distractive red herrings, and strawman side issues, often laced weith ad hominems. (Notice how RT was being characterised in potentially career-damaging quarters as a fraud — and he is an acknowledged and accomplished expert in the relevant field!)

    6] Coming back to the case that has come up here at UD since the end of last year, Weasel: the technical exchanges and side issues — indeed the very case of latching itself is a side issue! — do not materially alter the key result: Weasel, c 1986, is ADMITTED, targetted, active information based warmer-colder search selecting non-functional “nonsense phrases” on mere proximity to target that causes Weasel to out-perform the yardstick of unassisted random walk searches. (And, this is an ACKNOWLEDGED point of fundamental — indeed admittedly “misleading” — dis-analogy between Weasel and the like, and the claimed capability of real world chance variation and natural selection; which are premised on already functioning life forms. [Where that function is coming from is the core question being begged.])

    7] My “weirdly enough” remark that was picked up for further dismissive comment — yet another rabbit trial opens up . . . — was about how the external mathematical forms of two rather different approaches converged; never mind that their underlying conditions are quite different.

    8] Similarly, “Run D” — a real world run of Atom’s EIl adjustable weasel with pop per gen = 999 and 8% per letter mut rate in each mutant in a gen — in fact took not 11 but 20+ gens. So whatever counter-intuitive results or holes may be pickable-at in mathematical models and their assumptions etc (and however interesting such rabbit trails may be), implicit latching is a demonstrated empirical reality to be confronted; one that reasonably explains the Weasel 1986 runs; and recall, the original code is not forthcoming. It is all too easy to lose sight of these points in the exchanges.

    9] Cf from the RT case, how the core point that due to a replicated error [we have replicated Weasel’s apparent action c 1986, on implicit latching . . . since April!] in extracting root mean square values — forgetting to take the root! — was lost sight of in a power move to demand that the original data be addressed on pain of refusal of publication. Luckily a friendly and conscientious reviewer “pulled” the original data that the erring authors refused to allow RT or his grad student to access.

    10] Then, the game with the optics journal shifted grounds to unfortunately Wikipedia-like double-standards on rules on length style etc. Others repeatedly published 3-pp rebuttals and corrections, but RT was only going to be allowed a max of 1 p to reply on a potential reputation and career-killer based on a proved basic error of mathematics. And, he was not going to be allowed to get away with reasonable abbreviations etc. (And never mind the allowed publication of a rebuttal to a leaked draft — unpublished, locked up in editorial debates — corrective; worse with a similar basic error.)

    11] In my case when the thread was cut off, I had been hit with a picked up case, run D, which was shown as giving “ridiculous” results. But, if you put a letter in “the slot” 20,000 times in succession with ~ 1 in 12 odds of changing to any of 27 states, odds of not catching the right — preloaded target — value at least one time will indeed be quite low. Odds of not catching the correct value at least once each for all 28 letters in that span will also be low, but plainly not as low. (This suggests the actual filter is leaky, missing some cases of letters going correct. Probably these occur in multiple change cases where enough is lost to overwhelm what is gained. [And after all 8% is odds that would on average push through about two changes per mutant. Which goes beyond the strict terms of “reasonable validity” I had discussed already.] And, the onlooker will observe that I gave a range of cases in April, which cases illustrate quite varied behaviour as pop size and mut rate per letter shift.])

    12] In short, in the real world of differing access to power and power games, it is easy enough to make someone sound foolish or wrong, even when they are right on the substantial point. (Well do I remember once being bawled out by a senior official for 45 minutes by the clock, on a point where I was right: switching a photocopy for an original financial document without explanation is not proper procedure! For a photocopy is not at all equivalent to an original in that context.) Mix in politics, side issues, confusing technicalities and space constraints etc etc, and a right royal mess can easily result.

    _______________

    So, we should understand that peer review is plainly in a mess, and that the rhetoric of adversarial exchanges is far more likely to obscure than to guide us to the truth.

    perhaps, we could reflect on the idea that science at its best is an unfettered (but intellectually and ethically responsible) progressive pursuit of the truth about our world in light of empirical evidence and reasoned analysis and discussion among the informed.

    We have wandered far from that safe port in a storm in an increasingly chaotic intellectual climate in our day.

    Will we be able to find safe harbour before we shipwreck on some dangerous lee shore?

    I confess I get ever more pessimistic.

    GEM of TKI

  56. 56
    kairosfocus says:

    CY

    The canaries in the mines are choking, gagging and dying.

    But the pit bosses are ignoring the warnings!

    GEM of TKI

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