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Uncommon Descent Contest 19: Spot the mistakes in bafflegab – winner declared


This contest seemed to have attracted a lot of discussion, with 148 entries, so I spent all yesterday getting through the entries.

The contest’s  basis was a fawning review by David B. Hart, of Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth. We are informed – on the mag’s cover – that Dawkins “gets a gold star” for his book of that name (January 2010 Number 199).

Well, Darwinism is certainly one of the greater shows on Earth, and Dawkins is worthy a life membership in an illusionists’ association.

The winner this time is Paul Giem at 111 (minor correction offered at 112 ), for

To come back to the point of this post, we were asked to critique the comment,

The best argument against ID theory, when all is said and done, is that it rests on a premise – irreducible complexity” – that may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never logically be demonstrated. At the end of the day, it is – as Francis Collins rightly remarks – an argument from personal incredulity. While it is true that very suggestive metaphysical arguments can be drawn from the reality of form, the intelligibility of the universe, consciousness, the laws of physics, or (most importantly) ontological contingency, the mere biological complexity of this or that organism can never amount to an irrefutable proof of anything other than the incalculable complexity of that organism’s phylogenic antecedents.

My reply:

There are several problems with this paragraph. For example, there is the idea that ID rests on the premise of irreducible complexity. In fact, the origin of life is a far stronger foundation for ID (see Signature in the Cell), and the Privileged Planet hypothesis does not need irreducible complexity.

Another problem is the difficulty with the last sentence. If the “biological complexity” of an organism is “an irrefutable proof” of the “incalculable complexity” of its progeniters, and their progenitors had it, and so forth, did the incalculable complexity come from an originally “Incalculably complex” organism which arose spontaneously, or was the “irrefutable proof” somehow violated somewhere, or multiple times? Or does the concession constitute a proof of ID, in spite of the author’s protestations?

But the part of the argument that stands out as the worst is the assertion that irreducible complexity “may seem compelling at the purely intuitive level but that can never logically be demonstrated.” At this point I feel like I’m watching a movie, where the villain has been tracked down by the detectives who have put the clues together, and suddenly switches from pretending innocence to saying, “You can’t prove a thing!” He has now lost the audience (including any remaining doubt in the detectives). All that remains is the power play and the legal maneuvering. We now know the truth of his villainy to a moral certainty.

Science has never been about proof, and those who expect to attack ID because it can’t be proved have committed a category error. The fact that they have to resort to this kind of argument suggests a fundamental weakness in their position.

Nor is the appeal to the supposed fallacy of “personal incredulity” helpful. What is the opposite? “Personal credulity?” If the contest is between faith and skepticism, it would seem that the proper scientific attitude would be skepticism.

There are other mistakes, but this belief that ID must be wrong until it can “logically be demonstrated” is obtained is the worst. If that’s the “best argument against ID theory”, then ID has it made.

Yes, science is about evidence, not “irrefutable proof”. The latter is the domain of pure mathematics. (Why we cannot square a circle or meaningfully divide by zero.) But statistics and information theory are about the balance of evidence, and if the evidence does not support the idea that Darwinism creates much information, then it is not a good theory.

A free copy of Expelled goes to Giem, on condition of providing me with a working postal address, at oleary@sympatico.ca

I also appreciated Jerry’s thoughtfulness in 137 through 139.

Further comments:

Just about everything Hart said about intelligent design theory, as quoted by Giem above, is wrong, and that is not an easy feat.

It is hard to know where to begin, with stuff like this. For one thing, what is wrong with “purely intuitive level” and “personal incredulity”? If a landlady thinks that her drunken boarder will not pay his rent come Friday, though he swears on his grandmother’s grave that he will, that is a purely intuitive level of personal incredulity.  She cannot predict the future because she is not God Almighty. But she is probably right anyway in her assessment and should act on it.

And the rest is just pure bafflegab. For more on “bafflegab”, see below.

Anyway, what a shame that a once-respected publication like First Things would publish such nonsense. But it was a good basis for a contest.

Someone wondered about the term bafflegab, thinking I had invented it. For the record, “bafflegab” usually means government- or university-sponsored – language that does not make any sense but protects current tax burdens by creating confusion.

Did I invent it? Alas, no. If that person had not heard the term before, he did not live through the Toronto garbage strike last summer, which resulted in the well justified retirement of our mayor. All I did was add an extra eff to the word, which that person kindly noted.

Anyone who had helped fling horribly disgusting, massively maggot-infested damp cardboard boxes into a local dumpster (as I did) might well add more effs than I did.

Also, a thread erupted due to the use of the term “jerk.” Unfortunate choice of terminology. In the language with which I am familiar, a “jerk” is the sort of guy who can’t keep a job, appears in the police computer system due to outstanding criminal charges, and/or has a wife and children living in a shelter, to get away from him. I would personally prefer the term not be used in connection with anyone who contributes to this list.

Mung said at 1 that ID is not an “attempt at irrefutable proof.” Of course not. As Paul Giem noted, in science, as opposed to mathematics, there is only a balance of probabilities, not irrefutable proof. Good point.

Tribune7 said at 4 that “IC is objective.” Yes, it is. Either something can reasonably happen in the life of this universe or it can’t. Not “irrefutable proof” but the same sort of balance of probabilities that would cause me to believe that there is something funny going on if a local lottery ticket seller wins 777 times.

Barb at 6 pointed out the “really big, triple-word-score words”. Yes indeed, they are nice for winning at Scrabble, but …

Joseph at 13 quotes Sermonti helpfully on the effect of human breeding vs. the effect of natural selection.

Essentially, human breeding permits an endless variety of demented yapsters favoured by some elderly spinsters. These animals would hardly last a day in the wilderness. Natural selection, by contrast, encourages the generic wolf of the northern forest. Richard Dawkins’s silky prose can conceal that fact only from people who will never live far from the Starbucks.

One way that Darwinists duck these facts is by raising a false issue around what “intelligent” design means. Was it intelligent to design the yapster? But such a use of the word “intelligence” involves moral issues around whether the elderly spinster’s wishes should be accommodated. One can debate them all day. However, once the Darwinist concedes that, the whole claim about “lack of intelligence” falls apart.

At 144 Mustela Nivalis noted that, in science, testability is not vague. All I can say is, I heartily agree: A woman who is awaiting the results of a pregnancy test or a cancer test wants certainty, not vagueness. What is she supposed to do with “maybe, maybe not”? Of course she can always wait and see, but then why bother with the test, and what use is science?

Denyse will fairly consider anything that interests her. But like many professional writers, she is easily bored, especially by stuff she has heard a zillion times that doesn't get any better in the telling. She likes new and interesting ideas, expressed concisely, whether she agrees with them or not. A key purpose of the contest is to encourage such values. O'Leary
Retroman (#1), You asked,
I have another serious question: do you only pick winners for these contest who agree with your viewpoints, or could someone who gives a good answer but disagrees with you also win?
Your question has been answered (#2-#4). I would ask why you raised it. One reason for raising it might be to imply that Denyse was simply trying to create an echo chamber. Obviously, if only friendly responses are acceptable, Denyse would be rewarding politically correct (in this setting) behavior, and could be properly be criticized for that. Denyse's contests, and the literary efforts they encouraged, could be denigrated by implication without the need to counter them with evidence and logic. I trust this is not your reason. Therefore, it would be enlightening if you would further comment on your question regarding the award. Was there another comment in the thread that argued against Denyse's position, or that was written by someone who opposed her position, that was unfairly neglected when she chose the winning post, that made you suspect she was looking for an echo chamber? Or do you think you could have done a better job defending the original passage from First Things than the winning post did showing its defects? Or are you simply thinking of making comments in future contests and want to make sure that comments from a differing view will be fairly considered by Denyse? If the latter, then jump in; the water's fine. Paul Giem
Iryna is a woman. When I once made a point and called her he, she said she was a she. jerry
Yes, I did win! I hope AussieID and I can post a joint review of Signature in the Cell (we tied for this prize) on UD in the near future. I would enjoy giving something back to the community from the contest. Nakashima
Housestreetroom at 2: Nakashima indeed won a prize, as did someone called Iryna - who did not seem especially friendly. I have yet to get the address to which I may mail her prize. (I am assuming that Iryna is a woman but take no responsibility for being wrong.) O'Leary
Retroman @1, If I recall, Nakashima won at some point or another. Of course, I may be wrong there (I'm not too good with with names). HouseStreetRoom
Thanks for answering my question about bafflegab. I'd never heard the word before. I have another serious question: do you only pick winners for these contest who agree with your viewpoints, or could someone who gives a good answer but disagrees with you also win? Retroman

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