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Critique of Intelligent Design

Evolution vs. Creationism

The Art of ID Stuntmen

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Mark Perakh's Web Site

There "They" go again!

By Russell Durbin

Posted August 10, 2005

Veteran politician turned science expert Bruce Chapman, founder and president of the Discovery Institute (strategic command center of the "intelligent design" creationism movement), has written an essay that showcases the propaganda techniques of the IDC movement. Herewith a line by line analysis.

First they said that only ignorant rubes doubted Darwin. One was meant to recall the mob scene in the film of "Inherit the Wind." The image is trite, but it works. However, when Phillip Johnson, a distinguished professor of legal evidence at Berkeley, came along with Darwin on Trial, they changed their line and said that, while he is an intellectual, he is not qualified to speak because he is not a scientist.

You know you're in for a strawman argument when it starts out with "they said". Who are "they"? Why not let "them" speak for "them"selves? There is a larger issue here, though, in which DI propaganda is creepily reminiscent of the Soviet style: Chapman tells you what "they" say, and why "they" say it, even what "they" are going to say next. But, as in so many DI disinformation dumps, no links or references are provided to let readers judge for themselves. Only links and references to other DI propaganda pieces are supplied, thus making for a hermetically sealed world of misinformation, unconstrained by any need to compare notes with the reality-based community.

The image Chapman seems to be conjuring here is that "they" continuously change "their" line because the creationists -- excuse me, Darwin skeptics -- keep proving "them" wrong. (It's not hard to imagine that the original draft of this piece included moustachio-twirling and "Curses! Foiled again!" quotes.) It may be a great tool for arming the troops with a Kevlar shield of smugness, but it lacks any connection to the real world. The tactic is trite, but it works - if the goal is cheerleading rather than edification.

In fact, there is no shortage of evidence to support the notion that "doubting Darwin" does correlate inversely with education. There is also abundant evidence that Phillip Johnson, just as his lack of any scientific training and credentials suggest, is eminently unqualified to speak on subjects scientific.

Then came Behe and Dembski and other scientists with stellar academic credentials, so then the rebuke became: They are only a handful. "Almost every reputable scientist in the world" accepts Darwin's theory.

First of all, in what sense is Dembski a scientist at all? And who are all these "other scientists? And in what sense are their credentials "stellar"? More stellar, say, than Duane Gish, John Baumgardner, or Russell Humphreys, who have been peddling young earth creationism for decades? Leaving all that aside, though, Chapman merely mentions the names and (allegedly stellar) credentials. Nothing about the substance of their work. Certainly nothing about the numerous resounding refutations of their ideas, or the lack of any positive reviews by competent scientists in the fields being (mis)represented. Dembski's treatises purport to prove evolution mathematically impossible. Are there any reviews by reputable biologists or mathematicians? What do they say? Behe's bestseller "Darwin's Black Box" purports to demonstrate that biological structures are "irreducibly complex", and therefore could not have evolved. This argument has been so thoroughly debunked that Behe has now retreated to the position that if there is any biological structure for which a mutation-by-mutation account of its history, back to the origin of life, is not proved, miraculous intervention remains the preferred explanation. In reality, it is not "they" who are on the defensive. Again, we see Chapman's rhetorical style, perhaps cribbed from George Lucas: No need to refer to the actual substance of the dispute, just broad strokes indicating the brave and virtuous nature of the Rebels, and the cowardly and dishonest nature of the entrenched minions of the Imperial Order.

When, in reply, Discovery Institute produced, first 100, and now over 400 scientists brave enough to confront their colleagues with a "Dissent from Darwin" statement, the Darwinist judges said, Well, we still have far more scientists who support evolution (as if that had been the issue).

Whoa! There "they" go again! Who are these Darwinist judges? Where did they say or imply that "the issue" was the magnitude of the supporters/dissenters ratio? Perhaps Chapman is referring here to Project Steve. Beyond its primary goal of parodizing these ridiculous lists, the point of Project Steve was two-fold:

  1. that science is not done by vote or petition; whether the DI recruits 100, 1000, or 100,000 supporters, that doesn't make their "theory" a theory. And
  2. more to the point, unlike the "Dissent from Darwin" statement, the "Project Steve" statement actually states something of substance.

With what bold statement do the DI's supporters confront their colleagues?

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

(A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism)

Hey, I'm skeptical of such claims, too. (It's hard to deny, for instance, that the epochal endosymbiotic event in which the ancestral mitochondrion threw in its lot with the ancestral nuclear genome had a pretty big role in the complexity of life. And I'm by no means certain of the relative contributions of natural selection, sexual selection and neutral drift.) Would the DI welcome my signature, even if I expressly forbid its use to imply support for "intelligent design"? Perhaps the people that are not skeptical of such claims are the "Darwinian fundamentalists" we're always being warned about. (Hard to know, since the term is rarely, if ever, defined.) If so, I've never met one. In fact, I suspect signing the DI's statement has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with supporting its political agenda.

By contrast, the Project Steve statement reads:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

(NCSE Project Steve)

Notice the difference? The Steve statement actually has some substance to it. Where any scientist could, in good conscience, sign the "Dissent from Darwin" statement (that is, if they didn't suspect the DI would be misrepresenting them as supporters of IDC), would the DI supporters be comfortable signing the Steve statement? Coincidentally (?) the contrast between the two statements is very much analogous to the difference between a theory that makes testable predictions and one that equally accommodates, ex post facto, all outcomes.

Then they added: If the Darwin-doubters and design advocates want to be taken seriously they must publish in peer-reviewed science journals.

"Then"? Sounds like a chronology; sounds like "they" are, yet again, moving the goalposts, no? Is there any evidence to support this timeline? I submit that the criteria for the credibility of a challenge to a widely accepted theory have remained pretty much the same for several decades. A minimum requirement would be a substantial presence in reputable, peer reviewed, professional science journals. To be teaching high school kids anything else as science is the educational equivalent of peddling untested drugs.

Never mind that the Darwinists work hard to blackball on principle any heretics whose work is submitted at such journals.

"The Darwinists"? That must be "they" again. Who are these shadowy figures? Let's examine the DI's facile use of this convenient handle. In this context, of course, "Darwinist" denotes critics of ID in general (i.e. virtually all scientists) and in particular those "entrenched dogmatists" who supposedly maintain a stranglehold on every major scientific journal and academic institution in the world. But when trying to create the impression that "the controversy" they want to teach is a scientific one, rather than a political/religious one, the IDists take advantage of several narrower and more technical uses of the term, sometimes found in the scientific literature:

  1. It was used by Stephen Jay Gould, for example, to distinguish Darwin's original conception of continuous gradual genetic change from (the probably more realistic) view of jerky transition between more or less steady states of quasi-equilibrium.
  2. It is used by Lynn Margulis, for example, to distinguish the classic view of exclusively vertical transmission of genetic information (i.e. from parent to offspring), from one that recognizes the signal importance of endosymbiosis (i.e. physical and genetic fusion of organisms of distinct ancestry). It is also used more generally to distinguish the classical view from one that recognizes important role of lateral gene transfer (of which endosymbiosis would be just the most dramatic example). It is important to bear in mind that none of the mechanisms of lateral gene transfer could have been anticipated in Darwin's time.
  3. It is used to stress the difference between a view that ascribes genetic modification exclusively to natural selection and one that envisions a significant role for neutral drift.

Call me cynical, but I suspect the DI knows that when they use words like "Darwinism" or "Darwinian" in, say, a school board setting or a public opinion poll, these are not the senses in which the word is perceived. The word "duplicitous" comes to mind.

In any case, what evidence is there that "they" are any harder on evolution skeptics than, say, on astrologers or UFO theorists?

Yet, even in the face of such tactics, more and more Darwin critics and design proponents began to break through in peer-reviewed journals.

Let's list those breakthroughs. Let's see... there was the Meyer article. And Behe & Snoke, and... um... gosh, what are the others? Leaving aside the suspicious circumstances surrounding the editorial acceptance of the Meyer article, the presence in one obscure journal of one contribution from a philosopher (who has signed a creationist loyalty oath) hardly qualifies as the substantial presence in the scientific literature needed to seriously challenge a well accepted theory.

The mathematical exercise published by Behe and Snoke is fun to play with, and might serve as the basis for a graduate level discussion, but with its many questionable assumptions and its lack of impact in the world of biology, it hardly can be said to present a significant challenge to current theory. Certainly it is not the stuff of high school curricula. Moreover, the fact that it was published should raise doubts about the "blackballing" charge Chapman levels.

So the Darwinists (as in the Sternberg case at the Smithsonian) attacked the journal editors who allowed such outrages to occur. In the case of the Smithsonian, critics with relatively unimpressive scientific credentials besmirched an editor who has two doctorates in evolutionary biology.

"Attacked"? I guess it would be asking too much to supply a link or a reference, so readers might judge the merits of the case for themselves. "Relatively unimpressive"? Wait a minute. Is this not the very same essay that implied that "they" (those dastardly Darwinists) unfairly dismissed Phillip Johnson's criticisms because he's not a scientist? And now Sternberg's critics (scientists all, I believe) are "relatively unimpressive" ...because they hold fewer doctorates? How about Bruce Chapman, the author of this diatribe? How many science degrees does he boast? How about addressing some of the substance of the charges, rather than number of degrees of the principals involved?

Meanwhile, the Darwinists decided to try to dispatch the challenge to Darwin by defining it out of existence, especially at state school boards. They just pronounced it "unscientific". That required, however, a change in the definition of science.

"The Darwinists"? "decided"? "the challenge to Darwin"? If we can manage not to be distracted by three (3!) weasel words in one sentence -- "Darwinists (defined as ....?) decided (in a secret strategy meeting, perhaps?) to dispatch the challenge to Darwin (that "challenge" being...?)" -- we might wonder: who is redefining science? Perhaps the most venerable and prestigious general scientific journal in the world is Nature. How do you suppose they arrived at that title? Was it, perhaps, because Natural and Supernatural Phenomena was considered just too cumbersome?

At this point Chapman devotes a long paragraph to the tussle over definitions of science "traditionally" held by school boards. Frankly, who cares? As long as the point is not to leave a door ajar for sneaking in supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. Because that would be a radical revision of the scientific enterprise, at least relative to the last two centuries or so.

So then the Darwinists retreated to the latest line of defense: If the Darwin dissenters and intelligent design advocates are to be taken seriously they should be doing lab science; a.k.a., "real science".

(emphasis added)

Again, notice the imaginative timeline. When was having actual data and doing actual research not considered essential in science? Is there any evidence to support the notion that this is some kind of "retreat"?

As usual, this standard does not apply to work by Darwinists, only to their adversaries.

As evidenced by...? Note, again, another important weapon in the IDC armamentarium: the the PowerWhine: equal parts "poor me" and unsubstantiated allegation.

Also, as with the peer reviewed science journals, the Darwinists are prepared to do all they can to prevent dissenters from getting lab space and to keep those who do lab experiments from publishing their results.

As evidenced by...?

In other words, the Darwinists' supposed standards once again are hypocritical.

Supposed standards? Chapman tells us (with the usual lack of any references to the real world) that "the Darwinists are prepared to do all they can" (nothing specific, just "all they can"), and -- even though we don't know what nefarious schemes "they" have up "their" sleeves -- we can state without fear of contradiction that they are applied selectively to "Darwin skeptics". (Parapsychology and crystal power advocates can expect an indulgent wink and a nod.)

All that notwithstanding, it will shortly be known that Darwin doubters and design advocates are indeed doing lab science.

That's great. We're all waiting with bated breath. Now, just as soon as that lab science is actually done, and the results of it actually have any bearing on biology, and the resulting theory has any significant presence in the actual literature of biology, by all means, present your case to the textbook writers and school boards. You will have earned their attention.

So, to prevent exposure of the incapacity of their theory,

Incapacity? To do what? Offer explanations, mechanisms, for how things came to be? Make predictions about as yet unmade observations? As opposed to capacity of IDC to do those things?

...what is the next test the Darwinists are going to come up with? Will it not be a religious test that explicitly examines supposed motives rather than evidence or logic; that says that any scientist who is both religious in his personal views and a critic of Darwin in science is, by that combination, banished from debate on the topic of evolution? How far against the tradition of scientific freedom will the defenders go to defend their turf?

Hard to say. Lord knows "they" have no scruples. But is it really intolerant to question whether, say, a Young Earth Creationist is as qualified to teach biology or geology as the next person? Should Jonathan Wells's well publicized statement that he undertook graduate studies after prayerful consultation with Rev. Sun Myung Moon with the express purpose of "destroying Darwinism", be considered irrelevant to the credibility of his "challenges" to evolution? I don't know. Would it be deplorable (anti)religious bigotry to be influenced, in the choice of a physician, by whether he is a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy?

The Emperor who had no clothes made a terrible mistake in allowing just anyone who looked at him to form an opinion on his nudity. He should have required any oral comments on his new suit to be conducted solely by people holding Certificates of Official Observation -- and made sure that none of those was issued. He also should have had his minions investigate and publicize any unorthodox personal views or associations that the little boy in the story had, and any skeletons in the closet of the boy's family. One can't be too thorough about such things if one wants to avoid embarrassment.

See, the "Emperor" is "the Darwinian establishment". "Certificates of Official Observation" are advanced degrees and academic credentials. The "little boy" is Jonathan Wells, Stephen Meyers, and company. The "unorthodox personal views and associations" would be, for instance, being an ordained minister in Rev. Moon's Unification Church, say, or having signed a fundamentalist Christian college's loyalty oath promising to hew to to the divine special creation of man.

Well, let's turn this analogy around. What "clothes" do the DI fellows use to disguise their predisposition to reject evolution? Why should we not examine the scientific objectivity and bona fides of a group:

  1. Founded by, and composed primarily of, lawyers and other nonscientists,
  2. whose members share an antipathy to a cornerstone of modern biology, but offer no coherent alternative to it,
  3. whose major patron is a prominent player in the religious right
  4. that sees nothing wrong with making compatibility with (their version of) religion a criterion of acceptable science,
  5. that publishes tripe like this diatribe?

Russell Durbin is a virologist and molecular biologist in Columbus, Ohio.

Originally posted at The Panda's Thumb.