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August 29, 2005

A superb debunking

In case you missed it, this column by Daniel C. Dennett in Sunday's NY Times is the best takedown I've yet seen on the so-called "theory" of intelligent design ("ID") as an alternative to evolution.

You should read the whole thing, because it is extremely well done and, I think, unanswerable.  This ought to be the final word on this stupid "debate" (it won't, of course, but it should).  A couple of the truly excellent points in the article:

  • The "design" touted by ID promoters as so "intelligent" is actually not all that great in some ways.  The example the author gives is the blind spot that everyone has in their vision, which results from the awkward path that nerves must traverse to get from the retina to the brain.  Surely an omnipotent and merciful "designer" could have, and would have, done a better job.  So ID can't explain the blind spot.  But such a defect is perfectly understandable if you accept that these structures evolved over billions of years, and that non-critical design flaws may never be weeded out in that process.  As the author says, "this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process."
    • I can't help adding my own example to this line of thinking that is probably not suitable for publication in a family paper like the NY Times.  If you think about it, really, what's up with the organs used for reproduction and for excretion being the same (for men) or very, very close (for women)?  The two functions have nothing to do with each other, and there's no reason they couldn't be separated.  And, really, they should be - if I were designing an animal, they'd be pretty darn far apart.  But in fact they're not, presumably because although the system we have ain't perfect, it works well enough to keep the species self-perpetuating - the sign of a system that evolved, not that was "designed" by an omnipotent being.
  • The author does an excellent job of summarizing the trick ID promoters have used in advancing their phony cause.  He first describes the right way to create controversy in science:
    • "The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view."  He notes, however, that "to date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking."
    • Then he explains how the ID promoters have cheated - they have done an end-run around this process: "the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach."
    • In short, the ID gang has created "controversy" where none should exist.  And that is, so far, their greatest victory.  I made a similar point here.

Like I said, it's a great article and you should read the whole thing.  And then you should visit this site, which has a less high-minded, but much funnier, take on the "intelligent design" issue.  About the site, I will only say this: it is the home page of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Posted by David at 08:58 PM in National | Permalink


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Whether one finds the design "intelligent" or stupid misses the point. Either conclusion is based on personal credulity/incredulity, which has nothing to do with science. Saying that the eye is "flawed" is playing the same foolish game, just on the other side. No -- stop playing, and point out why the game itself is flawed.

Scientific statements must be "disprovable", that is, they must be testable and replicable. ID is based on a tautology: No matter what evidence exists, they will always ascribe it to a Designer, a hypothesis which simply cannot be verifiably and replicably tested.

As theology goes, it's relatively sane; as science goes... well, it's just not science.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Aug 29, 2005 11:23:02 PM

Saying that the eye is "flawed" is playing the same foolish game, just on the other side.

I quite disagree with you on that, Charley. The "purpose" of the eye is to see, yet the eye fails to carry out its function in an important respect (the blind spot) because of a silly design flaw that could easily have been avoided had the eye been designed better. The blind spot serves no possible purpose other than to make the eye work less well. So why would an "intelligent" designer put it in? Easy: he/she/it wouldn't. So ID doesn't work, even on its own terms. That is an insight that has not been widely enough remarked upon. Also, the fact that complex biological systems are in fact significantly flawed (in that they could do their jobs better, with no attendant loss of function, if certain design problems were fixed) tells us very interesting things about evolution. So it's not an irrelevant point - to the contrary, it's highly relevant both to the debunking of ID and to the proper understanding of evolution. See, I think ID fails as theology as well as science. The fact that ID is just as consistent with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as with the Genesis story strikes me as supportive of my view.

Posted by: David | Aug 29, 2005 11:52:15 PM

Ok, here goes. Religion basically makes it seem ok to die. It is not! When you die, there is a chance that your counsciousness ceases to exist. Religion is trying to stop science from reaching its full potential, which includes Immortality.

Instead of wasting all this time IMAGINING there is a GOD and praying/going to church/ or whatever mental hang-up you go through to make yourself feel better, why not actually contribute to curing or fixing the thing that killed your loved ones?

Example: Mom dies of liver cancer. The church tries to squash the possible cure (stem cells) which could probably be developed in a very few years. But a group of delusional people insist they are all-knowing about a group of cells in a petrie dish, therefore thwarting the advancement of science and contributing to the killing of millions of people. This is why people hate Christians. So everytime you wonder why, now you know.

When sceince can (and it will) do everything you imagine your God can do, why would you need that God anymore? Religion cannot survive; it can only hamper the scientific process in hopes to buy a little more time.



Posted by: Nano Leon | Aug 30, 2005 2:19:13 AM

Well, I did say "relatively sane".

To say that the ID argument fails on its own terms implies that those terms are worth dealing with at all. They're not.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Aug 30, 2005 9:20:42 AM

Dennett's argument is typical of smug academics who don't have to work in the real world, meet shipping deadlines, and deliver quarterly numbers to shareholders, with staff being cut at every turn. The truth, there is an Intelligent Designer (ID), but due to pressures of the universal economy the ID is overworked, and underpaid. The ID had a team in Silicon Valley working on that optic nerve blind spot issue. Due to competitive pressures, the work was sourced to India, then ultimately abandoned because it wasn't profitable. The ID hopes to get back to it at some point, but is busy right now trying to figure out how the Bush Administration and Hurricane Katrina happened.

Posted by: Peter Dolan | Aug 30, 2005 9:25:46 AM

You know, I think this particular exchange was about as much fun as I've had recently reading a blog. Honest.

Posted by: lenstewart | Aug 30, 2005 3:08:21 PM

To say that the ID argument fails on its own terms implies that those terms are worth dealing with at all. They're not.

I wish I could agree. But these people are taking over school boards nationwide, they are trying to kill science education, and they are making progress. I mean, the President has come out on their side, ferchrissakes. They need to be stopped, and refusing to engage them because their crappy "theory" doesn't merit response isn't going to work - that just plays into their view that anyone who accepts evolution is a Volvo-driving Chardonnay-swilling brie-snarfing NPR-listening elitist. ID must be discredited internally as well as externally.

Posted by: David | Aug 30, 2005 11:45:22 PM

Oh, Peter: hilarious comment! Thanks.

Posted by: David | Aug 30, 2005 11:46:49 PM

Here's discrediting for you: *It's not science.*

Lather, rinse and repeat.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Aug 31, 2005 12:04:14 AM

And by the way: "Volvo-driving Chardonnay-swilling brie-snarfing NPR-listening elitist" is absolutely me ... except for the Volvo ... and the "elitist", unless you think that thinking people should have health care is elitist, as many seem to.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Aug 31, 2005 12:07:07 AM

Charley, not to belabor the point, but what do you think ID opponents have been saying all along? OF COURSE it's not science! But just saying that is NOT WORKING, so the good guys need to add to their arsenal.

Posted by: David | Aug 31, 2005 12:09:06 AM

Well, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a good thing to have in the arsenal.

Posted by: Charley on the MTA | Aug 31, 2005 12:42:15 PM

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