Copyright © 2005 jsd

1  Intelligent Design : Chimera

The so-called Intelligent Design Movement (IDM) is a chimera ... that is, a monstrosity fabricated from disparate parts of other creatures. Specifically, it has the blind eyes and sharp claws of fundamentalist creationism and the voracious jaws of politics. It is then dressed up to look like science. The whole package is held together by lies.

I do not lightly accuse people of lying, but when a federal court finds that people have repeatedly lied under oath, I feel safe in quoting the judge:

It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

That’s from page 137 of the judge’s findings in the Dover, PA case (reference 1).

To understand the origins and purpose of the IDM, see page 32 of reference 1. The judge discusses the book Of Pandas and People (reference 2), which the ID partisans had relied upon to describe and explain their so-called theory:

Pandas went through many drafts, several of which were completed prior to and some after the Supreme Court’s decision in Edwards, which held that the Constitution forbids teaching creationism as science. By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content....

The overall situation can be summed up by what I call the fundamental equation of intelligent design:

creationism + lying about it = ID              (1)

The court carefully considered the question of whether ID is science, and found that it is not. From page 64:

We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science.

The judge gave three reasons, each of which makes sense. See also section 4 for more discussion of why ID is not science.

The judge expressed part of the chimera idea in the following terms, on page 136:

ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

and also on page 26:

A significant aspect of the IDM is that despite Defendants’ protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious argument.

We need to take note of both halves of that statement: ID is not science ... but the ID partisans, especially when talking to scientists, systematically pretend that it is science.

This pretense is a big problem for scientists. Remember, as James Randi is fond of pointing out, scientists have little experience dealing with lies and liars. Usually when someone claims to be a scientist and claims to offer a scientific explanation, we take him at his word.

Alas, it would be a big mistake to take the ID partisans at their word. They are lying ... and if you take them at their word, you become an unwitting participant in spreading their lies.

The ID movement is waging a war against science. This war is being waged using political methods for political and religious reasons.

2  The Allegedly Scientific Argument

In this section, we temporarily ignore the warning at the end of the previous section. That is, we indulge our scientific impulses and cautiously consider the hypothesis that ID might have some shred of scientific validity. See reference 3 for a discussion of scientific methods. See reference 4 and reference 5 for some discussion of related points.

The main argument in favor of “intelligent design” goes like this: Simplicio says “I don’t understand how evolution could have produced something as elegant and wonderful as ...., and therefore it must have been designed by God”.

This is what we call an argument from no evidence. Arguments of this type are completely fallacious and worthless, for reasons explained in reference 6.

The funny thing is, the first part of Simplicio’s argument is true: he doesn’t understand how evolution could have produced the structures in question. But that’s just because he doesn’t understand. His lack of understanding is not evidence for (or against) anything.

Proponents also like to say that complex, finely-tuned systems are “always associated with design” (reference 7). That statement is so fallacious that it is hard to know where to begin criticizing it. First of all, this can be considered a weird example of the notorious fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Anyone capable of high-school-level logical thinking should know that “associated with” is not the same as “explained by”. Secondly, if we generously rephrase the claim to say that such systems are “always explained by or caused by design” then it is still fallacious. It is well known that intelligent design can cause complex, finely-tuned systems to arise, but let’s be careful about the direction of implication:

design ⇒ complexity, elegance, precision      (truly)              (2)

Meanwhile, it is a notorious fallacy (called affirming the consequent) to attempt to turn this implication around:

complexity, elegance, precision ⇒ design      (allegedly)              (3)


Thirdly, the claim is so grossly overstated as to be just plain wrong, even if we don’t worry about the direction of implication. It is simply not true that design “always” results in finely-tuned complex systems (let alone vice versa). When I look in my toolboxes, I see some tools that are highly sophisticated and specialized, while others are not.

In summary: the ID movement’s supposedly scientific claim is one falsehood and two fallacies removed from reality.

If such a claim were put forward through normal scientific channels, it would have been judged DoA (dead on arrival), and then utterly forgotten.

Let’s be clear: even if we make the mistake of taking the ID partisans at their word, even if we pretend ID is a scientific explanation, ID is DoA.

Unfortunately, the lifeless and soulless carcass of ID continues to prance around, puppet-like, because political operatives are pulling the strings.

3  Politics Exploiting Religion

“Intelligent design” is being promoted by political operatives, using political methods, for partisan political purposes.

This crosses over from politics to religion for the simple reason that the political operatives have identified religious persons as an easily-exploitable funding source and voting bloc.

The religious part of ID is hard to understand because it is chimeric. It becomes slightly more understandable if we separate it into two sub-parts, namely (a) the political operatives, and (b) the millions of well-meaning religious persons whom the operatives seek to exploit.

Do the political operatives take the bible literally or not? They claim to do so ... but apparently they have a very special bible in which one of the most important commandments is:

Thou shalt bear false witness whenever it advances thy fundraising goals or political agenda.

Another commandment apparently is

Thou shalt make death threats against those who disagree with thee,
and against federal judges who discover that thou hast borne false witness.

More generally, these guys take literally whichever bible passages they can exploit for political gain.

And of course they don’t restrict themselves to the bible. They have been finding and/or fabricating “wedge issues” for decades. They are very good at it. Do you remember Willie Horton? Flag burning? Gay marriage? This year it’s “intelligent design”.

They are not just attacking evolution, and not just attacking biology. They are attacking science as a whole, trying to discredit the scientific community as a whole. See reference 8 for details, and see reference 9 for some analysis.

They are definitely not stupid. Indeed they are very clever, cynical, highly motivated, selfish, and well funded. Do not underestimate these guys. They are very dangerous.

You may be wondering why anyone would want to wage an anti-science jihad. It is always hard to be certain about motives, but two plausible hypotheses stand out:

  1. To some extent the choice scientists as victims was arbitrary and devoid of deep meaning, just as flag-burning was arbitrarily selected as the hot-button issue a couple of campaigns ago ... it’s not like the republic was ever really in danger from hordes of flaming-flag-waving maniacs.
  2. To some extent it is serious retribution for scientific opposition to Bush-administration dogma. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a nice series of papers (reference 10) documenting political interference in science. Here is a quote from reference 11:
    Specific examples of the misuse of science have occ urred across a broad range of issues such as childhood lead poisoning, toxic mercury emi ssions, climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons. Experts at the FDA ch arged with ensuring the safety of our food and drug supply, report being pressured to alt er their scientific conclusions. Political appointees in the Department of the Interior have been exposed for overruling the scientific consensus and refusing to protect en dangered species. Scientists nominated to serve on scientific advisory boards report being asked about their political leanings.

    The message seems to be: Shut up and believe what W tells you to believe, or we’ll destroy your career (and/or your spouse’s career).

4  Intelligent Design is not Science

A viable explanation must expose itself to testing, and then pass the test.

By way of illustration, consider Newton’s second law of motion. It tells us that over a very wide range of ordinary terrestrial conditions, the equation F=ma gives an exceedingly accurate description of what we observe. Given the mass and the acceleration we can predict the force ... or given the mass and the force we can predict the acceleration ... et cetera. These predictions are very useful.

Note that we need not claim F=ma is universally true or exactly true. We merely claim that it is reliable enough to be very useful, under a wide range of conditions.

In contrast, “intelligent design” is definitely not a viable scientific explanation. As Popper put it (reference 12) an explanation must be falsifiable ... but not false.

There are basically two possibilities:

So there you have it. “Intelligent design” is a lose/lose proposition. It does not pass the test. It either fails the test, or skives off completely.

To say the same thing another way: If you care about the evidence, ID is not a viable scientific explanation. If you don’t care about the evidence, you don’t have a scientific explanation of any kind.

5  Bad Design

As a nice simple example, as Mark Shapiro pointed out,

It is amusing to ask why human beings have an appendix. It performs no known beneficial function in the human organism, and - indeed - it can put the individual at risk for fatal infections. Why would an intelligent designer include such an appendage in an efficiently designed digestive tract?

On the other hand in some other mammals, the appendix does perform a useful function in the digestions of food. The human appendix, however, is a vestigial remnant of our evolution from a common ancestor with other mammals. The function it performs is to remind us of whence we came!

To say the same thing another way, this is just one example of the general rule:

Biology makes sense in terms of evolution,
and not otherwise.

As another example, consider the evolution of the sickle-cell trait in malaria-infested regions of the world. A person who is heterozygous for the sickle-cell trait (i.e. carrying exactly one copy of this gene) has some valuable (albeit not perfect) protection against malaria, and does not suffer from sickle-cell disease. A person without the trait is likely to suffer terribly and/or die from malaria. A person who carries two copies of the gene is likely to suffer terribly and/or die from sickle-cell disease. For details, see reference 14. From this, you can expect that most of the healthy adults in a malaria-infested region will be heterozygous. Let’s see what happens when such people have children. Out of every four children, on average, one will die of malaria, one will die of sickle-cell disease, and only two will be heterozygous.

There are lots of ways that this problem could have been solved if the genome had been intelligently designed ... ways that did not involve killing half the children.

This is another example of the rule: the observed biology can be understood in terms of evolution, and not otherwise.

6  Teach the Controversy?

The “intelligent design” agitators say they want their ideas to be taught in school, and given “equal time” with respectable scientific ideas such as evolution. They’ve said so explicitly.

Presumably they are drawing an analogy to the FCC’s “equal time” policy for political broadcasting. It is (in a cynical sense) understandable that they would attempt such an analogy; after all, they are pursuing a political agenda. Their analogy is, however, false. They think that just by wishing it to be so, they can demote evolution to the status of a mere political opinion ... or they can promote their opinion to the status of a well-established scientific law.

A more-appropriate analogy would be this:

I want to be paid a million dollars per day. The problem is, I haven’t earned it.   The ID agitators want equal time with evolution. The problem is, they have not earned it. At best, they have earned equal time with other large-scale frauds.

I am happy to teach about “intelligent design” on the same day that I teach about N-rays, the Piltdown man, homeopathy, patchwork mice, et cetera. See reference 15 for some appropriate attire.

ID is not science, and it is not religion either. Religion teaches us the difference between right and wrong, and teaches that we should not compromise between right and wrong. Suppose I sue you, claiming (wrongly) that you owe me a million dollars. In response, you claim (rightly) you owe me nothing. If you believe that compromise is more important than justice, then your claim and my claim will be given equal weight, and the court will “compromise” by forcing you to pay me half a million dollars. Giving equal weight to the claims of ID falls into the same category: it would be a compromise between right and wrong, and would be grossly unjust.

“Compromising between right and wrong
just gives the biggest advantage
to the biggest scoundrel.”
         – Arno Penzias, 1987.

As another way of saying it, as the saying goes: You should keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

Some things in this world are just wrong. The so-called theory of “intelligent design” is just wrong.

“I decline utterly to be impartial
as between the fire brigade and the fire.”
         – Winston Churchill, 7 July 1927.

7  Abusing the Terminology

7.1  Theory

The word “theory” can be used in two radically different ways. The first usage means something like law or rule, only much grander, namely a system of rules giving a coherent description and explanation of a broad topic. The other usage refers to a mere speculation. Remarkably, both versions are correct, and the ambiguity can be traced back more than 2000 years.

The creationists are serial abusers of the terminology. They cannot be trusted. If you intend one meaning they’ll use the other meaning against you. They are particularly fond of saying “Darwin’s theory is just a theory” – which does nothing but muddy the water by mismatching the two uses of the word.

Therefore I recommend you avoid the term “theory of evolution”. Instead I use terms like “our knowledge of evolution” or “our understanding of the facts of evolution”. That does not mean quite the same thing, but it has the advantage of being resistant to abuse.

Whenever somebody claims “Darwin’s theory is just a theory” you might respond by saying that even in Darwin’s day, his explanation of evolution was much more than a mere hypothesis or conjecture. It offered a broad, deep, and systematic explanation of the observed facts. Furthermore, our understanding of evolution has become even broader, deeper, and more comprehensive in the years since Darwin.

7.2  Evolution, not «Darwinism»

The term “Darwinism” should be deprecated. There is no “Darwinism” in biology, for the same reason there is no “Newtonism” in mechanics and no “Maxwellism” in electrodynamics.

Those who suggest there is a parallel between creationism and and evolution are just trying to muddy the water. It’s even worse to suggest there is a parallel between creationism and so-called «Darwinism». There is no such thing as «Darwinism», so far as I know, i.e. no cult based on the beliefs of Charles Darwin. If such a cult exists at all it is exceedingly rare, completely unscientific, devoid of influence, and irrelevant to any serious discussion.

Science is not based on any cult(s) of personality. Science revolves around getting the right answer. Science looks at all the evidence, not just Darwin’s evidence.

Specific suggestion: If you want to talk about evolution, say “evolution”, not “Darwinism”.

8  For Further Reading

John E. Jones III, US District Judge,
“Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District – MEMORANDUM OPINION” (20 December 2005)

Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon,
Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins Foundation for Thought & Ethics; 2nd edition (September, 1993).

“Scientific Methods” ./scientific-methods.htm

John Denker,
“Valid versus Invalid Arguments: Appeal to Authority etc.”

John Denker,
“Truth in Contrast to Knowledge and Belief”

John Denker,
“Argument from No Evidence”

Michael J. Behe,
quoted in The New York Times, 22 August 2005.

The Discovery Institute,
“The Wedge Strategy”

Wikipedia entry: “Wedge Strategy”

Union of Concerned Scientists, Scientific Integrity Program,
“The A to Z Guide to Political Interference in Science”, http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/a-to-z-alphabetical.html

Francesca T. Grifo,
“Written Testimony Before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform”

Karl Popper,
The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Michael J. Behe,
Darwin’s Black Box : The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution

Kenneth R. Bridges,
“Malaria and the Sickle Hemoglobin Gene”, http://sickle.bwh.harvard.edu/malaria_sickle.html

Some clever “teach the controversy” T-shirts:
Copyright © 2005 jsd