Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Intelligent Design's back, baby!

This time with 20% more stupid.

Today, in response to the frustrating and backwards ruling in Kansas allowing the teaching of intelligent design as an "alternative" to evolution, I am reposting my argument against this pseud0-science (with some re-edits). The following was originally posted on August 3rd. Also, you can head over to On Religion where Scott makes a similar argument.
Warning: This entry is not particularly funny. It is good for you, broccoli. Which is also not funny, but can prevent cancer. Cancer really isn't funny. I can't promise that this entry will prevent cancer, but I can't promise that it won't, either. Just to be on the safe side, I would go ahead and read it. And eat some broccoli.
The Kansas Board of Education has voted to introduce Intelligent Design into the science curriculum. In response, I am knashing my teeth and making all sorts of nasty, angry sounds.

The key players in this debate are very proud of the fact that they are going to promote academic freedom and "[get rid] of a lot of dogma that's being taught in the classroom today." I'm not sure exactly what dogma they are referring to as I'm guessing that there is some dogma that would appeal to the board members and it probably involves a benevolent being with a snowy white beard and a very large index finger. And maybe a cloud of smoke. And the word poof.

And, to be certain, it involves a big, deep, echoing void of logic. Sort of a logic black hole, where no reasonable thought can escape.

But, the point of this post is not to insult the board. No, the point of this post is to present an argument against the teaching of intelligent design in schools. I will briefly explain what intelligent design is, the arguments for intelligent design, the arguments against, and my personal view on the matter.

In the end, you will see that there is nothing scientific or reasonable about intelligent design and it will be clear that this is just a thinly veiled religious argument.

The Reasoning:

The argument is, if schools teach a "theory like evolution" (it's just a theory, dammit!), then they should also teach alternate theories. You know, just in the interest of completeness. You gotta be fair. Of course, I would then argue that if you are going to teach those two theories (I'm using theory loosely here, intelligent design is not a theory) then you should teach all possibilities. I'm rounding up all my lobbyists to push my "Invisible gnomes shaped life through interpretive dance" theory into the biology textbooks. After all, there is no way to disprove it. Go ahead and try. Anyway, this idea that evolution is no more valid than any other theory is why we have reached this point. What is never mentioned is that there are a few more theories out there that nobody seems to attack, namely Gravity and Relativity. Really, though, they are just theories too.

Intelligent Design is not a theory

But seriously, why do I think it is absolutely, unequivocally wrong to teach intelligent design in the classroom? The answer is that it is not a theory, but more a flight of fancy. Like most Republican agendas, it is based more on scoffing and insults than on bearing the burden of proof. Let's look at some of the arguments brought up against evolution by proponents of intelligent design and see why they don't hold water.

The Classical

"If you find a watch in the desert, odds are someone put it there; it didn't form on its own." This is paraphrasing an argument put forth by William Paley in 1802.

Life is incredibly complex, it's true, and so one can see how the idea of a super-being guiding the formation of life would be a popular one. But I think the problem is an inability to grasp just how long hundreds of millions of years really is. Over these hundreds of years, environment drives life to adapt, to change...or die. Those that fail to develop don't win in the quest for food and mates and don't get to proceed on to the next generation. I'm sure this isn't really news to anyone as I'm really just summarizing the idea of survival of the fittest. After all, nobody claims that evolution is "random" or "spontaneous." I agree that it is unlikely that a bunch of molecules would suddenly decided to form a monkey, but give it 100 million years and the forces or environment and before you know it you are dodging feces.

If you break down the argument of the watch in the desert to its true essence, the argument is really "it just seems too hard, it couldn't happen." That isn't such a good argument for science, but it is perfect for theology. While it makes for great Sunday School, it has no place in a biology class. The more interesting part to this argument is the more sophisticated arguments put forth against evolution, particularly the idea of irreducible complexity.

Irreducible Complexity

This is the point where the proponents give their argument a fancy name and start using big words. And I've got to hand it to them, Irreducible and Complexity are both big, fancy words. They sound very scientific...if only the argument sounded as good as its name.

What is irreducible a nutshell, if possible? The idea is, some things are so complex that they could never have come about through evolution. The canonical example is the mousetrap; it could not function if a single piece was missing and each individual piece has no value in and of itself. If you've ever played the game "Mousetrap," you know that the little basket won't fall if even one of those pieces is set up incorrectly. It is a compelling argument, and one that becomes even more compelling when one looks at a real biological process.

The example most often cited is the bacterial flagellum, the propeller of the bacteria. In an amazing feat of engineering evolution engineering an amazing feat, the parts of the flagellum are all arranged into motor components and joints that are just as if an engineer had designed it (maybe an engineer with a big white beard? Hmmm...could be). Michael J. Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, argues that the possibility that these parts arranged themselves through an evolutionary process is basically zero and this implies intelligent design.

But this ignores the fact that a) there exist simpler flagellum out there that work without being so complex and b) These parts could have served a non-flagellum purpose originally and then combined together to form the flagellum. In fact, the bubonic plague bacteria's toxin injector is extremely similar to the flagellum.

Another popular example of the an irreducibly complex system is the blood-clotting system. Creationists argue that this is yet another wildly complex system and, in fact, if this system was incomplete it could be damaging to the body. But studies by Russell F. Doolittle of UC San Diego demonstrate that the blood-clotting system appears to have evolved from digestive system proteins. Hardly irreducible, I think.

The Larger Point and the Dramatic Conclusion

But I don't care. You know what? For every biological process that scientists explain creationist will come up with a new, harder to explain system. But that is entirely besides the point. Science can't explain everything right now. We can't explain how gravity fits in with the rest of the quantum world, but nobody doubts gravity despite the fact that gravity is nothing more than a theory.

The thing is, irreducible complexity is once again built on the foundation of "damn, that's really hard. Let's invent a superbeing." Even if we had no idea how the flagellum worked, it would be bad, bad science to just give up and not try to figure it out. Why does there have to be a stopping point? Why do we have to assume that, at some point, things are just unexplainable and it is time to give up? I can't emphasize enough that that is not science, that is religion, and it has no place in a science class.

What I wonder is, how did the burden of proof get shifted onto the scientists. Scientists are just trying to explain how the world works. They look at the facts at hand, try to come up with an explanation, and they only introduce new ideas when the evidence requires. Then they exhaustively test the hypothesis before allowing it to become a fact (or theory, depending on the nature of the hypothesis). But creationists have gone well beyond the introduction of an invisible force like gravity or magnetism to explain something observed, they have introduced an entire Super Being. One that is everywhere but nowhere at the same time. All knowing and all powerful. And there is absolutely no way to detect this being or prove his existence, you just have to believe. And if you don't believe there will be eternal punishment.


Which of these seems like more of a stretch? But the scientists have to refute every argument brought up by creationists or else the creationists will view it as a victory. Stump the scientist, go to heaven! I'll never understand this.

So the final point of this all? A summary of the argument, if you will. I don't give a damn about any of the creationist arguments. I don't care if the creationist come up with an example of a really complex system that no biologist can explain. I just don't care.





It just isn't. Scientists should, never, ever accept an endpoint to their research. There is always a next step and it is never acceptable to say "I'm stumped, somebody fetch me a big, pointing finger."

If there is divine intervention, who can say at what point it occurs? When do we give up? When did intelligent design occur? At the DNA level...the cellular level? Clearly we have no answer to this question so there is some work to be done and no, it isn't okay to look in your 2000 year old textbook for the answer. This isn't an open book test.

Let's keep science in the classroom and religion in the church. Creationism has no place in a science class. And that, my friends, is the bottom line.

Source: 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense, Scientific American, July 2002.

...which can be read in its entirety here.

A few questions:

1) If science is designed to find the truth, why should science automatically rule out one possible explanation?

2) Where did the first cell come from?

3) Has macroevolution ever been, like the theory of gravity and the theory of relativity, observed in nature or tested in a laboratory? If not, aren't the evolutionists asking everyone to accept something on . . . faith?
A few answers:

1) Science has to rule out this explanation because it is completely untestable and leads to an impass. There is no way to ever say that God did or didn't somewhere point a finger and make stuff happen. The problem is that, to ever accept this possible explanation, we would have to stop looking for the true answer. It would be saying "okay, I don't have the answer. Everyone agree on a supreme being? Yes? Okay, let's go home." That's not science, that's religion. Science never stops looking for the next step beyond. Nobody has ever asked me to accept the possiblity that the earth was built by gnomes. Why not? It's one possible explanation.

2) I don't know.

3) Actually, nobody has ever observed gravity. We can only see the effects of gravity...or relativity. The evidence for evolution is abundantly clear. No, it's not faith, it's science. Do you take gravity

The point it, none of this matters. I don't know where the first cell came from and neither do you. But evolutionary biologists try to figure out the answers. They form hypothesis and test these hypothesis. The good people at Intelligent Design Inc. make no attempts to figure out the answer. They simply say "This is too damn hard" and give up (insert big finger..*poof*). Hence, this is clearly not a science and should not be taught in science classrooms. Simple as that. Frankly, the ID people might be right. I don't care. Not Science. Do you disagree with any of these points?

Regarding #2, if anyone out there knows more about this than I do, feel free to drop a line. My thing is physics, not biology.
One more point...ID people don't even try to explain when the intelligent designing might take place. There is *no effort at all*

Not a science.
How intelligent is the design to have taken 4 billion years to get to a species that only began believing in a god that wants to be worshiped 5000 years ago?

How intelligent is the design to have allowed the dinosaurs to have dominion over the planet for a hundred million years?

ID makes no sense.
Science has to rule out this explanation because it is completely untestable and leads to an impass.

Macroevolution is also untestable.

Regarding #2, the only possible explanation for the first cell is God.

Frankly, the ID people might be right. I don't care. Not Science.

This would mean that science is not concerned with truth. If so, what's the use of science?

A final point:
When arguing about this, make sure you differentiate between ID people and young earth creationists. There's a difference. The ID people accept evolution. The young earth creationists, like me, don't (the earth, like Adam, was created with apparent age).
Dracula made the first cell. But it was a just crappy prokaryote.

Eukaryotes were trickier. It took the entire Drak-Pak to make the eukaryotes.

Nine months later--Jericho!
The scientific case for common descent. 30 major testable predictions of the hypothesis of common descent and how they fare against the data.

"This article is specifically intended for those who are scientifically minded but, for one reason or another, have come to believe that macroevolutionary theory explains little, makes few or no testable predictions, is unfalsifiable, or has not been scientifically demonstrated."


"Scientific theories are validated by empirical testing against physical observations. Theories are not judged simply by their logical compatibility with the available data. Independent empirical testability is the hallmark of science—in science, an explanation must not only be compatible with the observed data, it must also be testable. By "testable" we mean that the hypothesis makes predictions about what observable evidence would be consistent and what would be incompatible with the hypothesis. Simple compatibility, in itself, is insufficient as scientific evidence, because all physical observations are consistent with an infinite number of unscientific conjectures. Furthermore, a scientific explanation must make risky predictions— the predictions should be necessary if the theory is correct, and few other theories should make the same necessary predictions."


"In the following list of evidences, 30 major predictions of the hypothesis of common descent are enumerated and discussed. Under each point is a demonstration of how the prediction fares against actual biological testing. Each point lists a few examples of evolutionary confirmations followed by potential falsifications. Since one fundamental concept generates all of these predictions, most of them are interrelated. So that the logic will be easy to follow, related predictions are grouped into five separate subdivisions. Each subdivision has a paragraph or two introducing the main idea that unites the various predictions in that section. There are many in-text references given for each point. As will be seen, universal common descent makes many specific predictions about what should and what should not be observed in the biological world, and it has fared very well against empirically-obtained observations from the past 140+ years of intense scientific investigation.

It must be stressed that this approach to demonstrating the scientific support for macroevolution is not a circular argument: the truth of macroevolution is not assumed a priori in this discussion. Simply put, the theory of universal common descent, combined with modern biological knowledge, is used to deduce predictions. These predictions are then compared to the real world in order see how the theory fares in light of the observable evidence. In every example, it is quite possible that the predictions could be contradicted by the empirical evidence. In fact, if universal common descent were not accurrate, it is highly probable that these predictions would fail. These empirically validated predictions present such strong evidence for common descent for precisely this reason. The few examples given for each prediction are meant to represent general trends. By no means do I purport to state all predictions or potential falsifications; there are many more out there for the inquiring soul to uncover.

Are There Other Scientifically Valid Explanations?
The worldwide scientific research community from over the past 140 years has discovered that no known hypothesis other than universal common descent can account scientifically for the unity, diversity, and patterns of terrestrial life. This hypothesis has been verified and corroborated so extensively that it is currently accepted as fact by the overwhelming majority of professional researchers in the biological and geological sciences (AAAS 1990; NAS 2003; NCSE 2003; Working Group 2001). No alternate explanations compete scientifically with common descent, primarily for four main reasons: (1) so many of the predictions of common descent have been confirmed from independent areas of science, (2) no significant contradictory evidence has yet been found, (3) competing possibilities have been contradicted by enormous amounts of scientific data, and (4) many other explanations are untestable, though they may be trivially consistent with biological data."
Sorry for the long post.
jamie r. has already provided lots of good info above, but let me give my bit.

Let's look at the theory of gravity. The many equations we have regarding the way thinks fall in a gravitational field (all based off of F=ma) are based on nothing but observation of evidence. There is nothing before F=ma. You can't derive F=ma from another equation. We simply looked at some evidence, it said F=ma, and there you go. You can't argue with Nature.

So then we look at evolution. There's a certain body of evidence. This "theory" describes that evidence. So I guess they wrote an equation: lightening+cell=human or something to that effect. What can you do? You can't stop nature, you can only hope to contain her.

You see, that's what it means to say that macroevolution is testable. We see evidence and we see how that evidence agrees with theory. Just like with gravity or relativity.

regarding #2: Obviously that isn't true. You've forgotten the possibility that the first cell was just the tear of an invisible gnome.

Did you know you can get particles out of a vaccuum? Spontaneous symmetry breaking. You can get something out of nothing, it's true. Quantum Physics is freaky.

Regarding your third point, science isn't concerned with the truth? Okay, well, if we come up with a theory that there is a God, test it, and prove it, then I'll consider creationism. And no, you can't cheat and use your textbook. I don't care how long ago it was written. And no far starting from the assumption that there is a God. That's cheating.

And regarding your final point, you are right. I should be careful. Because it is pretty much pointless to argue with ID people, but it is just ludicrous to try and argue with a young earth creationist. After all, you've already decided to reject all forms of science, so what's the point? You've got your book, it proves you right, let's move on.
"Regarding #2, the only possible explanation for the first cell is God."

Totally myopic. There's NO possible way that a mutation of a replicator caused it to secrete a lipid shield? And, that shield, made that replicator a more fit survivor? That's impossible?

That's more possible that the earth is only 5000 years old.
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