Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Daniel Dennett and the "intelligent design" pseudo-controversy

Seems like the "intelligent design" controversy is everywhere now, doesn't it? That's because Christian fundamentalists behind the controversy went on the offensive this summer in Kansas. In August the Kansas State Board of Education conducted a kangaroo court trial of evolution and later issued new curriculum guidelines that redefined science to make room for "intelligent design".

Also, late last year in the small town of Dover, PA, the school board dictated that biology classes must be read a statement asserting that Darwinian evolution cannot be trusted and students should also read about ID. This fiat led 11 parents of children in the district to sue the board for unconstitutionally promoting a religious doctrine as science, and the trial of that suit is just beginning.

But the claim that the dispute between evolution and "intelligent design" is a legitimate scientific controversy is a cynical fraud, as the following article by philosopher Daniel Dennett explains -- because the people who have instigated this "controversy" champion a theory, "intelligent design", that has no scientfic content at all.

ID consists of just two parts. The first part is a congeries of criticisms of evolution, many of which are based on demonstrably false claims -- such as that there is no fossil record of "intermediate forms" between species. The second part is a proffered -- but untestable -- solution (the "intelligent designer") to a specific "problem" which almost all real biologists have concluded does not exist, namely that living creatures have parts which are "irreducibly complex".

The article was originally published on August 29, but deserves to be bookmarked, because it lays out the issues so clearly.

Show Me the Science
Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

If intelligent design were a scientific idea whose time had come, scientists would be dashing around their labs, vying to win the Nobel Prizes that surely are in store for anybody who can overturn any significant proposition of contemporary evolutionary biology.

George Gilder, a longtime affiliate of the Discovery Institute - the conservative organization that has helped to put intelligent design on the map in the United States - has said: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."

Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?
(The article is also here and here.)

Dennett explains this scam pretty clearly:
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.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

The matter can be stated even more succinctly: To challenge any scientific theory, all you need to do is make whatever unsupported claims you want about it. And then when scientists object, you say, "Look! There's a scientific controversy! We must teach about it." Of course, it it were taught honestly, the complete inadequacy of ID would have to be explained, and not left as a legitimate scientific alternative.

In fact, there are various issues in the theory of evolution that real scientists are debating, such as the details of the mechanisms by which evolutionary changes occur. (For instance, does evolution act at the level of genes, or organisms, or groups of organisms, or all of these?) So there is scientific controversy, and it would be very appropriate to teach about these issues. Such disputes involve issues for which there are competing scientific explanations, and teaching about them is quite reasonable. But additionally throwing in a non-scientific, untestable explanation (the "intelligent designer" which can't be described in any way) is of no value.

However, there is no legitimate scientific controversy on the main issue that ID insists should be taught, namely whether biological organisms are so "irreducibly complex" that Darwinian evolution can't account for them. It is simply dishonest to teach that this is a scientfic controversy.

The truth about the contents of "intelligent design science" is that there aren't any contents. Just try to cajole one of its advocates to say what "intelligent design science" is. You will not get anywhere. All they can do is make the philosophical assertion that some unknown intelligent entity caused life as we know it to take the form it does. They cannot, or will not, specify what that entity might be (and that is how they differ from Biblical creationists). Their "science" consists of nothing but various criticisms of evolution. While it is legitimate to analyze evolution critically, that in itself does not constitute a scientific theory.

It's just as much a confusion tactic to call intelligent design a science as it is to call evolution a religion. Anti-evolutionists want to blur the distinction, but that is not intellectually honest.

"Intelligent design theory" does not even pretend to address the simplest questions. (And yet its proponents demand that evolution answer vastly more detailed questions.) For example, they would agree that there is no fossil evidence for what can be called "modern humans" that is more than about 200,000 years old. So modern humans must have appeared on Earth about that long ago. Exactly how did the first modern human arrive here? Was it brought here in a flying saucer? Did it shimmer into existence as if delivered by a Star Trek transporter? Did the Intelligent Designer fashion it our of clay then breathe life into it as Genesis says? Advocates of intelligent design cannot give physical details to answer such a question. In other words, they really have no theory at all.

The approximate date of 200,000 years doesn't really matter. Whenever or wherever the first "modern human" showed up, intelligent design theorists have no answer at all regarding the event's mechanism and what it physically consisted of. How could such a non-theory be "taught" in classrooms as "intelligent design" advocates demand? There isn't anything to teach! All they have to talk about is critiques of evolution. A collection of critiques is not a theory.

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Blogger Darren said...

Good. Spread those memes.

9/28/2005 04:18:00 PM  

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