Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Dennett on ID

Daniel Dennett, a man I consider one of the half dozen or so most brilliant thinkers on the planet, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times about “intelligent design” called Show Me The Science. He makes essentially the same argument I have been making on this blog for nearly 2 years now:

The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. 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.

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.

Instead, 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.

William Dembski, one of the most vocal supporters of intelligent design, notes that he provoked Thomas Schneider, a biologist, into a response that Dr. Dembski characterizes as “some hair-splitting that could only look ridiculous to outsider observers.” What looks to scientists – and is – a knockout objection by Dr. Schneider is portrayed to most everyone else as ridiculous hair-splitting.

In short, no science. Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, “You haven’t explained everything yet,” is not a competing hypothesis. 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.

As usual, Dennett is on the mark. The essay is well worth reading in its entirety.

Comments

  1. #1 llDayo
    August 28, 2005

    You know, I’m actually becoming less and less worried with this whole ID vs Evolution debate. More and more we see the ID movement trying to be pushed into our educational system and it’s being shot down nearly every time because of false information and the non-existence of evidence. The biggest positive in this whole argument though is that it seems to be interesting the public more in educating themselves on the subject of each.

    I personally think people will start understanding what exactly science is, how theories are derived, what the evidences are for evolution and that ID has none. This will push the debate more and more onto the fringe groups who rely on religious texts instead of their own two eyes and eventually the public interest will think they’re nuts. Science will become more of an interest in the public’s eyes and the effect of the “controversy” will be more students interested in science, more public awareness on the teachings of our schools, and a better appreciation for all of what science has done the past 200 years.

    I certainly hope I’m right, but I see more and more in newspapers, news programs, and internet forums discussions on ID vs Evolution. The exposure being garnered will get people (like me) interested in science by ways of learning what the whole debate is about. Maybe this is the real goal of the Discovery Institute? Maybe they’re not as bad as we think and that their ultimate goal is to renew a the public’s interest in the sciences? Maybe intelligence really does resound throughout their institution?

  2. #2 Leni
    August 28, 2005

    Instead, 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.

    Dead on explanation of typical ID proponent tactics.

    It’s a pity that the people who seem to understand this point the least are also the most unlikely to pick up the NYT. Unless, of course, they plan to use it for kindling.

  3. #3 Jeff
    August 28, 2005

    I like the comparison I heard once. Intelligent design has a great cheerleading squad on the field, but the football team is nowhere to be seen.

  4. #4 Oolong
    August 28, 2005

    As a long time reader of Dennett and as someone who always knew there was a reason I liked teaching him to students, I say, “here, here!!”

  5. #5 Raging Bee
    August 29, 2005

    Well, I guess the public school teachers wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting jobs in the new charter schools, given their previous record.

    On the other hand, I’m a little leery of the philantropists’ “guarantee” to graduate 90% of students. Wouldn’t that create pressure to inflate grades if actual achievement didn’t materialize?

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