Dispatches from the Creation Wars

No ID Research: The Latest Excuse

Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute provides us with the latest excuse for why ID has produced no supporting research: it’s being done under double secret probation at an undisclosed location. He begins with this lurid metaphor:

The most important is that the Darwinist establishment would like nothing better than to “out” research programs before they are finished. The idea is to shut down damaging evidence as early as possible. Strangle the infant in the crib. Demand answers now to questions still being explored.

Ah, the ubiquitous “Darwinist establishment”, that evil cabal of scientists whose name must only be whispered for fear of Them finding out. I’m sure a little digging will reveal that this is merely part of a larger conspiracy, like the Illuminati. Come on, you don’t think it’s a coincidence that the lead attorney in Dover was named Rothschild, do you?

Paranoia? Hardly. There are too many examples of ID scientists and other scholars who have been hassled and harassed by the Darwinist Inquisition. (I include in the Inquisition those supposed science writers who long ago became propaganda agents rather than serious reporters.) Even a non-scientist in academia who writes favorably of ID can be assailed. It appears that the distinguished Baylor University philosopher and legal scholar Frank Beckwith will get tenure after all, but that decision came only a few days ago and on appeal at the very end of a long, painful process where his adversaries were well organized, persistent and reckless of facts and decency. His real problems were that he was pro-life and that he had written that it is constitutional to teach about intelligent design. Against those PC liabilities, his long record of outstanding publication didn’t matter at all to his foes. On the contrary, it was his success that most alarmed them and excited their envy.

This is just funny. Beckwith’s tenure fight had exactly nothing to do with the “Darwinist establishment”, it had to do with the internal politics of Baylor University and the Baptist church establishment behind it. I happen to agree, as I’ve written before, that Beckwith deserved tenure at Baylor and I’m glad, as I’ve also written, that he got it. But citing this as proof of some evil Darwinist conspiracy to destroy anyone who advocates ID is utterly laughable, and only undermines the following claim:

Friends of ID know the cases of a number of ID-friendly scientists who have lost their lab privileges or otherwise been discriminated against at universities here and in the UK. We are not trumpeting very many cases because the situations of several such scientists remain difficult. It is an appalling commentary on the state of academic freedom that ID-friendly scientists should have to work in an atmosphere of fear, but it’s true. We just want friends of ID who wonder why we don’t publicize work in progress more than we do to take a moment and reflect about that!

This would be a lot more credible a claim if they didn’t have such a history of exaggerating claims of persecution. We still hear constantly about how persecuted poor Richard Sternberg was. But what actually happened to him? Absolutely nothing. He got a few cross comments from colleagues at the Smithsonian. That’s it. He still has everything he had before he decided to skirt the regular peer review procedures of the journal he edited on his way out the door. He was not fired from his job. He wasn’t denied access to anything. He got a few nasty comments from people. My heart bleeds.

It would also be a lot more credible if the past research they’ve hailed as supporting ID actually did. We all remember a few years ago as Dembski spoke breathlessly about how Behe and Snoke’s upcoming 2004 paper “may well be the nail in the coffin [and] the crumbling of the Berlin wall of Darwinian evolution.” In fact, that paper ended up as one of the nails in the ID coffin in the Kitzmiller trial, as Behe was forced to admit under oath that their computer simulation had in fact concluded that an irreducibly complex protein binding site could evolve in only 20,000 years even when the parameters of the experiment were purposely rigged to make it as unlikely as possible.

And we heard the same thing about Axe’s 2000 paper on perturbation in enzymes. Dembski hailed this research as proving the existence of biochemical systems “for which any slight modification does not merely destroy the system’s existing function, but also destroys the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever.” In fact, this was a wildly inaccurate claim about the nature of Axe’s research, as Matt Inlay documented in this post at the Panda’s Thumb. Axe’s paper was a classic “knockout” experiment, where greater and greater numbers of point mutations were induced and at each step, measurement of the ability of the enzyme to function was measured, in an attempt to find out how many such substitutions had to take place before all function was lost.

According to Dembski, the experiment showed that any slight modification of the sequence not only destroyed the enzyme’s function but also destroyed the possibility of any function of the system whatsoever. That claim could scarcely be less credible. Axe performed the knockouts in groups of 10 amino acid substitutions and found that none of the four substitutions, by themselves, seriously affected the enzyme’s function. It found that you had to combine three sets of substitutions to reduce function by 99%, and had to combine all 4 sets of substitutions to kill function completely. This means that you could substitute 10 or 20 amino acids at a time and only get a negligible decrease in function. If you substituted 30 amino acids all at once, you lost 99% of the function. And if you knocked out 40 at a time, you could kill all function. But this is a full 10% of all the amino acids in the entire protein, and 20% of the exterior residues, which is what the experiment was dealing with. As Inlay tells us:

As previously mentioned, at least 30 substitutions were required to reduce activity greater than 99%, and 40 mutations to completely abolish it. This amounts to about 20% of the exterior residues, or 10% of the total protein. This can hardly be considered “slight”, by any definition of the word. One substitution would be considered slight, not 30 to 40. This is not just a semantic quibble, as the changes that occur during the course of gradual, ‘Darwinian’ evolution occur one substitution at a time (except in cases of recombination and exon shuffling).

It should also be noted that, contrary to Dembski’s claim, Axe’s experiment made no attempt to study any other function other than the original function of the enzyme. But in fact, other functions do in fact increase with those changes:

I don’t know how Dembski can claim that the mutations destroyed other functions of the system, since Axe never tested for other functions. This is basically an appeal to ignorance. However, as it turns out, another group analyzed mutations in the active site of the exact same gene (TEM-1) and found that certain “slight modifications” drastically reduced the original function of the system (penicillin and ampicillin resistance), but increased a separate, distinct function (cephalosporin resistance).

Given this history of the ID movement wildly exaggerating, even completely distorting, the conclusions of what little research their advocates have even attempted, one can be forgiven for being a tad skeptical when they talk about secret research being carried out by anonymous scientists from parts unknown that only they know about. All of this actually fits rather well with John Baez’s crackpot index and I think this excuse should be added to his list: 20 points for referring to forthcoming research that must be performed under cover of night lest They find out about it and storm the laboratory with guns blazing. The ID movement already scores off the charts on Baez’ index.

We’ll add this latest excuse to the growing pile of excuses. During the Dover trial, Behe said that while his theories are testable, he’s never bothered to test them because it’s not a “fruitful” use of his time and, after all, it’s up to his detractors to disprove them, not up to him to prove them. This, like most other ID arguments, stands science on its head. And it is precisely what a crank would say.

Comments

  1. #1 Skip Evans
    October 4, 2006

    “Double secret probabtion”… I sense a remake cominig on.

    Intelligent Design House with Bruce Chapman as Dean Vernon Wormer and Stephen Meyer as Doug Neidermeyer.

  2. #2 RickD
    October 4, 2006

    Chapman says “Even a non-scientist in academia who writes favorably of ID can be assailed.”

    Um, duh. I wasn’t aware that amateur status in science necessitated more deference. A non-scientist writing favorably about ID should be expected to be smacked down by experts. Similarly, if I wandered into a literature discussion group and started endorsing random theories about 17th century French poets, I would not express shock and dismay if my ideas were not received favorably. Is expertise no longer considered desirable?

  3. #3 MJ Memphis
    October 4, 2006

    Has anyone done a biology-specific version of the Crackpot Index, since the original focuses on physics? A few suggestions:

    1) 1 point for each mention of the words “Darwinist” or “Darwinism”

    2) 5 points for each citation of your erudition in another, unrelated field (law or engineering, for instance) as though it is a real qualification.

    3) 10 points for each conflation of “Social Darwinism” with evolution.

    4) 30 points for stating “evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics”

    5) 50 points for favorable citation of “scientific” arguments by notable biologists Ann Coulter or D. James Kennedy.

    …etc

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    October 4, 2006

    Not a bad idea, MJ. But I think it’s telling that even on a scale that deals mostly with physics, ID still scores off the charts.

  5. #5 Raging Bee
    October 4, 2006

    Friends of ID know the cases of a number of ID-friendly scientists who have lost their lab privileges or otherwise been discriminated against at universities here and in the UK. We are not trumpeting very many cases because the situations of several such scientists remain difficult.

    That’s funny — the normal response to persecution is to “trumpet” every known instance of it at every opportunity, to rally public support for the victims, and expose and shame the persecutors. That was our response to REAL persecution of people in the USSR, China, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other places much more hostile and dangerous than the US. It is well understood that silence only benefits the persecutors, and keeps the victims isolated and powerless. Are the IDers complicit in covering up the “persecution” of their own comrades?

    The fact that they’re refusing to disclose specific instances of “persecution” merely proves the whole story is bogus.

  6. #6 Al X
    October 4, 2006

    RickD-
    I am afraid the answer to your question is yes, expertise is no longer considered desirable. Anyone remember who wrote that essay about how the United States has elevated “the gut” over actual knowledge? I think it was in Time magazine some time ago. Sorry, my memory stinks.

  7. #7 kemibe
    October 4, 2006

    “Anyone remember who wrote that essay about how the United States has elevated “the gut” over actual knowledge?”

    That was Charles Pierce’s fin article “Welcome to Idiot America” and was published in Esquire in 12/2005. Originally it was a pay-to-access piece, but a little bird recently told me it’s now been posted all over the Web, probably in violation of copyright laws.

  8. #8 Robert
    October 4, 2006

    Even if we believe them on this account they’re still mucking up the scientific process. What scientist boldly proclaims his new theory as being able to compete with the current theory before the research is in? How can you even come to a conclusion before the research is in? (This is of course asuming there is research, which of course there isn’t)

    Dumbest argument EVAR!

  9. #9 Alan
    October 4, 2006

    Chapman : “Strangle the infant in the crib. Demand answers now to questions still being explored”

    What, like a complete history of the flagellum with every mutation in order? Like a complete history of human evolution from the fossil record? Ad infinitum.

    Hypocrites.

  10. #10 gwangung
    October 4, 2006

    Even if we believe them on this account they’re still mucking up the scientific process. What scientist boldly proclaims his new theory as being able to compete with the current theory before the research is in? How can you even come to a conclusion before the research is in? (This is of course asuming there is research, which of course there isn’t)

    They’re counting on the general ignorance of the process of science by the general public (and, indeed, even well read people aren’t steeped in the specifics of how science is done in the real world).

  11. #11 Smokey
    October 6, 2006

    “But this is a full 10% of all the amino acids in the entire protein, and 20% of the exterior residues, which is what the experiment was dealing with.”

    But that’s not all. We’ve made the most radical size substitution possible in an active-site residue that contacts the substrate, changing it to a residue not observed in any member of a huge (hundreds) protein family, and we confer the ability to hydrolyze a different substrate without losing the normal activity.

    This is a fun scenario with which to taunt IDers.

  12. #12 Richard Simons
    October 6, 2006

    Chapman says scientists “Demand answers now to questions still being explored.” Heck, I’d be interested to hear a single decent question they’re attempting to answer.