Stupidity from the Boston Globe

Alas, op-ed’s as measured and intelligent as the one from Reiss and White are a comparative rarity in American newspapers. More often we get tripe like this, from ID supporter Stephen Meyer. He writes:

IN THE battle over how to teach evolution in public schools, Thomas Jefferson’s demand for a “separation between church and state’” has been cited countless times. Many argue that the controversial alternative to Darwinian evolution, intelligent design, is an exclusively religious idea and therefore cannot be discussed under the Constitution. By invoking Jefferson’s principle of separation, many critics of intelligent design assume that this visionary Founding Father would agree with them.

But would he? For too long, an aspect of Jefferson’s visionary thought has been ignored, hidden away as too uncomfortable for public discussion – his support for intelligent design.

The idea that Thomas Jefferson, an enthusiastic amateur scientist and someone who was highly skeptical of the supernatural aspects of religion, would reject the theory of evolution in favor of some blinkered notion of creation, is highly dubious.

Meyer is also making use here of a standard equivocation in ID rhetoric. There is a big difference between intelligent design as the general idea that the world is an expression of divine will, and ID as a specific set of specious scientific claims. Jefferson accepted the former, but there is nothing to suggest he would have supported the latter.

The rest of Meyer’s op-ed contain the standard idiocies of the genre. DNA contains information! The origin of life is mysterious! ID is good science! Yawn. Here’s a typical paragraph:

DNA functions like a software program. We know that software comes from programmers. Information – whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, or encoded in a radio signal – always arises from an intelligent source. So the discovery of digital code in DNA provides a strong scientific reason for concluding that the information in DNA also had an intelligent source.

Charming logic. Someone needs to remind Meyer that a simile is a literary device for comparing two unlike things. I could as plausibly argue that since the Sun functions like a nuclear furnace, and since nuclear furnaces are designed by human engineers, we have strong evidence that the Sun was designed by human engineers.


  1. #1 Scott
    July 16, 2009

    Oh, that is just too funny. Right next to this blog post, I see an ad for a “Free 3-in-1 Credit Report” from featuring the smiling face of “Economist and Financial Writer” Ben Stein.

  2. #2 bmkmd
    July 16, 2009

    Jefferson was a deist, so it is possible that he might have tolerated the idea of a designer getting things started and then leaving it up to geographic isolation, mutations and Natural Selection to do the rest.

    I think he’d be tickled at the sophistication of our understanding of life, but he would have been angered and appalled that schoolchildren would be prevented from full exposure to the best scientific understanding of nature by philosophic and religious intrusions.

  3. #3 david rickel
    July 16, 2009

    I came across the following while searching for Jefferson’s quote about meteorites (“I’d sooner believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from the heavens”, or thereabouts). Comments on Snopes seem to indicate that that quote was concocted, but the following (from is legitimate:

    “We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.”

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” is more concise, but this quote doesn’t sound as if he would be a supporter of intelligent design. I would think that The Jefferson Bible would be more evidence against.

  4. #4 Max
    July 16, 2009

    Hey, if Jefferson believed it then it must be true, right? I mean, there’s no way he could possibly be wrong is there? We need to change all of our science textbooks to ID instead of evolution. And we need to reinstate slavery too. Wow, I’m glad the debate has been cleared up. Now we can go back to the important things in life. Like hating those of a different religion.

    Here’s what to say when people say Jefferson believed in an intelligent designer: “So did Hitler. What’s your point?”

  5. #5 Amber
    July 17, 2009

    Um…I’m confused. As a scientist I don’t see any “SCIENTIFIC reason” in his DNA argument. What do these people think scientists do? Did he take a logical reasoning course in college. I had to…but, I think he may have failed his. Oops…

  6. #6 AL
    July 17, 2009

    If they really want to go with the “DNA is software” analogy, they have to take everything that comes with it. With all the junk, pseudogenes, ERVs, etc, it appears God is a very sloppy coder.

  7. #7 george.w
    July 18, 2009

    How do they think evolutionary theory got where it is?

    I’ll be very happy for ID to be taught in schools, alongside or even in place of current evolutionary theory. Just as soon as it is developed into a predictive theory that stands up to reproducible experimentation and a century or so of worldwide review, and which better explains the biological world than evolutionary theory does. Not before.

  8. #8 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    July 20, 2009

    Responses at the Boston Blobe:
    Invoking Jefferson on intelligent design doesn’t cut it
    Owen Sholes,
    The writer is associate professor of biology at Assumption College.

  9. #9 Pieter B
    July 21, 2009

    I think we should take a page from the Stephen Colbert playbook and label creationist use of thermodynamics, information theory and the like as “scienciness.”

  10. #10 Pieter B
    July 21, 2009

    Wish I’d read this before posting

    With all the junk, pseudogenes, ERVs, etc, it appears God is a very sloppy coder.

    [insert Microsoft joke here]

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