Respectful Insolence

Here we go again.

The “scientists” at the Discovery Institute seldom miss an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot by making specious arguments that anyone with a reasonable understanding of evolution can shoot down. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to thoroughly dismantle most of the “scholarship” that flows from the DI (which is indeed fortunate for me, given that I am not an evolutionary biologist). Leave it to the North Koreans, with their recent apparently successful test of a nuclear explosive device, to give the intrepid Don Quixotes over in Seattle the excuse to tilt at the windmill of evolution:

This week, seismologists were met with the unfortunate news that North Korea probably tested a nuclear weapon. The task of seismologists in the free world has been to confirm whether the North Korean government was truthful when they claimed they tested a nuke. Whether they realize it or not, scientists currently working to verify if North Korea has conducted a nuclear test are actually engaging in an exercise in intelligent design. They are trying to distinguish between naturally caused seismic energy and seismic energy which was artificially produced by an explosion caused by intelligence. Such studies are possible because explosions, particularly large ones like nuclear blasts, produce a distinctly different seismic signature from natural earthquakes.

So far, so benign. Nothing too nasty there. But, this being the Discovery Institute, you know that something stupid will soon follow. The guys don’t disappoint:

Taking such design inferences can require much scientific analysis. For example, “if an underground blast is smaller than one kiloton, it’s difficult to distinguish between the natural sounds of the earth and an actual explosion,” and “it takes a long time to interpret data” (see Verifying Nuclear Test Blasts FAQ).

But difficulties in detecting intelligent causation in seismic energy don’t prevent scientists from trying to detect, or reject design. When they do verify a nuclear explosion, they have made a design inference. One scientist stated in the overtly anti-ID Seed Magazine that the recent North Korean seismic event was not a natural event, but was designed: “The peculiarity of the seismic waves indicated there was an artificial explosion, not a natural earthquake.”

Notice the implication here. Casey Luskin seems to be conflating the observation that just because the analysis needed to detect “design” in seismic activity can be difficult doesn’t prevent scientists from doing it with ID. Here’s the problem: The scientists who determined that the seismic activity in North Korea have lots of data from decades of tests of nuclear devices and have compared the commonalities in “designed” seismic activity due to explosions to the commonalities in natural seismic activity. This comparison has allowed them to come up with a model and set of criteria that let them determine whether a given seismic event is likely to be natural or due to the activity of humans. In other words scientists know how to distinguish seismic activity due to nuclear weapons from seismic activity due to earthquakes and other natural causes. ID has yet to produce such criteria for biological structures that will determine whether a structure is “designed” or could have come about due to evolution. Its sole criterion seems to be: If it looks “designed” then it must be designed, with the specification being “irreducible complexity,” which in essence is an argument from personal incredulity. (“I can’t conceive how the eye could have formed through evolution; so it must have been designed.”)

The implication is that those nasty evolutionists aren’t being fair to ID advocates. After all, seismologists and geologists look for “design” and aren’t criticized for it. Of course, the reason biologists criticize ID is not because ID advocates are “looking for design” in nature. They’re criticizing ID advocates because they claim to have already found design in nature on the basis of “evidence” that is at best unconvincing and at worst riddled with logical fallacies, misrepresentations of evolutionary theory used as straw men to attack, and outright misinformation. Rather than whine about how mistreated they are in comparison to seismologists, perhaps ID advocates should spend their time (not to mention the Discovery Institute’s considerable funds) trying to come up with compelling observational and experimental evidence, rather than on mounting PR campaigns and trying to foist the teaching of ID. If there’s anything to the idea of “design” in biological systems and structures, the evidence will be there to be found. Until the DI publishes such evidence in peer-reviewed journals, it should stop comparing ID to the much more established science of seismology.

Indeed, until ID can specify exactly (or even approximately) what distinguishes “design” from non-design in biology, its whining about being treated unfairly over “making a design inference” will remain an exercise in self-pity.


  1. #1 Greg
    October 14, 2006

    One day I was overhearing a show on TV that my wife was watching (is there such a word as “overwatching”?) on the 24-hour religious channel we get (can’t recall the name), that was much like something you might see on the Discovery Channel about nature, pointing out the peculiarities of this species versus that. Example: the body structure of giraffes, with the comment that they are the only species which gives birth standing up, and consequently a normal calf is born feet first rather than head first.
    So the conjecture after this delineation of this and other features of a giraffe was there there was no way that this could possibly come about through any process of evolution (the recurring theme was that all of these different features represented a complex collection that HAD to occur together, and therefore HAD to all come about at once), therefore, the ONLY POSSIBLE explanation was Intelligent Design.
    All delivered by a clear-speaking narrator with a British accent.

    It reminds me of a recurring statement that Sherlock Holmes makes in the series of stories, to the effect that, “When you have excluded all of the other possible explanations for a crime, the remaining one, no matter how improbable, must be the answer.” Which depends, of course, on being able to literally come up with ALL the possible explanations for something.

  2. #2 KeithB
    October 14, 2006

    Wel someone needs to tell that to the wildebeast I saw give birth a few years ago at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Mom was calmly standing chewing her cud as the baby slid out feet first. I wish those folks would check their facts first!

  3. #3 Skeptico
    October 14, 2006

    The western seismologists also know something about the designers in this case – they know the designers are human, and they know the designers’ motive is to create a nuclear device. Knowing what the designers were trying to do means the seismologists knew what to look for. IDists don’t have an equivalent knowledge about their designer or its motives to be able to make a similar determination.

  4. #4 wolfwalker
    October 14, 2006

    The champion version of this argument that I can recall is somebody trying to compare ID to SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. The poor guy actually tried to argue that the fact that the ‘design filter’ approach works for astronomers trying to tell an ET signal from normal space-noise means it will also work for creationists trying to detect design in nature.

  5. #5 Lucas McCarty
    October 14, 2006

    And I’m not a scientist at all but it occurred to me that how could they possibly know a species is designed without having a non-designed species to compare it with?

  6. #6 Robster
    October 14, 2006

    Tell the herd of cattle on my dad’s farm. the only time a calf is delivered with the mother on the groud is when the mother is in distress. Most of those cases required us to pull the calf out of the mother with triangular shaped rings, chain, and a hand winch (caled a come-along). Ah, those were the days. Thank the FSM for college and grad school.

  7. #7 Sastra
    October 14, 2006

    When oh when will scientists finally start looking for the difference between “naturally caused” underground seismic activity and underground seismic activity caused by gnomes? Sure, nuclear war is bad, but being invaded by streams of gnomes coming out of the earth would be no picnic, either.

  8. #8 Corkscrew
    October 14, 2006

    Wonderful conflation of “design inference” with “rarefied design inference”.

  9. #9 The Real Don!
    October 16, 2006

    Hey! No fair! WE are the real Don Quixotes in Seattle, not those pretenders at the DI. We are tilting for progress, and not for returning to the ignorance that ruled the dark ages…

    Oh, Woe is me that interlopers and imposters have hijacked the noble name and cause of my quest to right wrongs and make the world a better place that all can live and flourish together in…


    Off on the trusty steed for more adventures!

    The Don

  10. #10 Jib
    October 16, 2006

    In light of what KeithB said..
    Lord knows that there is no conceivable reason other than ID that would justify upright birth of ungulates in the peaceful world of the Serengeti, where life poses no danger and young born animals lay in quiet respite until they feel the desire to stand.

    ID seems to me well suited to those who don’t want to think past a certain point. Science certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but at least scientists pose hypotheses and remain in doubt when something can’t be figured out or proven. The ID folk just HAVE to come to an absolute conclusion regardless.

    My favorite will always be the banana thing, though.

  11. #11 Max Udargo
    October 16, 2006

    If the universe is intelligently designed, shouldn’t earthquakes be indistinguishable from underground nuclear explosions using the criterion of intelligent causation? If the natural world was designed by an intelligence, and the bombs we make are designed by human intelligence, then looking for signs of “intelligent causation” should be useless for making distinctions between the natural world and the world of man-made phenomena. Right? But signs of intelligent causation are exactly what allow us to differentiate.

  12. #12 Steve Watson
    October 16, 2006

    Giraffes are the only animal to give birth feet-first, standing up? Hell, every city-slicker who read the James Herriot books (or even just watched the TV series) knows better! These people never do even the most elementary level of fact-checking, do they?

    The western seismologists also know something about the designers in this case – they know the designers are human,…..

    More than that — they’ve got decades of experience, comprising hundreds(?) of examples, comparing natural tremors to those known to have resulted from artificial underground blasts (because in many cases the seismologists were part of the same organization as the bomb-testers, and had independent information as to when and where the bomb went off). Where is the IDists corresponding list of background data, of designed and undesigned biological things, so that we can see what criteria are used to distinguish the two? Indeed, by ID assertion, there are no undesigned biological things, so they have to compare biology with human machinery instead — and the two don’t look much alike, except in the most abstract and cherry-picked fashion.