Echoed on the Panda's Thumb

Orson Scott Card has written a long essay defending Intelligent Design.

Oy, but it is depressing.

It’s a graceless hash, a cluttered and confusing mish-mash of poorly organized complaints about those darned wicked “Darwinists”. He lists 7 arguments. Then he repeats his list, expanding on them. Then he goes on and on, hectoring scientists about how they should behave. For a professional writer, it’s just plain bad writing—I’m struggling with how to address his arguments, but he’s written such a gluey mass of tangled ranty irrationality that it’s hard to get a handle on it. Ugly, ugly, ugly…and why do these guys all seem to think the way to defend the ideas of ID is to whine about the perfidy of all those scientists? Not once does he bring up any evidence for ID.

Card can’t discuss the evidence, because he doesn’t know or understand the evidence. That’s apparent when he begins by praising Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, and regurgitates the argument from irreducible complexity. Irreducible complexity is not a problem for evolution, and Behe is a tired old fraud who hasn’t had a new idea in 15 years. That Card would be impressed with DBB says only that he doesn’t know much biology and that the depth of his thinking is remarkably shallow.

Oh, well. I’ll try the brute force approach and discuss each of Card’s arguments in turn. This will get long.

His first complaint is that ID and creationism aren’t the same thing, and we’re just being mean to conflate them.

1. Intelligent Design is just Creation Science in a new suit (name-calling).

1. You have to be ignorant of either Creation Science or Intelligent Design—or both—to think that they’re the same thing. Creation Science is embarrassing and laughable—its authors either don’t understand science or are deliberately deceiving readers who don’t understand it. Frankly, Creation Science is, in my opinion, a pack of pious lies.

Card hasn’t read the testimony in the Kitzmiller case, I presume. That was one of the points made: that the textbook the ID proponents were pushing on the schools began its editorial history as a creationist tract. The founding father of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, wrote this:

“If we understand our own times, we will know that we should affirm the reality of God by challenging the domination of materialism and naturalism in the world of the mind. With the assistance of many friends I have developed a strategy for doing this,…We call our strategy the “wedge.”

What is disingenuous is to claim that ID proponents are not driven by the same ideological motives of the old-school creationists: all that has changed is that they’ve become more clever about hiding those motives. If creationism is a pack of pious lies, then so is ID; ID is even less honest than upfront creationism.

But the problems that the Designists raise with the Darwinian model are, in fact, problems. They do understand the real science, and the Darwinian model is, in fact, inadequate to explain how complex systems, which fail without all elements in place, could arise through random mutation and natural selection.

There’s a series of false assertions. The Designists do not raise legitimate problems; I’ve looked, and a good problem would be one that prompts interesting research. They just don’t, and I note that Card fails to list any of these “problems”. The IDists assert problems, which is trivial and easy to do, given that our knowledge is incomplete—the real issue is whether they can provide tools to approach the answer. They don’t.

They also don’t understand the real science. Behe’s work is glib nonsense that ignores any rebuttals, Dembski doesn’t understand the theorems he criticizes, and Wells’ Icons of Evolution is an embarrassing example of poor scholarship. I don’t see any evidence that these people actually understand evolution (and sometimes, that they get it completely wrong), which leads into Card’s next complaint.

2. Don’t listen to these guys, they’re not real scientists (credentialism).

2. Real science never has to resort to credentialism. If someone with no credentials at all raises a legitimate question, it is not an answer to point out how uneducated or unqualified the questioner is. In fact, it is pretty much an admission that you don’t have an answer, so you want the questioner to go away.

That is correct, degrees aren’t that big a deal, and I’ve said so myself. What matters is evidence, logic, and methodology—claiming that those on the side of evolution are the ones practicing credentialism is exactly backwards, though.

It’s the Discovery Institute and other creationists before them who wave around lists of “X hundred scientists who doubt evolution!” Project Steve was set up to mock that tactic. It’s Jonathan Wells who got a Ph.D. as a tactic to use in his goal of “destroying Darwinism”. My side relies on the evidence and the science; the ID side relies on authority and propaganda.

Card continues this practice of getting the problem backwards in his next complaint.

3. If you actually understood science as we do, you’d realize that these guys are wrong and we’re right; but you don’t, so you have to trust us (expertism).

3. Expertism is the “trust us, you poor fools” defense. Essentially, the Darwinists tell the general public that we’re too dumb to understand the subtleties of biochemistry, so it’s not even worth trying to explain to us why the Designists are wrong. “We’re the experts, you’re not, so we’re right by definition.”

Behe and his group don’t think we’re stupid. They actually make the effort to explain the science accurately and clearly in terms that the lay audience can understand. So who is going to win this argument? Some people bow down before experts; most of us resent the experts who expect us to bow.

The irony is that there are plenty of Darwinists who are perfectly good writers, capable of explaining the science to us well enough to show us the flaws in the Designists’ arguments. The fact that they refuse even to try to explain is, again, a confession that they don’t have an answer.

I find this the most infuriatingly dishonest of Card’s arguments. It’s transparently stupid.

Where are these “Darwinists” who tell the public they’re too dumb to understand biochemistry? Look at most of the people promoting evolution, and what do you see? College professors, professional educators, who put most of their day-to-day effort into teaching 18-22 year old kids subjects like biochemistry. We know the subject is difficult, but if we thought people couldn’t learn it, we’d be out of a job. Another category of people promoting evolution are the popularizers, scientists and journalists and writers, who are explicitly reaching out to the general public to explain these ideas. Is Carl Zimmer demanding that people bow down before him? Yeah, there are writers who patiently try to explain things—here’s a list—we don’t refuse to explain, instead the creationists refuse to listen.

Card’s claims aren’t just nonsense, they’re offensive nonsense.

Now watch: more reversals.

4. They got some details of those complex systems wrong, so they must be wrong about everything (sniping).

4. When Darwinists do seem to explain, it’s only to point out some error or omission in the Designists’ explanation of a biochemical system. Some left-out step, or some point where they got the chemistry wrong. They think if they can shoot down one or two minor points, then the whole problem will go away.

Wow. This is ironic. All Intelligent Design creationism has are god-of-the-gaps arguments—and all Card himself has been able to do in this essay is claim that IDists point out flaws in evolutionary explanations. We aren’t to rely on credentialism, but on the actual evidence for a position…so pointing out that the Designists have a poor understanding of the evidence seems like a valid criticism to me.

They ignore several facts:

The Designists are explaining things to a lay audience, and Behe, at least, tells us up front that he’s leaving out a lot of steps … but those steps only make the system more complex, not less.

Yes, biological systems are complex, and more complex than the caricatures of creationists suggest. This, however, is not an argument for design. Evolution, as a process built on the refinement of random events, is extremely good at generating complexity. Which will produce the more complex arrangement of parts, a guy with a milling machine, or a winter storm at the beach that throws up a tangled pile of driftwood?

The Designists are working from secondary sources, so they are naturally several years behind. Of course a scientist who is current in the field will understand the processes better, and can easily dismiss the Designists as using old, outmoded models of how the systems work.

“Several years behind”? They haven’t even started! You do not build a research program on secondary sources, but on direct observations of phenomena in nature. Shouldn’t we dismiss ideas generated by people who understand the processes more poorly than we do, that are based on interpretations of secondary sources, and are base on old, outmoded models? Whose side is Card on here?

What they never seem to show is how the new understanding reveals a system that is not complex after all, one in which each step in the process confers independent benefits on the organism and therefore could have evolved through random mutation and natural selection alone.

They don’t do this because the current findings rarely reveal a simpler process than was previously thought. Almost invariably, they find that the system is more complex and therefore harder to explain, and therefore the Designists have even more of a point than they thought.

Errm, name some, Mr Card. I think you’re making stuff up.

In comparisons of extant organisms, we are going from one complex, highly derived form to another; that’s what we’d expect. But when we look at individual systems, we do see patterns of change that sometimes involve increases in complexity over time, and sometimes decreases (again, what we’d expect; evolution does not impose a direction against or in favor of complexity). We can look at the history of many components and see a pattern of evolutionary change…for instance, in the evolution of the immune system, which also happens to be one of the icons of Intelligent Design creationism.

5. The first amendment requires the separation of church and state (politics).

5. The church and state argument is deliberately misleading. First, the Designists are not, in fact, advocating “God.” They are very careful not to specify who or what the Intelligent Designer might be. So they are not advocating for any particular religion, or any religion at all. For all anyone knows, the supposed Intelligent Designers might be an alien species of mortal, ungodlike beings.

I actually have some sympathy with this argument. I think court cases are stop-gap measures to prevent the advance of ignorance into our public school system, but don’t actually address the root causes of the problem. If we focus only on case-by-case attempts to block the creationist challenges without actually getting out there and educating people, we’re doomed.

However, Card’s argument is flawed in two ways. One, as I mentioned above, the motivations of the founders of the Intelligent Design creationism movement are religious, and the followers are blatantly so—see Bill Buckingham and Sharon Lemburg. It’s built with a religious goal, and the majority of it’s proponents see it as a clever ploy to advance religion into the public schools.

Two, it wouldn’t matter if they were peddling little green men, ala the Raelians—it’s still wild speculation with no supporting evidence, and doesn’t warrant inclusion in the public school system. That’s the nub of the problem, not religion, but the unscientific nature of the speculation.

6. We can’t possibly find a fossil record of every step along the way in evolution, but evolution has already been so well-demonstrated it is absurd to challenge it in the details (prestidigitation).

6. The “we can’t possibly find every step along the way” argument is an old one that doesn’t actually fit the current situation. It is the correct answer when defending the idea of evolution against those who believe in an ex nihilo creation in six days.

The fossil record is very clear in showing the divergence of species, with old ones going extinct and new ones arising over a long period of time. And the general progression is from simpler to more-complex organisms. The fact that evolution takes place is obvious. You don’t have to find some improbable fossil graveyard where each generation conveniently lay down next to their parents’ bodies when it came time to die.

But fossils only show physical structures, and the Intelligent Design argument concedes the point. The Designists (or at least the smart ones) are not arguing for biblical literalism. They freely admit that evolution obviously takes place, that simple organisms were followed by more complex ones.

They also accept the other obvious arguments for evolution, like the similarity of genes among different species. They have no problem with the idea that chimps are so genetically similar to us because we share a common ancestor.

Whoops. Mr Card is showing his lack of knowledge of the subject. Many of the IDists certainly do deny common descent: Paul Nelson, for instance, and Phillip Johnson, and perhaps he should read some of Casey Luskin’s babble. I would love to know what that Moonie, Jonathan Wells, thinks about common descent. Perhaps these are not the “smart ones”?

Their argument isn’t against evolution per se. Nor are they doubting that natural selection takes place. Their argument is that the Darwinian model is not a sufficient explanation.

So “we can’t find fossils representing every step of evolution” has nothing to do with the issues being raised. The Designists are not anti-evolution. They are anti-Darwin.

Read Johnson. Their argument is against naturalism. It’s even deeper than Card knows: they are fighting against the foundations of all of science.

Look, this is amusing, but it’s also pathetic. Card is sitting there at his computer, trying to tell us what IDists believe, and he’s getting it all wrong; he’s trying to tell us what scientists believe, and he’s not only getting it wrong, he’s telling stories that are 180° reversals of the scientific position. He’s a caricature of the ranting right-wing poseur, making up his “facts” as he goes along to support an uninformed position. Some pundit.

7. Even if there are problems with the Darwinian model, there’s no justification for postulating an “intelligent designer” (true).

7. Yes, there are problems with the Darwinian model. But those problems are questions. “Intelligent design” is an answer, and you have no evidence at all for that.

Quite right. There are problems in evolution; if there weren’t, it wouldn’t be a very interesting field of study. Intelligent Design creationism is an assertion without evidence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to dignify it by calling it so much as an answer—the Flying Spaghetti Monster is also an “answer”. We should have higher standards than that.

There’s much more in Card’s article. He goes on at length complaining about those wretched scientists who are trying to push their Darwinian religion on everyone, but it’s all undercut by his sublime and unreasoning ignorance of what scientists actually say. I mean, seriously, he’s ranting about “Darwinists”; there aren’t any real Darwinists anywhere, it’s a code word used by creationists and nothing more, so you have to understand that I read this kind of thing with a superior smirk, watching the little whiner reveal how little he knows of the subject every time he uses the word.

Here’s one excerpt from his protracted temper tantrum to show you what I mean.

Evolution happens and obviously happened in the natural world, and natural selection plays a role in it. But we do not have adequate theories yet to explain completely how evolution works and worked at the biochemical level.

That is a true statement, according to our present state of scientific knowledge.

And when Darwinists scream that we do too know how to explain evolution, and it’s natural selection, so just stop talking about it, they are dogmatists demanding that their faith—the faith that Darwin’s model will be found to explain everything when we just understand things better—be taught in the public schools.

His potted summary in bold is something I, and virtually all of the biologists I know, would mostly agree with. (The one problem is that phrase “at the biochemical level”, which means something rather specific to most of us; I hope he’s not trying to suggest that there are mechanisms other than physics and chemistry operating on the molecules of life, which would be just silly. I think he just wanted a nicely pretentious science-y word to toss into his statement, so I’ll let it pass.)

It’s pretty much exactly what we want taught in school. We then want the instructors to go on and explain what evolution is and cover the major concepts and lines of evidence supporting it, of course; mentioning some of the problems real scientists work on is a fine idea, we’d just rather the genuine areas of controversy were discussed, rather than the bogus baloney the Discovery Institute likes to talk about, and it would really help if before they discussed the bleeding edge they were prepared with the fundamental concepts first.

Ah, but that last paragraph…that’s where Orson Scott Card the pompous opinionated twit bellows out. There are no “Darwinists”. We aren’t screaming that we know how to explain all of evolution. We don’t think it’s all natural selection. We aren’t telling people to stop talking about it. We aren’t being dogmatic, we aren’t demanding “faith” be taught in public schools. This is nothing but Card’s straw man.

We are saying that evidence should be taught, that students should understand the best available theory that explains that evidence. We want students to question using the tools of observation and reason and experiment, not revealed knowledge and the dicta of authoritarian dogma. We don’t think speculation of the sort the Discovery Institute pushes warrants serious commitment in the school curriculum; if you want to talk about it, fine, go ahead (everyone does anyway!), just don’t pretend it is a substantive issue.

I like some of Card’s writing. It’s sad to see that in addition to being a hateful homophobe, he’s also an apologist for bad science and poor science teaching with a feeble grasp on what science is actually about.

For more painful reading, Card has a discussion board on his essay.


  1. #1 muhabbet
    May 25, 2008

    thanks.. .))