Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Richard Fortey rants at straw man of ID

Richard Fortey is the President Of The Geological Society Of London, and received the Michael Faraday Prize on Tuesday 30th January. He wrote the following opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph. The piece is so chock-full of straw men that I just had to make a response. My comments are inserted:

Why I hate this intelligent design story. It's simply IDiotic, writes Richard Fortey

Scientists have found themselves trapped into appearing to be unreasonable in their pursuit of rationality. A snare has been cleverly set by the proponents of Intelligent Design [who are thereby all rhetorically banished from counting as scientists] in their quest to prove that Charles Darwin got it wrong [well, partly wrong]. The vast majority of scientists feel nothing but distress that the teaching of Intelligent Design has been promoted in a number of our schools, particularly the faith schools apparently beloved by Tony Blair. Fundamentalists of both Islamic and Christian persuasion meet on this rather implausible common ground [this is true enough, but it gives the false impression that all ID proponents are religious fundamentalists. Many, perhaps most ID proponents are not fundamentalists. Many fundamentalists dislike ID because it is not creationism! Indeed, some ID proponents are not even religious!]. Both these groups of religious hard liners deplore Darwin and all his works. Scientists tend to get angry when confronted by what they see as the gross distortion of truth promulgated by Intelligent Designers [Once again: some scientists are ID proponents!]. This has come across badly in 'balanced' debates in the media. As was the case with arguments over the MMR vaccine, the scientist when provoked can unwittingly appear to be a fulminating zealot. By contrast, many of the proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) have contrived to appear to be in favour of free speech [they are in favour of free speech!]. Aren't those scientists empurpled with rage and crying "nonsense" the very picture of a threatened Establishment? [Yes.] On this platform the evolutionary scientist rather than the ID enthusiast can seem to be the less reasonable of the two. The trouble stems from the use of the weasel word "theory". Successive Presidents of the United States have got themselves off the hook with the influential Christian fundamentalist lobby by the deployment of this useful but traitorous word. Ronald Reagan would flash his aw-shucks smile and amiably reiterate: "I guess Evolution is just a theory". This has become a mantra among ID proponents [Has it? I hadn't noticed! Note yet again the equation of ID with Christian fundamentalism and creationism. They are not the same thing!]. If evolution is one theory - then ID is another, or so the argument goes. [Rubbish. The argument is that ID is a scientific theory because it uses design detection criteria acceptable to science and applies them to empirical evidence, make falsifiable empirical claims, and so on.] Only a bigot would object to the airing of the alternative explanations. [It certainly seems narrow minded to equate ID with religious fundamentalism and creationism and to object to thinking about it on these grounds.] The crux of ID is that evolution is purposeful, and that an 'invisible hand' has operated at crucial stages to direct the course of life onwards and upwards. The Intelligence of the Designer is manifest at certain critical points - such as the creation of life itself [Actually, it is the activity of an intelligence that is detectable - the intelligence of the designer in the IQ sense is certainly a debateable question]. On the other hand, the scientific 'theory' of evolution actually breaks into two components. The first part is to assert that descent of all organisms from a common ancestor has, indeed, happened [Even some Darwinians question the hypothesis of a universal common ancestor]. To deny this is the equivalent of believing that the earth is flat as a pancake, or that the sun goes round it. [No, it is to follow the evidence where it leads using inferential argumentation.] Both could be described as theories, though nobody has taken them seriously for hundreds of years. Some fundamentalists still believe that creation happened a few thousand years ago. No respectable scientist believes this. [Why are we even discussing this in an article on intelligent design theory??] Since the unscrambling of the genome has recently been added to evidence from the fossil record, it might be said that descent is simply a fact. We share genes with bananas and bacteria. At this deep level, DNA proves that humans are joined to all other life. [The argument from homologous genes is riddled with problems - there is a better argument to be given, from shared genetic mistakes; but this argument does not support universal common ancestry.] This ought to awake nothing but wonder in all of us, but some find the thought of such a brotherhood of life scary [All ID proponents certainly do not fall under this description!]. The other part of Darwinism says that natural selection is the driving force behind evolution. This is where the ID protagonists come in. They accept the long time scale required from what we know of the age of the earth, but substitute supernaturally directed selection at critical points in life's long history [Incorrect, we introduce intelligently directed action, which may or may not be philosophically explained in supernatural terms]. They might say that proteins are too darn complicated to have arisen by natural selection alone [This is an oversimplification - the ID argument does not concern mere complexity, but specified complexity]. This kind of assertion drives rationalists crazy, because it is impossible to refute by a critical experiment. There will always be another protein, another example of that supposed extra, guiding ingredient. [In other words, each and every claim of specified complexity is open to refutation by a critical experiment! If ID kept on making falsified claims then it would certainly suffer epistemic suspicion!] The problem for scientists is that when this additional design factor is added it serves only to suppress questions - and science is all about tackling questions head-on. Why should we spend money on setting up experiments to simulate the creation of the first living cell if the motive force was a "designer"? No experiment can detect such metaphysical seasoning in the primeval soup. [But we don't have to empirically detect the metaphysical nature of a designer to detect the intelligent activity of a designer. Natural and supernatural designers can leave empirically identical signs of design. And suggesting that inferring design is a science stopper is fallacious, as can be seen by suggesting that forensic scientists should no longer infer murder from empirical evidence because this stops them looking for natural causes!!] Science has always been about tackling new areas of knowledge, with theory and experiment interacting creatively . If God's influence is invoked for any breakthrough in life's story, research is simply stopped dead in its tracks: no point in investigating further. ID therefore becomes a brake on discovery, not a way of enriching it. [Did the archaeologist who inferred intelligence as the cause of the Rosetta stone put a break on discovery, or did he open up a new field of fruitful investigations?] In my view, God has overly got mixed into the argument. Scientists are often presented as the champions of atheism. This is typified by Richard Dawkins' views of theistic "delusion". Although I might agree with much of what Dawkins has to say, it might be that his almost theological espousal of atheism has served to up the stakes in the ID debate. In fact, there are many world-class scientists who are also believers [Indeed, and some of them support ID]. But they also believe that God should not be introduced into the explanation of nature [Not all of them believe this! And what about introducing intelligence to explain things in science?]. Scientists of my generation remember the meretricious attractions of Tielhard de Chardin and his noosphere, the idea that the end of evolution is a kind of super-consciousness: not one scientific hypothesis of worth was generated from this metaphysical mayhem. A worthwhile theory always suggests new lines of investigation, and on this criterion Darwinism has passed with flying colours [The same could be said for ID. For example, ID promotes the search for function whereas Darwinism retards the search for function - hence the whole 'pseudo-gene' episode!]. Field and laboratory studies helping us to understanding how evolution works are beyond counting. The behaviour of Darwin's finches on the Galapagos Islands has been studied for decades. A million generations of fruit flies have given up their lives to unravel the mysteries of the expression of genes. [All of which is largely irrelevant to the ID debate, or serves to show the limitations of natural processes to create new information!] In the process many debates have opened up - like the relative importance of sex or geography in generating new species. This does not mean that Darwin is in trouble. It just means that the science is still vigorous, that understanding is honed progressively. So that is why biologists get so mad at the propagation of ID. It wastes time. It suppresses research rather than encouraging it. It's not really a theory, it's a story. It deflects the young from asking the important questions. It serves to kill curiosity rather than encourage it. [No, no, no, no and no! ID encourages the search for function, it encourages research into a broader range of questions than those allowed by Darwinists, it is a scientific theory that encourages curiosity and asking the really big questions! Darwinists assume nature can do everything and anything, whereas ID forces us to see how much it can really do in order to see how much it cannot do.] Sometimes it is right to get angry in the face of unreason. Darwinists are readily labelled. There should be an equivalent term for the proponents of Intelligent Design. May I suggest IDiots? [While Darwinists provided their own name, this childishly rude title does not allow the proponents of the ID theory to choose their own name for their theory. Descending to name-calling is not going to help the Darwinist cause shift the appearance of 'a threatened Establishment'! Rather, it confirms it.]

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