Saturday, May 28, 2005

Sources for Intelligent Design

The following comments were posted this past Sunday in an online forum:

If you want to respond to the piece [an article criticizing intelligent design], please respond to the feedback forum provided by TCS at the bottom of the article, not to me. I have given up reading emails about I.D. [intelligent design] Same applies, btw, to emails about flying saucers, Martian canals, the hollow earth, Atlantis, telepathy, dianetics, unicorns, phrenology, astrology, orgonomy, alien abductions, Bridey Murphy, the location of Noah's ark, the fate of the Marie Celeste's crew, and whether or not the bishops of the Church of England should open Joanna Southcott's box. I do not wish to know any more than I currently know about any of these topics. If you believe in one, many, or all of them, I'm fine with it, and wish you joy of your belief -- just don't try to enlist me. And please don't try to dump any of this stuff into my kids' school science curriculum.

The previous day, one of his colleagues in this forum posted a message in which he criticized ID advocates for their "magical thinking", because they want to change the definition of science in Kansas.

What forum am I referring to? An Internet Infidels web board? Perhaps an e-mail discussion list for evolutionists? Maybe a board for liberal Democrats who are critical of religious conservatives?

I'm referring to National Review Online (NRO). The quote at the beginning of this post is from NRO's John Derbyshire, and his colleague is NRO's Andrew Stuttaford. Derbyshire's comments can be found here, and Stuttaford's are here. NRO is one of the most popular conservative sites on the web. It's affiliated with the magazine popularized by William F. Buckley, and some of the best-known conservatives in America contribute to it. The web site is widely read, including by people who work in the government, and it influences much of the conservative media.

After Derbyshire and Stuttaford posted their comments in NRO's The Corner, there was no response posted by any of their colleagues. Derbyshire has made comments critical of ID in the past (refuted here), and every time he's done so I've seen little or no criticism from his colleagues.

Just as there are different types of creationists, there are different types of evolutionists. (And not all critics of evolution are creationists.) John Derbyshire and Andrew Stuttaford are no Richard Dawkins. National Review produces a lot of good material, and Derbyshire and Stuttaford are right on many issues. But that makes their comments on ID, with little or no opposition from their conservative colleagues, even more potentially damaging. Many conservatives who would tend to be sympathetic to ID will be led away from it by what they read at NRO.

What's wrong with these criticisms of ID, whether they come from a Derbyshire or a Dawkins? John Derbyshire's comments were written in response to an article at Tech Central Station by Robert McHenry. Derbyshire called it a "nice piece", quoted from it, then made the comments about ID that I cited at the beginning of this post. But instead of calling it a "nice piece", Derbyshire ought to have called it an "error-filled piece". McHenry's article gives a series of poorly argued common objections to ID that have already been answered many times. The article wasn't even up for a single day before Jonathan Witt of The Discovery Institute had posted a refutation of it. While Derbyshire compares ID advocates to people who believe in unicorns and a hollow earth, he's apparently so ignorant of ID that he doesn't understand some of its most basic premises.

Derbyshire's colleague at NRO, Andrew Stuttaford, accused ID advocates in Kansas of "magical thinking" for wanting to change the definition of science. He was relying on a misleading Associated Press article in reaching that conclusion. As Jonathan Witt explains, ID advocates do want to change the definition of science in Kansas, but that's because Kansas' definition is out of sync with how science is defined in the rest of the nation. If the ID advocates in Kansas are using "magical thinking", then so is the rest of the country. And if Stuttaford thinks that appealing to an intelligent agent is unacceptable "magical thinking" in biology and other fields of science related to evolution, then he'll have to apply the same criticism to other scientific fields that attempt to detect the work of intelligence, such as archeology and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).

Arguing that science only studies nature, and that God isn't part of nature, is an insufficient response, since ID is about detecting intelligent design, not detecting God. I agree with those who think that God is the best explanation for the intelligent design we see in the universe, but whether there's a designer and who that designer is are two different issues. There are ID advocates who are agnostics, Buddhists, or non-Christian or non-theist in some other manner. We can detect intelligent design. We do it in other fields of science. To refuse to apply the same reasoning in a field such as biology, because we think that God might be the best explanation of who the designer is, doesn't make sense.

In addition to the negative comments about ID being made by conservatives like John Derbyshire and Andrew Stuttaford, the usual suspects are at work. Richard Dawkins recently wrote an absurd piece for The Times of London, which carries the following misleading subtitle (probably not written by Dawkins):

"As the Religious Right tries to ban the teaching of evolution in Kansas, Richard Dawkins speaks up for scientific logic"

The Times refers to an attempt to "ban" the teaching of evolution in Kansas. No ban is on the table, though. Evolution will continue to be taught. What's being proposed is that more of the weaknesses of the theory be taught, in addition to teaching about the alleged evidence for it.

The rest of the article is typical Dawkins. Though Dawkins has spent years in correspondence with William Dembski, one of the leading proponents of ID, he continues to misrepresent the position. In his Times article, Dawkins approvingly cites a book by Ian Plimer titled Telling Lies for God. It's about dishonesty among creationists. Dawkins' inaccuracies in describing ID and what's happening in Kansas make one wonder whether Dawkins might be telling some lies of his own.

Two scientists wrote letters to The Times explaining some of Dawkins' errors. Those letters can be read here.

On a recent edition of ABC's "Nightline", William Dembski and the evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse agreed that ID is likely to gain ground in the public school system in the coming years. Dembski recently published part of a letter he received from a biologist commenting that ID seems to be well on its way to winning the scientific battle with evolution. Judging from recent public appearances by evolution's defenders, that assessment seems accurate. One need look no further than Eugenie Scott's recent disastrous appearance on the FOX News Channel, for example. She not only defined "evolution" in a way that a young earth creationist could accept, but also suggested that an inability to explain the origin of life and the Cambrian Explosion are just minor problems for evolution.

Even many conservative sources who are normally trustworthy on other issues are on the wrong side of this one, or they're largely ignorant of it or don't give it much attention. If you want to know what ID advocates believe and what evidence they cite, I would suggest going directly to the source:

For example, the false claim that we can detect intelligent design only if the intelligent agent is a human is addressed here. The false (and largely irrelevant) claim that intelligent design isn't published in peer-reviewed science journals is refuted here. Criticisms like these have been answered for years, but a lot of the media, including some segments of the conservative media, aren't listening much yet. They'll have to, eventually. Some details will change, but the general scientific evidence supporting intelligent design won't go away, and neither will the general scientific evidence against evolution.