Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bethell vs Derbyshire

In his debate with John Derbyshire, Tom Bethell makes some very revealing comments concerning the ID position:

”Intelligent design is not creationism, and repeating that claim over and over will not make it so.”

It is nothing short of remarkable that even after the exposure of the transformation of creationism into intelligent design via the Wedge Document, IDers can still make this claim with a straight face. The trouble is, if the two were truly different, then it should be no trouble for Bethell or any other IDer to rattle off a few of the cases where ID makes claims that conflict with classic creationism. Yet one can peruse the ID literature in total and never find any clear statements of differences. What one finds is general, ill-defined statements that purport to allow noncreationist interpretations, but never commit to such a thing, always leaving the creationist interpretation alive under the big tent. Bethell demonstrates:

”Structures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural.”

If this claim were true, it would have applications in forensic science, archaeology, and a whole host of other areas of inquiry. However, the IDers have not once done even the most rudimentary demonstration of this ability to infer design, say by distinguishing an arrowhead from a rock, leaving their claim as mere bluster, which is why none of the scientists in those areas have the slightest interest in it.

More to the main point, to demonstrate that the design inference is not creationism, it would need to rule out the supernatural, not merely leave other possibilities open. The only reason those other possibilities are never ruled out is because the IDers very conveniently and unscientifically refuse to inquire as to the nature of the designer. Bethell tries to compare this to what SETI scientists do, but this only digs his hole deeper:

”There's an institute in Mountain View, Calif., where scientists are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence -- SETI … Operating strictly within the protocols of science, the seekers after SETI can infer design from certain signals or structures. I don't see where supernaturalism has to come in.

It doesn’t. However, the moment the SETI scientists found evidence of design, they would immediately inquire as to the nature of the designers, and rule out possibilities as the evidence allowed. Also, the SETI researchers chose the kinds of energy patterns in their search based on what we produce, which lays waste to the notion that one can detect design independent of any knowledge of the designer. It is quite possible there are beings out there sending some sort of signals our way and we simply have no way to discern them.

Bethell then combines a couple of classic creationist canards, demanding that Derbyshire and other critics of ID do the work the IDers should have done themselves in devising falsifiable experiments, and implying that ID/evolution is an either/or proposition:

”In an earlier comment, Mr. Derbyshire raised the question of ID research conducted under the auspices of the Discovery Institute. What research have they done, he wondered. The question implies that experiments could, at least in principle, help us to decide whether the organisms that we see around us were designed, or are the result of random mutation and natural selection.

I would like Derbyshire to think about this, and suggest such an experiment.

Uh, no Mr. Bethell. The IDers have proposed the designer hypothesis, thus the onus is on them to devise falsifiable experiments to support that position. It has long been the position of scientists and philosophers who have examined the ID claims that no such experiments are possible, because the Designer could do anything at any time for any reason. This is why ID fails to qualify as science. Trying to pass the buck to the critics of ID does not help matters. Further, evolution and ID are independent theories. Disconfirmatory evidence for one is not confirmatory evidence for the other. This is why ID arguments that attack evolution do not qualify as arguments for design. It could be the case that neither is true. Bethell does not understand this, and engages in some blatant projection of these problems onto evolution:

”Darwinism is so loosely structured (to put it politely) that it is capable of ‘explaining’ any and every organism. If an organism exists, it is ‘fit,’ and therefore Darwinism accounts for it.

This is sheer nonsense. As has been mentioned by many defenders of science, a Cambrian rabbit fossil would destroy evolutionary theory, as would a Pegasus, a centaur, and any number of other possible creatures. Bethell continues to project, and inadvertently gives a great criticism of ID:

”But as Derbyshire may also have heard, a theory that explains everything, without any possibility of encountering a falsifying instance, is not really a scientific theory at all. It is philosophy dressed up as science. It is, in fact, pseudoscience -- the kind that gives Mr. D so much idle amusement.”

Exactly. This is Intelligent Design in a nutshell, and Bethell even grants as much, only to project IDs flaws once again onto evolutionary science:

”A criticism of intelligent design is that the claim, ‘God can do anything, therefore this critter was designed by God’ gets us nowhere. I agree that it doesn't. But a very similar objection can be raised against Darwinism. Its partisans are at liberty to say of any organism whatever that it arose by mutation and natural selection -- without having to produce any supporting evidence. In the end, it amounts to nothing more than the belief that supernaturalism must be avoided at all cost. Looked at this way, Darwinism is simply a deduction from a philosophy -- the philosophy of materialism (sometimes called naturalism). “

There is not polite word for this. It is blind ignorance at best, outright lying at worst. One would think listening to Bethell that all evolutionary scientists do is sit around and speculate, and the reason Bethell thinks this is because that is all the IDers do. Scientists are doing research and finding evidence for evolution all the time. There are literally millions of papers in the scientific literature on the subject. Bethell relies on the ignorance of his readership when he makes statements like that. Sadly, given the decline of quality science education in this country (something people like Bethell have not coincidentally contributed mightily to) his estimation is probably correct.

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