Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Intelligent Design Advocate Analyzes Pattern Recognition in Children, Draws Entirely Wrong Conclusion

One of the more interesting aspects of the Intelligent Design crew is their uncanny ability to stare data refuting their pet presumption, and draw the exact opposite conclusion that they should. Paul Nelson does that in spades in this article concerning a study of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

…I cannot help but feel a surge of intellectual affection — philia — at learning that someone is trying to understand the puzzle of when and why humans infer intelligent design, or more generally, default to teleological modes of explanation, whether correctly or not. (It’s that last bit that should be very useful to design theorists; see below.)

OK, is it just me, or does the word “teleological”, like the word “ontological”, set off the BS detectors? I know they are legitimate philosophical terms, but then the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is a legitimate law of physics, and yet it seems that 90+% of references to it are nonsense.

But I digress. The issue Nelson identifies is a legitimate and interesting one: why do humans infer design, or putting it another way, why do we identify patterns and infer intelligent cause? This naturally leads into how well we do this, what our error rate is, and what sort of errors we make: alpha errors (inferring intelligent cause where there is none) and beta errors (failing to infer intelligent cause when it is present). It is very revealing that this kind of research that should be the bread and butter of ID theorists, as Nelson rightly points out, is entirely neglected by the leading lights of the ID movement. William Dembski prattles on about CSI (complex specified information), as the unit of measurement of design, and yet never gives us a quantifiable measure of CSI in any object, nor how one object compares to another. He talks about his “explanatory filter”, but never demonstrates its results, or how it can distinguish between the designed objects of men and the designed objects of nature.

This is the fundamental problem with ID. It is not that ID asks the wrong questions. It is that ID theorists refuse to do a scientific search for the answers. They prefer instead to lurk in the vague shadows of interpretation, expressing themselves in as subject and vague a manner as possible to avoid the very thing they would be pursuing were they legitimate scientists: falsifiable, testable, verification of their theories. Thus we get this bit of denying the obvious from Nelson:

Unlike educated adults, young children demonstrate a “promiscuous” tendency to explain objects and phenomena by reference to functions, endorsing what are called teleological explanations. This tendency becomes more selective as children acquire increasingly coherent beliefs about causal mechanisms, but it is unknown whether a widespread preference for teleology is ever truly outgrown. The study reported here investigated this question by examining explanatory judgments in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), whose dementia affects the rich causal beliefs adults typically consult in evaluating explanations. The results indicate that unlike healthy adults, AD patients systematically and promiscuously prefer teleological explanations, suggesting that an underlying tendency to construe the world in terms of functions persists throughout life. This finding has broad relevance not only to understanding conceptual impairments in AD, but also to theories of development, learning, and conceptual change. Moreover, this finding sheds light on the intuitive appeal of creationism.

Yeah, I know: Alzheimer’s and creationism — cue the jokesmiths at the Panda’s Thumb.

Well no shit Paul. Here you are trying to gather popular support for your way of thinking, and the evidence you choose to bring to the table is that people with damaged brains see things as you do? Just how do you expect us to react, except with laughter? What part of “unlike healthy adults” do you not understand?
But as I said, it is an interesting question, and I think it has an obvious answer. Since there are indeed various levels of teleology in the world around us, it stands to reason that the ability to recognize this would confer a survival advantage. Further, this recognition need not be perfect to be useful: even a paltry ability to do this would confer an advantage over those that cannot. Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude that, like the ability to see, which confers an advantage in all its incremental forms, the ability to recognize patterns would easily evolve from very limited precursors to advanced sensory devices (ie our brain). From there it is easy to see that this ability would likely have a large alpha error relative to its beta error. The rabbit that immediately runs away at the barest hint of the presence of a wolf survives to procreate far more often than the rabbit that waits around to make sure, whereas running away without cause does not carry near the same level of penalty (death).

So it is easy to see how some humans might have an overdeveloped “design detector” which screams loudly at the slightest hint of design. These people would see design where there is none, perhaps even in something as basic as the structure of a cell, or our bodies. Is it now clear why the IDers refuse to do research in this (or any other) area? It leads inexorably to the one conclusion they cannot tolerate: that despite their “I know it when I see it” attitude, their instinctual conclusions of design are unwarranted, and for simple evolutionary reasons. So they settle for asking the questions, while ignoring the answers:

”But Lombrozo points out that teleological or design explanations are often correct: watches do have watchmakers. So what distinguishes erroneous and correct design inferences? Knowing the circumstances under which humans incorrectly infer design may help ID theorists guard against hard-wired teleological bias. Correct (sound) and incorrect (unsound) design inferences are two sides of the same coin. Discovering how we may err in inferring design is essential to knowing when we’ve made such inferences reliably.”

Indeed Paul, it would. So what are you all waiting for? Break some new ground! Put the explanatory filter to the test. Measure how it reacts to human designs vs natural designs. Can it distinguish them? How high is your error rate? How can this be avoided? You guys are great (on occasion) at asking questions. To be considered scientists, you can’t stop there. You have to be willing to seek the answers, regardless of the threat that poses to some of your most cherished presumptions. And that is why we can all rest in comfort that you will be asking the same questions next year, and the year after that. You guys will always find more “fruitful” ways to spend your time.

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