Intelligent design apologia: Pot. Kettle. Black

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I’m reprinting a number of “Classic Insolence” posts to keep the blog active while I’m gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I’m guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These will appear at least twice a day while I’m gone (and that will probably leave some leftover for Christmas vacation, even). Enjoy, and please feel free to comment. I will be checking in from time to time when I have Internet access to see if the reaction to these old posts here on ScienceBlogs is any different from what it was when they originally appeared, and, blogging addict that I am, I’ll probably even put up fresh material once or twice.

While idly perusing my Sitemeter referral log over the weekend, I noticed a spike in traffic directed here from one site. Curious, I read the piece that had mentioned me and saw that I had managed to get an “intelligent design” (ID) apologist named Susanna rather annoyed with my deconstruction of Scrappleface‘s so-called “satire” about the debate over the teaching of ID in Kansas. I debated whether it was worth the bother to respond to the “rebuttals” and ad hominems in her post, and, after three days, my snark factor won out, as it did a couple of months ago for an altie troll calling himself the Herbinator. Given that the Skeptics’ Circle is due to appear at Pharyngula tomorrow, I thought: What the heck? What better way to whet my palate (and hopefully yours as well) for the skeptical feast that Pharyngula will hopefully provide tomorrow than to have a little fun at the expense of an ID apologist?

Does that mean that it’s time for some of that Respectful Insolence Orac likes so much? Of course it does!

I’m an old Usenet hand, having been active on and off in various newsgroups since the early 1990’s. Indeed, before I discovered blogging, my primary outlet for non-technical writing was on Usenet, particularly in the newsgroups alt.revisionism and (and, occasionally even on, the newsgroup dedicated to the discussion of evolution and creationism). In Usenet, we had a number of shorthand sayings, one of which was “Pot. Kettle. Black.” This particular saying was used, as you might guess, to point out when another person was guilty of being the “pot calling the kettle black,” as the old saying goes. Normally, I ignore most attacks like the one Susanna launched, having learned from a recent encounter with Vox Day and his sycophants that it is usually not worth the trouble to engage in debate with certain people, at least not if you don’t want to risk having such exchanges take over your blog. But this comment from Susanna just amused me far too much for me to let it pass unanswered:

When you feel a need to debunk satire, you may want to consider professional help.

Heh. If that’s the case, then I would ask Susanna: If I need “professional help” because I felt the need to “debunk satire,” then what does it say about you when you felt the need to debunk my debunking of satire? I think I’ll let Susanna’s comment about me guide me in my answer and just say:

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Of course, Susanna denied she was in fact “debunking the debunker,” with a rather transparent excuse: “I would debunk his debunking, but I don’t want to descend further into parody over satire.” Don’t worry about it, Susanna. You already descended into parody with your rather lengthy defense of ID; so you might as well have gone the rest of the way and tried to “debunk” me while you were at it. You could hardly have done worse than you already did. This comment of yours, for example, could have come straight from a Discovery Institute press release:

There’s an interesting debate going on in Kansas – some want schools to be able to discuss the fact that there is controversy about the theory of evolution. That seems a reasonable request, since there is controversy within the scientific community itself about what permutations of the theory are most correct. But the evolutionists are Horrified, Horrified that someone would question them, and the possibility that a Much Debunked Idea (we don’t want to say “intelligent design”, that will just bring them here in hordes, again, to debunk me) may slip in some classes as a result of this door opening.

Yawn. A typical ID straw man, and not even an imaginative presentation.

No, it’s not that evolutionists are somehow “afraid” of ID or somehow want “special treatment” for evolution. Nor is it that evolutionists want evolution to be immune from criticism, as one blog that Susanna has quoted claims. In actuality, it is the advocates of ID who want “special treatment” for their idea in schools because intelligent design as a concept (I won’t dignify it by calling it a “theory” or even an “hypothesis”) has failed utterly thus far to be taken seriously as science. Indeed, that is the key observation that served as the basis for my criticism of Scrappleface’s attempt at satire. The reason, of course, is that ID is not science. There is no observational or experimental evidence to support it. It makes no predictions and explains no great mass of data, other than by resorting to attributing the diversity of life to an “intelligence” that must have done it all. (Gee, I wonder just who ID advocates think this “intelligence” might be? God? Well, they claim no, not necessarily. Maybe they think it’s Giant lizards, perhaps?)

The bottom line is that ID has utterly failed to gain a foothold in biology as serious science the way that every accepted scientific theory ultimately becomes accepted: through the preponderance of evidence and through the theory’s ability to unify, explain, and to some extent predict natural phenomenon. Nor is it about evolutionists not wanting to teach the various permutations of evolutionary theory. Scientists do not object to teaching the remaining questions that evolutionary theory has not yet explained or controversies among scientists about the mechanisms of evolution. Teaching real scientific controversies in evolution is not what ID advocates want, anyway, their claims otherwise notwithstanding. No, ID advocates want one specific concept taught, a concept that has failed scientific validation at every turn and whose advocates spend far more money and effort on PR and legal fights that misguided school boards get into on their behalf than on doing actual scientific research. If ID advocates really want to get their concepts introduced into the classroom as science, then the best way to do it is to divert some of that massive money and effort used to bulldoze various initiatives forcing the teaching of ID as “science” in high schools and use it to produce the goods. Do the research. Show scientists the evidence. Publish the research and evidence in peer-reviewed journals. Present it at national meetings of biologists. Show how ID explains the diversity of life better than (or at least as well as) evolutionary theory does.

That’s how real scientists, rather than pseudoscientists, would work to get ID taught as a science in high school, college, and graduate school!

Susanna should have quit while she was just guilty of no more than a strawman argument, but she couldn’t resist descending into bad science as well:

One of the arguments of evolutionists against intelligent design is that it is not amenable to scientific exploration, and that if you believe in intelligent design, you basically have no foundation from which to launch scientific inquiry. Intelligent design as an explanation of origin is as robust as the Big Bang Theory (or whatever the Theory Du Jour is, since it changes all the time, despite the scientific claims that whatever the Theory Du Jour is is finally the final word), which doesn’t explain to anyone’s satisfaction a) where the original matter or energy came from or b) how their origin theory presupposes a type of behavior of matter that their own science has found to be absent from current behavior of matter – that is, everything now is degrading, not improving. I don’t know how they get by with such bad science, flying in their own faces.

First off, no, ID is not an explanation of origin as “robust” as the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory has enormous quantities of scientific evidence gathered over many decades from many disciplines to support it. No such thing can be said for ID. Second, I can’t believe Susanna actually had the temerity to mention the hoary creationist canard that evolution somehow violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Now that’s some really bad science, so much so that I don’t need to “debunk” it. It’s been debunked quite well before here and specifically here (which includes some of the detailed nitty-gritty, complete with formulas). Finally, I don’t know which scientists Susanna is referring to, but no real scientist claims that the “Theory du Jour” is the “final word.” Such thinking is anathema to scientists. Real scientists consider every theory as merely provisionally accepted as the best presently existing explanation for a natural phenomenon. All theories, including evolution, are subject to revision or replacement if new evidence mandates it. Indeed, the greatest joy a scientist can achieve is not to confirm current theory (although that can be satisifying) but rather to challenge and go beyond current theory, filling in its flaws or even overturning it altogether in favor of something new that leads to new understanding and new areas of inquiry. But achieving that is not easy. It takes evidence so compelling and in such quantities that the bulk of scientists are finally forced to admit that present theory can’t stand against it, something ID proponents don’t seem to understand. If they think ID is a superior explanation for evolution than present day theory, they need to produce the goods to prove it, just as every scientist who has successfully challenged current theory has done before. It is not up to the skeptics to prove ID is not the best explanation for the diversity of life; it is up to its adherents to prove that it is.

Then she concludes with the biggest straw man of all:

Quite frankly, I think dismissing intelligent design out of hand as an option is unscientific on its face too. I’m not saying they have to like it, or agree with it, or even use it. But to say categorically that it is not true when they have no solid evidence to reject it is to close the door on a whole range of possible answers.

Oh, please. Give me a break. That is not why scientists are doing, nor is it why they are saying that ID should not be taught as science in the classroom. Scientists are not saying that intelligent design is not true; scientists are saying that there is no credible or convincing scientific evidence that ID is true, nor is there any sort evidence that could ever prove that it isn’t true. In other words, there is no good evidence for ID, nor is ID falsifiable, as scientific theories must be, including evolution. (As an aside, the types of data that could falsify evolution and common descent, were they to be found, are listed exhaustively here). Personally, I have no problem with Susanna or anyone else believing that God or whatever intelligence is behind the evolution of all living creatures. However, barring God revealing Himself for all to see, such an idea is not a testable hypothesis and not a valid basis for a scientific theory, which deals only with phenomena that can be proven or disproven on the basis of physical observation and experimentation. Such an idea is religion or philosophy, not science.

Unfortunately, Susanna does not appear to allow comments on her blog. Otherwise, I might have simply posted a much briefer version of this piece in her comments section and seen what she had to say. (Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I wonder what her lack of a comment section says about her desire to engage in debate, especially after her claim that evolutionists don’t want to have their views challenged. Should I say “Pot. Kettle. Black.” again? Sure, why not?) However, I have little doubt that she’ll eventually become aware of my article, if you all click on the right links. When that happens, I cordially invite her to feel free to tell me exactly what the specific scientific evidence for ID is that she finds so compelling that ID should be taught as an “alternative theory” to evolution. My comment section, unlike hers, is open for business. I’ll even forget that she said publicly that she thinks I need professional help.

Oh, and Fat Steve, my cordial welcome applies to you as well, if you would like, given that you apparently felt the need to lend some rather ineffectual but unintentionally amusing–to me, at least–tactical air support to Susanna (your self-proclaimed “sterling intellectual qualities” notwithstanding). I’ll even forget that you called me a putz and said that I should “get a clue.”

I’m just that kind of a forgiving guy, you know, now that I’ve had a chance to vent.

And, please, both of you, visit the Skeptics’ Circle tomorrow at Pharyngula. It’d definitely do you both some good. Heck, why don’t you both send PZ your pieces as entries to the Skeptics’ Circle, examples of your “skepticism” over evolution? On second thought, never mind. I confess that my suggestion was a bit of a trap. (I was just feeling snarky again.) PZ isn’t nearly as tolerant as I am of ID apologists like you. I doubt he’d be as patient with you as I’ve just been.

This post originally appeared on the old blog on May 11, 2005.