Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Science Skepticism/critical thinking

The Discovery Institute drops a bomb of an argument

Here we go again.

The “scientists” at the Discovery Institute seldom miss an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot by making specious arguments that anyone with a reasonable understanding of evolution can shoot down. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to thoroughly dismantle most of the “scholarship” that flows from the DI (which is indeed fortunate for me, given that I am not an evolutionary biologist). Leave it to the North Koreans, with their recent apparently successful test of a nuclear explosive device, to give the intrepid Don Quixotes over in Seattle the excuse to tilt at the windmill of evolution:

This week, seismologists were met with the unfortunate news that North Korea probably tested a nuclear weapon. The task of seismologists in the free world has been to confirm whether the North Korean government was truthful when they claimed they tested a nuke. Whether they realize it or not, scientists currently working to verify if North Korea has conducted a nuclear test are actually engaging in an exercise in intelligent design. They are trying to distinguish between naturally caused seismic energy and seismic energy which was artificially produced by an explosion caused by intelligence. Such studies are possible because explosions, particularly large ones like nuclear blasts, produce a distinctly different seismic signature from natural earthquakes.

So far, so benign. Nothing too nasty there. But, this being the Discovery Institute, you know that something stupid will soon follow. The guys don’t disappoint:

Taking such design inferences can require much scientific analysis. For example, “if an underground blast is smaller than one kiloton, it’s difficult to distinguish between the natural sounds of the earth and an actual explosion,” and “it takes a long time to interpret data” (see Verifying Nuclear Test Blasts FAQ).

But difficulties in detecting intelligent causation in seismic energy don’t prevent scientists from trying to detect, or reject design. When they do verify a nuclear explosion, they have made a design inference. One scientist stated in the overtly anti-ID Seed Magazine that the recent North Korean seismic event was not a natural event, but was designed: “The peculiarity of the seismic waves indicated there was an artificial explosion, not a natural earthquake.”

Notice the implication here. Casey Luskin seems to be conflating the observation that just because the analysis needed to detect “design” in seismic activity can be difficult doesn’t prevent scientists from doing it with ID. Here’s the problem: The scientists who determined that the seismic activity in North Korea have lots of data from decades of tests of nuclear devices and have compared the commonalities in “designed” seismic activity due to explosions to the commonalities in natural seismic activity. This comparison has allowed them to come up with a model and set of criteria that let them determine whether a given seismic event is likely to be natural or due to the activity of humans. In other words scientists know how to distinguish seismic activity due to nuclear weapons from seismic activity due to earthquakes and other natural causes. ID has yet to produce such criteria for biological structures that will determine whether a structure is “designed” or could have come about due to evolution. Its sole criterion seems to be: If it looks “designed” then it must be designed, with the specification being “irreducible complexity,” which in essence is an argument from personal incredulity. (“I can’t conceive how the eye could have formed through evolution; so it must have been designed.”)

The implication is that those nasty evolutionists aren’t being fair to ID advocates. After all, seismologists and geologists look for “design” and aren’t criticized for it. Of course, the reason biologists criticize ID is not because ID advocates are “looking for design” in nature. They’re criticizing ID advocates because they claim to have already found design in nature on the basis of “evidence” that is at best unconvincing and at worst riddled with logical fallacies, misrepresentations of evolutionary theory used as straw men to attack, and outright misinformation. Rather than whine about how mistreated they are in comparison to seismologists, perhaps ID advocates should spend their time (not to mention the Discovery Institute’s considerable funds) trying to come up with compelling observational and experimental evidence, rather than on mounting PR campaigns and trying to foist the teaching of ID. If there’s anything to the idea of “design” in biological systems and structures, the evidence will be there to be found. Until the DI publishes such evidence in peer-reviewed journals, it should stop comparing ID to the much more established science of seismology.

Indeed, until ID can specify exactly (or even approximately) what distinguishes “design” from non-design in biology, its whining about being treated unfairly over “making a design inference” will remain an exercise in self-pity.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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