Discovery Institute: Intelligent Designer or Zeus?

We haven’t posted much lately about what’s been appearing the blog of the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute‘s creationist public relations and lobbying operation, the Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids, a/k/a the cdesign proponentsists).

That’s because they’ve mostly been posting about their silly butterfly documentary, or else Casey has been giving his personal critique of biology texts — he doesn’t approve of them because they’re all about evolution. Well, today they finally posted something that’s funny enough for us to talk about: How Do We Know Intelligent Design Is a Scientific “Theory”?

To our delight it’s by Casey Luskin, everyone’s favorite creationist, and apparently he’s the only one who isn’t a Discoveroid “fellow.” Last year your Curmudgeon compassionately remedied that cruel insult (see: Casey Luskin Is Named a Curmudgeon Fellow). Okay, here we go, with bold font added by us:

A question I commonly receive is whether intelligent design is a “scientific theory.” The word “theory” gets tossed around a lot as if everyone agrees on what it means. To answer the question, we must first consider the meaning of the word “theory.”

Casey has a history of attempting to re-define things so that the Discoveroids’ “theory” of intelligent design (ID) will then be scientific, and we’ve posted about a few of his earlier attempts. For example, see Tests for Intelligent Design! Such efforts are always absurd, but at least they’re amusing. Let’s see what Casey has for us today. He tells us about Peter Kosso, a philosophy professor. All the punctuation in this next excerpt is in Casey’s text, including the brackets:

In Kosso’s view, a theory “describes aspects of nature that are beyond (or beneath) what we can observe, aspects that can be used to explain what we observe.” Thus “[s]ome theories are true (atomic theory), some are false (caloric theory), and the scientific method is what directs us in deciding which are which.”

We know nothing about Kosso, but if Casey is quoting him (or purporting to do so) then it’s unlikely that Kosso is the last word in this area. It doesn’t take much Googling around to find some workable definitions: See Scientific Hypothesis, Theory, Law Definitions. Perhaps a better set of definitions is provided by the National Academy of Sciences: Definitions of Evolutionary Terms. At that second link, “theory” is defined — properly it seems — as follows:

A plausible or scientifically acceptable, well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena and predict the characteristics of as yet unobserved phenomena.

Kosso may be a fine chap, we don’t know, but scientists frequently cite Karl Popper, who famously said that a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it is falsifiable. But we have digressed. Let’s read some more from Casey’s article:

Does ID meet this [Kosso’s] definition of theory? Yes, it does. ID is a theory of design detection, and it proposes intelligent agency as a mechanism causing biological change. ID allows us to explain how aspects of observed biological complexity, and other natural complexity, arose. And it uses the scientific method to make its claims.

It’s true that ID “proposes intelligent agency as a mechanism causing biological change,” but a mere proposal isn’t enough. Where’s the science? Where’s the evidence of this mechanism? By what experiment or observation could the proposed mechanism be falsified? Evolution makes testable predictions (see The Lessons of Tiktaalik).

But wait — there’s far more to ID than a biological mechanism. Casey says:

ID is not just an explanation of “some aspect of the natural world”: in fact it explains many aspects of the natural world. If we think in terms if just broad categories, ID proposes that intelligent agency is the best explanation for historical events like:

• the origin of the fine-tuning of the cosmos for advanced life.
• the origin of extremely high levels of complex and specified information in DNA.
• the origin of integrated systems required for animal body plans.
• the origin of many irreducibly complex systems found in living organisms.

Wow — ID is huge! But as we just asked: Where’s the science?

At this point we’re going to skip a big section of Casey’s essay in which he attempts to explain how ID “incorporates many facts, laws, and tested hypotheses.” It’s nothing but a list of unsupported claims — for example, that ID somehow explains things like the “abrupt appearance of body plans in the fossil record.” You can read Casey’s list at the Discoveroid website, if you like.

But claiming that the magic designer is the cause of those things is literally no different from claiming that Zeus caused them. If your Curmudgeon presented a long list of Zeus’ alleged accomplishments, it wouldn’t mean that our list is scientific evidence for the role of Zeus in our world. Does Casey understand what we just said? Probably not. Next he claims that:

[A] vast body of evidence can certainly be shown to back intelligent design. ID is well substantiated because a significant number of studies have confirmed ID’s predictions, such as:

We’ll ignore Casey’s catalog of nothingness, but it’s all there in his article for your perusal. Before you click over there to review his parade of evidence, you should know that it includes items like this: “experiments are showing irreducible complexity, such as in the flagellum, or multi-mutation features where many simultaneous mutations would be necessary to gain an advantage.” Yes, the Discoveroids are still waving the flagellum around and claiming that their magic designer did it — somehow. And here’s the article’s conclusion:

ID is supported by a vast body of evidence ranging from physics and cosmology to biochemistry to animal biology to systems biology to epigenetics and paleontology.

Therefore ID is a scientific theory — really, really it is. It belongs in all the textbooks, and it would be there except for the conspiratorial discrimination of those “Darwin lobbyists.” Right, Casey, but the Curmudgeon’s “Zeus theory” is every bit as good as ID. Better, really, because ol’ Zeus had an eye for the ladies. That’s a very good quality in a deity.

At this point we must repeat what we’ve said so often before: There are no data supporting the Discoveroids’ proposed “mechanism” of a magic designer — just a list of phenomena the Discoveroids attribute to the designer’s mysterious activities. Further, there are no tests which could ever falsify the claim that something was caused by the designer’s covert operations. So once more we ask: Hey, Casey — where’s the science?

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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15 responses to “Discovery Institute: Intelligent Designer or Zeus?

  1. Somebody please ask that tea poodle to give an example of how specified information in DNA is measured and at what level we are to conclude an intelligent agent.

    My prediction is he can’t.

    I also predict his intelligent agent of choice is not hampered by any laws of physics so can do anything and everything making the whole pot of tea unfalsifiable.

  2. I can propose a few predictions of ID:

    – designed/created organisms, by definition, would not have ancestors. Therefore the fossil record and genetic studies should identify numerous organisms which bear no relationship to any preceding organism, and have no close relatives. There should be thousands of completely unique life forms. Where are they?

    – a cosmos optimized for life would not be saturated with life destroying radiation and other hazards. In our case, a designed solar system would be unlikely to contain numerous asteroids and comets on trajectories to regularly impact the earth, the earth itself would be unlikely to be so geologically active with such a varying climate, etc. The earth would be an idyllic planet for life in a intelligently designed solar system. Why is this not so?

    – a designed ecosystem would be created at one time, with all elements in place, rather than over billions of years, most of which time only microbial life existed. The Genesis story is a design story, and any other designer would also likely assemble a complete and mature cosmos, with all of it’s life and even we humans – if that is the purpose of the design. Why the billion year process, and why so much time on microbial life?

    I think ID makes quite a few predictions. None of them seem to pan out, but perhaps just making them qualifies it as, at least, a pseudo-science.

  3. Ed “- designed/created organisms, by definition, would not have ancestors.”

    Why not? Can’t a creator/designer – especially an almight one – just rearrange the molecules in a dog embryo to make a cat embryo? That’s what Behe thinks happened (in general if not this specific hypothetical example). And no Discoveroid, however Genesis-friendly they sound, has ever ruled that out, or heaven forbid, challenged Behe directly.

  4. This will not do! NAU is my alma mater. As an alumnus and contributor to the School of Science I must protest and I have by sending a note to Kosso to get his take. When he replies and if he’s agreeable I’ll report back on his take.

    On another point, I wouldn’t say that Atomic Theory is “true,” rather, that it best supports the evidence so far. It’s our best model based on our ability to interpret the Universe, but I wouldn’t claim that it was true. That much I did learn from Philosophy 101 at NAU.

  5. Hey Ed:
    The universe only became a dangerous place because of “original sin.” It was all hunky-dorry before. Eve screwed Adam and the rest of the Universe at the same time.

  6. “Why not? Can’t a creator/designer – especially an almight one – just rearrange the molecules in a dog embryo to make a cat embryo? ”

    Rearranged it in such a way that it just “looks like” cats and dogs share a remote common ancestor? If intelligent design was supported by evidence that wasn’t indistinguishable from evolutionary evidence, you would see lots of unrelated species because each species would require a unique origin, unrelated to the rest. An “intelligent designer” who just messes around with genes of existing species to create new species sounds more like “guided evolution”, which is a theological idea, not a scientific theory.

  7. scientists frequently cite Karl Popper, who famously said that a theory should be considered scientific if and only if it is falsifiable.

    Michael Shermer wrote a piece for his regular column in Scientific American (September 2011 issue) and discussed what it takes to be considered “real science” versus “pseudoscience”. He makes the point:

    The problem is that many sciences are nonfalsifiable, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, grand economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

    For example, if we were to search a million planets that might harbor life and not find life, would that mean there is no extraterrestrial life? Not necessarily, yet we have an endeavor that is conducting what I would consider to be real science. Instead of using falsifiability as a demarcation point, Shermer chooses to look at the conduct of scientists when a new idea is proposed. If the idea leads to new research, new lines of inquiry, new discoveries, it’s probably real science. Otherwise, it’s just “pseudoscience” at best. I especially loved his comment about creationism:

    I call creationism “pseudoscience” not because its proponents are doing bad science – they are not doing science at all – but because they threaten science education in America, they breach the wall separating church and state, and they confuse the public about the nature of evolutionary theory and how science is conducted.

    Now back to my homework.

  8. meh: “Rearranged it in such a way that it just “looks like” cats and dogs share a remote common ancestor?”

    As opposed to a recent common ancestor. Which means that to Biblical literalists it would look like they share no common ancestors, just like they desperately hope. That’s what Behe thinks happened, and why he thinks that the fossil record is “irrelevant,” while YECs, OECs and even some IDers think it’s their smoking gun. It’s neither, of course.

  9. “ID is a theory of design detection”

    Not only where is the science, where is the theory of design detection?

    I have seen plenty of articles of this is evidence of design, but never an article on a theory of how you detect this design.

  10. You ask, “where’s the science?”
    I ask, “where’s the theory, scientific or otherwise?”
    Point to some feature of the world, and tell us the connection between “intelligent design” and that feature. What is there about the abilities, the purposes, the materials used, of intelligent designer(s) that things happened to turn out this way? How did it turn out that the human body is most similar to the bodies of chimps and other apes, among all of the forms that life has taken? Why did the world of life take on the appearance of having common descent with modification? When and where did the design take place, and why did it happen only then and there?

  11. The problem is that many sciences are nonfalsifiable, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, grand economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

    I think Shermer is a little confused on this one. “Unfalsifiable” does not not mean that we are not currently able to falsify a theory (string theory). It does not mean that falsifying a theory is so difficult, because there are too many variables, that no human being could do it (economic modeling).

    It means that in principle, as a matter of logic, that there will never be a way to falsify that theory.

  12. Gabriel Hanna says:

    It means that in principle, as a matter of logic, that there will never be a way to falsify that theory.

    That’s how I’ve always understood it.

  13. TomS: “Why did the world of life take on the appearance of having common descent with modification?”

    As you of all know, one of the top 2 or 3 ID peddlers in the world, Dr. Behe, has plainly admitted that it’s not just an “appearance” but how that design was implemented. Of course he won’t say, much less try to find out, which changes required real time intervention, or occurred “naturalistically”; that’s far too politically correct for the big tent.

    He has hinted (once at least) that genetic material for biochemical systems for much-later generations were in ancestral species, but “turned off.” Which means that the actual “intervention” could have occurred billions of years before it “turned on” naturally.

    In case any new readers get me wrong, I repeat that I do not agree with Behe’s hypotheses or his strategy of avoiding testing them (he’s surely aware the tests will fail), but cite him often to remind everyone that not all evolution deniers believe one of the mutually contradictory Genesis accounts, where all sorts of “kinds” popped up at once “a long time ago.”

  14. He has hinted (once at least) that genetic material for biochemical systems for much-later generations were in ancestral species, but “turned off.”

    Then shouldn’t we find all the DNA for modern birds in dinosaur DNA? That’s quite open to empirical investigation. Of course if that’s ever done he’ll just make up something else. None of the “predictions” of ID are implied by the “theory” because they do no math. They are always free to ad hoc themselves out of any possible negative test.

  15. Gabriel Hanna: “Then shouldn’t we find all the DNA for modern birds in dinosaur DNA?”

    Of course not. The unnamed, unembodied, possibly deceased (per Behe’s Dover testimony) designer intervened to make that part decompose. But Behe surely must be frantically looking for that human pseudogene for chlorophyll that one of his early critics proposed as a sure-fire vindication.