Friday, December 08, 2006

Who needs scientific rigor when you have a persecution complex?

by Drek

Tom recently wrote a post over on my usual blog about the good folks on Uncommon Descent. For those who don't know, Uncommon Descent is the blog of Wild Bill Dembski and, as such, is a rather surreal place to spend time. In any case, Tom was commenting on a discussion about the possible "natural" virgin birth of Jesus Christ. So, you know, they were covering one of those critical issues in modern biology.

As a regular reader* of Uncommon Descent, I recently came across another gem of a post. In it the author, DaveScot, discusses the Harvard Origin of Life Project, which appears to be a scholarly effort to explain abiogenesis. The post in question reads a little something like this:**

In a nutshell they are setting out to demonstrate how DNA-based life could have originated from undirected interplay of chemicals.

If ID is true then it predicts the Harvard project will fail. This is based on the ID hypothesis that the complex patterns found in the basic machinery of life are too complex to come about without intelligent guidance.

Now if I may be so bold as to ask that ID theorists be allowed to make predictions based upon their own theory, and detractors are gracious enough to let us make our own predictions, then I don’t want to hear any more nonsense about ID making no predictions. This is a prediction. It will play out soon enough. Let the chips fall where they may.

I really have only two things I want to say to this.

The first is that, as predictions go, this one is fairly stupid. Essentially they are predicting that an effort to explain abiogenesis will fail because life is irreducibly complex. This is a valid theoretical claim, but really doesn't help the ID case much. The reason why is that there are other reasons why the Harvard project might fail aside from simply ID being correct. Specifically, the experimental apparatus may not be sufficient for the task or our theoretical understanding of how chemicals can spontaneously assemble may be flawed. As such, even if ID is wrong and it is possible to produce self-replicating molecules naturally, the Harvard project may still fail. Thus, if this project returns negative results it is a lack of support for naturalistic theories of abiogenesis, but not itself positive support for intelligent design. Contrary to the impression of many ID supporters there is a difference between the two. Particularly, there's a big difference between a lack of support for abiogenesis and falsifying evolutionary theory which, itself, makes no specific predictions about abiogenesis.

Consider, for a moment, what the world would be like if life did not originate on Earth. So, panspermia is correct. Consider, further, that the ultimate origins of life are unnatural- a god created and scattered primitive protolife in some corner of the universe and has been allowing it to spread naturally since then. That faux life reached Earth at some point in the past and has since diversified into all the forms we see today. In this case, an attempt to explain abiogenesis would fail because life is not natural. However, at the same time, intelligent design is still effectively wrong because the structures of life we see now are a product of natural selection and were not designed themselves. In such a universe abiogenesis is impossible even though evolution is still correct.

What ID needs to do is unveil a positive prediction- something that they argue will happen based on their theory and that is not predicted by anything else. Sadly, since they refuse to speculate on the nature of their "designer," the theory can make no such positive predictions. Think about it: how do we distinguish natural phenomena from designed artifacts when the designer's intentions, capabilities, and approaches are entirely unknown? She might be supernatural or completely natural, she might intend to build perfection or produce shoddy work, she might keep previous structures or always produce new ones. Given the diversity of characteristics she might or might not have, there's no way to distinguish artifice from evolution. And so, ID leaves itself without a valid way to produce hypotheses. Perhaps more critically, if there's no way to distinguish then parsimony virtually demands we go with the explanation that doesn't invoke an unobserved and supremely powerful being. Or maybe not supremely powerful. Who the hell knows? And we're back to the intellectual vacuity of Intelligent Design.

The second point I take issue with is the rather snide remark, "Now if I may be so bold as to ask that ID theorists be allowed to make predictions based upon their own theory, and detractors are gracious enough to let us make our own predictions..." Now, really, nobody is trying to prevent the ID folks from making predictions, most folks on the pro-science side seem to be begging for such a thing. Granted, they want positive testable predictions, but that isn't too much to ask from a supposedly scientific theory. The thing is, however, that once a theory is out there, pretty much anyone gets to use it to make whatever predictions they think they can. The whole point of a theory is that it's supposed to be a useful and accurate explanation for the world- and if it is, its implications and consequences should be consistent with that world. Thus, if your theory works, neither you nor your detractors should be able to make it produce bullshit. So, sorry DaveScot, you do indeed get to make predictions with your "theory" but you don't get to bitch when others do the same thing and find it lacking.

In sum: nice try, crazy ID folks, but the only people you're fooling with all this whining is yourselves.

So what else is new?

* That is to say, I read it on a daily basis until either I finish their posts, or become so bewildered by the idiocy that I have to stop. Sadly, it's more often the latter than the former.

** Exactly like this, actually. I reproduce it here because the Uncommon Descent folks have a habit of redacting their posts whenever they feel like it- most often to cover up when they've been embarrassed by something or other. I can actually scorn this since, as regular readers of my blog know, I often embarrass myself and yet do not remove the posts.
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