The Passion of the IDalogue

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John Baez from UCal-Riverside, in addition to his many contributions to the field of mathematical physics, has given to us the enormously useful Crackpot Index. His index, which awards varying point values based upon the attributes of the claims being made, gives a fairly reliable indication of whether what is being offered is a genuinely useful new idea in science and what is simply crank science.

14. 10 points for each new term you invent and use without properly defining it.

The ID crowd LOVES to invent new phrases - irreducible complexity, complex specified information, etc.. They are notoriously ill-defined, and the definitions seem to shift like the sands of the desert over time. The most recent is "ontogenetic depth", which is, as PZ Myers points out in an earlier post, extraordinarily vague.

19. 10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".

As one review of an ID book said:

Thomas Woodward reveals in Doubts About Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design that we stand at the threshold of another revolutionary paradigm shift.
And here is Woodward himself, reviewing Behe's book:
This three-way test (dubbed "the Explanatory Filter") became the centerpiece of the conference as Behe and his colleagues reviewed new evidence that points to design. Some observers say that the design movement may be embarking upon the first stage of a transitional process in science, which philosophers call a "paradigm shift."

22. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

On the back of William Dembski's book Intelligent Design is the following blurb from ID-sympathetic philosopher Rob Koons:

"William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time."
And never mind that Dembski has not published a single paper on information theory in the scientific literature, or that his views seem to be shared by virtually no one in the field of information theory. Hyperbole is its own reward.

25. 20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary".

Dembski, quoted in the Dallas Observer:

"My commitment is to see intelligent design flourish as a scientific research program. To do that, I need a new generation of scholars willing to consider this, because the older generation is largely hidebound."
26. 20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy".

I'd say this is close enough, Dembski in reference to my friend and colleague Rob Pennock:

Pennock, who casts himself as the defender of scientific correctness....
Or how about this one, from Ohio's pro-ID school board member James Turner:
Unfortunately, the reaction to this suggestion from some in the science community has been to scream "heresy." Certain self-appointed guardians of "elite" science fear that any departure from the road of strict naturalistic orthodoxy will inevitably lead us back to a time when the Christian creation story defined origins science in many states. This fear is, of course, irrational in today's world, but it nevertheless drives unnecessarily extreme positions about the content of Ohio's science standards.
31. 40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

How many examples would you like for this one? How about Jonathan Wells:

Another interesting aspect of the press conference was a statement by Ken Miller, featured on the evening news, to the effect that ID advocates are trying to present their views to the public "without the approval of science." Afterwards, in private, Steve Meyer kept repeating Miller's pompous declaration with a heavy German accent, sounding for all the world like Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's propaganda chief.
How about references to communists? Here's Wells again:
But I see the situation as analogous to the last years of Soviet communism. A small, powerful elite controls all the official information outlets while the evidence against the official position swells quietly, like a wave building offshore. Someday soon, to the surprise of many people in academia and the media, the wave will break. I predict that the Darwinist establishment will come apart at the seams, just as the Soviet Empire did in 1990.
How about Dembski:
Dembski, whose recent book, "The Design Inference," presents in great detail how the Intelligent Design argument satisfies logic and probability, likes to compare the movement's influence on science to the freedom and democracy movements and their effect on Eastern Europe. Criticism of Darwinism now threatens the hegemony of Darwinism, he says, just as the move toward freedom upset the Soviet empire.
Can't leave out Phillip Johnson, from Darwin on Trial:
Darwinian evolution with its blind watchmaker thesis makes me think of a great battleship on the ocean of reality. Its sides are heavily armored with philosophical barriers to criticism, and its decks are stacked with big rhetorical guns ready to intimidate any would-be attackers. In appearance, it is as impregnable as the Soviet Union seemed to be only a few years ago.
John Calvert of IDNet goes for the rare double axel of evil:
The precise same thing is happening in our country with regard to the issue of what causes life and its diversity. That is essentially a historical question. If the history is driven by a Naturalistic agenda that censors one of the two competing hypotheses we will be engaging in the same sort of propaganda that characterized Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.
All of this brings us to:

32. 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

For this, we can turn to Dembski and I think we can award 80 points for this one, since he hits the conspiracy to prevent his work from getting published AND calling his oppressors commies:

In the current intellectual climate it is impossible to get a paper published in the peer-reviewed biological literature that explicitly affirms intelligent design or explicitly denies Darwinian and other forms of naturalistic evolution. Doubting Darwinian orthodoxy is comparable to opposing the party line of a Stalinist regime. What would you do if you were in Stalin's Russia and wanted to argue that Lysenko was wrong? You might point to paradoxes and tensions in Lysenko's theory of genetics, but you could not say that Lysenko was fundamentally wrong or offer an alternative that clearly contradicted Lysenko. That's the situation we're in.
33. 40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.

Phillip Johnson, in his last column in Touchstone magazine:

I have turned to the Galileo episode not to compete with historians in assessing the blame for the tragedy, but because the elements of that conflict are present again in the hot argument between the Intelligent Design movement in biology and Darwinism. Today the scientific profession has firmly grasped the authority once possessed by the Catholic Church and contested by Galileo, the power to judge which claims have the status of knowledge and which do not. Like the Church of Galileo's day, the Church of Science can tolerate almost any concept if it remains no more than a hypothesis or metaphor, provisionally adopted as an aid to understanding and not advocated as literally true.
34. 40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)

All one has to do to see this kind of fantasizing is go to the latest issue of World magazine, which contains leading ID advocates engaging in "fanciful" discussion of the inevitable triumph of ID in 2025, overthrowing all of mainstream science and it's "materialistic orthodoxy" and, of course, returning the world into the hands of the One True God. I could post a couple dozen quotes from it, but read it for yourself. It's all one long fantasy about the ascendance of ID and how they beat back the heathen hordes of Darwinian stormtroopers, to mix a few metaphors.

35. 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.

Since the first moment when ID made its first big public splash, at the Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise conference in 1997, scientists and philosophers have been challenging Dembski, Behe and their colleagues to provide testable hypotheses that flow from the ID model. None has been forthcoming. They have written voluminously against the ability of evolution to explain this or that feature or phenomenon, e.g. Behe's Darwin's Black Box. They have tried to convince everyone that evolution is built upon a foundation of lies, e.g. Wells' Icons of Evolution (though I think that book said far more about Wells' honesty than those he intended to criticize). They have written lots of anachronistic probabilistic arguments, e.g. Dembske's The Design Inference. What they have not done, in any setting, is offer up a testable hypothesis that flows from their premise, propose a means of testing it in the real world, and do the actual science. Time and again, we have been told that it's "on the way". Dembski seems to forever be promising that it will be in his next book. Alas, like Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett's play, we are perpetually waiting for an arrival that never comes.

The reality is that every crackpot idea in the history of science has been defended on this very same basis. Every crank believes passionately that they are Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of orthodoxy, oppressed by the High Priesthood of Science, so jealous to protect their domain against revolutionary ideas. For every instance where someone has been initially ridiculed and then vindicated, Alfred Wegener for example, there are a thousand who thrashed and wailed against the alleged censorship of their ideas and then faded into history because, in the end, their ideas simply didn't help us understand the world any better. ID advocates seem to strike the martyr pose as a reflex reaction, as a leg responds automatically to the strike of the doctor's rubber hammer. But in so doing, they show the essential emptiness of their enterprise. Crying censorship may be good public relations, in that it elicits sympathy from those who want so desperately for ID to be true. But it's lousy science, and it only damages credibility with the educated and the rational.

9 Comments

So, what did they score?

I donno, but I hear that at 100 points you win a doctorate from ICR, and at 300 points you get a Reverend Moon plush toy.

Isn’t a paradigm shift when you move 20¢ from one spot to another?

Now this, this, is brilliant stuff (unlike that piece of frothing incoherance from Chun The Unavoidable that PZ linked to – perhaps it was intentionally dada-esque, I must confess I never “got” such things…undoubtedly I’m an unsophisticated rube).

You see, any schmoe can toss accusations around, but it takes a fair bit of work to dig up the actual references to document crackpottery on a pre-determined crackpottery scale.

Ed’s post was the kind of thing worthy of being a FAQ at talkdesign, in my opinion. Thus I nominate it for the the Panda’s Thumb Hall of Fame, so that we don’t forget about it too quickly. It’s the virtual equivalent of getting your name on a plaque on the back wall of the pub, Ed, congradulations! Give that man a free round.

Using other criteria for recognizing crackpottery, we find that creationism/IDism scores very high there also.

Martin Gardner:

1. He considers himself a genius. Some IDers consider William Dembski “the Isaac Newton of information theory”.

2. He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Who suffer from “naturalistic presuppositions” or worse.

3. He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. Creationists often claim that they are up against a “Darwinian orthodoxy”.

4. He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and best established theories. Evolution. Mainstream geology. Old-earthism.

5. He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined. That describes Dembski’s work very well; developers of baraminology / “discontinuity systematics” sometimes seem guilty of that.

Robert L. Park:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media. Which creationists never tire of doing.

2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. Creationists often claim that they are up against a “Darwinian orthodoxy”.

3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection. Noah’s Ark has continually eluded discovery, while baramins remain vaguely defined.

4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. Which describes the “evidence” for Noah’s Ark.

5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries. Which creationists enjoy saying about the Bible.

6. The discoverer has worked in isolation. Although creationists are numerous enough to form their own communities, their knowledge of mainstream science does not extend much beyond their quotebooks.

7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation. Like the occurrence of miracles.

like Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s propaganda chief.

Uhmm.… wouldn’t that be Goebbels? Himmler was the chief of the SS. So not only do they use Nazi comparisions, they use wrong nazi comparisions.

Hey, now, Nick…Chun was subtle and sly. It’s the difference between a cunningly improbable Rube Goldberg device and anvils falling out of the sky in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

But you aren’t a rube—Chun does take some getting used to.

Daniel Davies came up with a similarly useful Bollocks Index for evaluation of pro-Globalization economic arguments

Another one: 20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.

Dembski wrote in “Science and Design,” in the October 1998 issue of First Things:

There now exists a rigorous criterion—complexity-specification—for distinguishing intelligently caused objects from unintelligently caused ones. Many special sciences already use this criterion, though in a pre-theoretic form (e.g., forensic science, artificial intelligence, cryptography, archeology, and the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). The great breakthrough in philosophy of science and probability theory of recent years has been to isolate and make precise this criterion. […] What does this criterion look like? Although a detailed explanation and justification is fairly technical (for a full account see my book The Design Inference, published by Cambridge University Press), the basic idea is straightforward and easily illustrated. Consider how the radio astronomers in the movie Contact detected an extraterrestrial intelligence. This movie, which came out last year and was based on a novel by Carl Sagan, was an enjoyable piece of propaganda for the SETI research program—the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. In the movie, the SETI researchers found extraterrestrial intelligence. (The nonfictional researchers have not been so successful.)

How, then, did the SETI researchers in Contact find an extraterrestrial intelligence? SETI researchers monitor millions of radio signals from outer space. Many natural objects in space (e.g., pulsars) produce radio waves. Looking for signs of design among all these naturally produced radio signals is like looking for a needle in a haystack. To sift through the haystack, SETI researchers run the signals they monitor through computers programmed with pattern-matchers. As long as a signal doesn’t match one of the pre-set patterns, it will pass through the pattern-matching sieve (even if it has an intelligent source). If, on the other hand, it does match one of these patterns, then, depending on the pattern matched, the SETI researchers may have cause for celebration.

The SETI researchers in Contact found the following signal:

[snip primes sequence]

[…]

This sequence represents the prime numbers from 2 to 101, where a given prime number is represented by the corresponding number of beats (i.e., 1’s), and the individual prime numbers are separated by pauses (i.e., 0’s).

The SETI researchers in Contact took this signal as decisive confirmation of an extraterrestrial intelligence. What is it about this signal that decisively indicates design? Whenever we infer design, we must establish two things—complexity and specification. Complexity ensures that the object in question is not so simple that it can readily be explained by chance. Specification ensures that this object exhibits the type of pattern that is the trademark of intelligence.

[discusses how some sequences are too short and can be produced by chance]

Contrast this with the sequence representing the prime numbers from 2 to 101. Not only is this sequence complex, it also embodies a suitable pattern. The SETI researcher who in the movie Contact discovered this sequence put it this way: “This isn’t noise, this has structure.”

(Actually, that last quote was referring to the blind scientist detecting the Hitler TV signal piggy-backed on the main sequence by listening to the noise. But I’m not sure if a misquote of a fictional scene is a real misquote…)

(And, real-life SETI does not work the way Dembski thinks; there is a great article documenting this somewhere…post it if you find it)

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on March 30, 2004 6:39 PM.

Mything the point: Jonathan Wells’ bad faith was the previous entry in this blog.

We really ought to be handing out trophies, I think is the next entry in this blog.

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