Blogging the Dover Trial

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Here’s another excellent resource for timely updates on the Dover trial. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has set up a blog with frequent updates on what is going on in the courtroom. Jonathan Witt of the Discovery Institute is also blogging live from the trial on the DI blog. His post on Ken Miller’s testimony yesterday was rather off the mark, as one would expect. He makes the superficially compelling argument that Ken Miller argued both that ID was not falsifiable and was falsified. But this ignores a fairly obvious logical distinction. Witt writes:

In friendly questioning from the plaintiff, Miller asserted that the theory of intelligent design was “not a testable theory in any sense” and so wasn’t science. Later, however, Miller argued that science has tested Michael Behe’s bacterial flagellum argument and falsified it, by pointing to a micro-syringe called the Type III Secretory System, and arguing that it could have served as a functional step on the gradual, Darwinian pathway to the full flagellar motor.

Did the journalists covering the trial notice the contradiction? Miller tried to provide a fig leaf for it, but the fig leaf was itself a misrepresentation. Miller said Behe’s argument was in every respect a negative argument (and, further, that ALL the leading design theorists’ arguments he was aware of are purely negative, with nothing positive anywhere). Miller conceded that Behe’s irreducible complexity argument was testable, but said Behe’s inference to design doesn’t follow from irreducible complexity because Behe was committing the either/or fallacy–If not A (Darwinism), then it must be B (design). Miller said there were, in principle, an infinite number of other possible explanations, so jumping from a refutation of Darwinism to design was illegitimate.

He’s missing a crucial distinction by conflating Behe’s argument for ID with ID itself. The notion that an intelligent designer was involved is not in any way falsifiable. There is no conceivable set of data that could falsify that proposition. But specific arguments that purport to point to such a designer can be falsified, and it’s important to distinguish here between facts and theories. Behe’s argument offers both factual claims and a theoretical or explanatory claim. It goes like this:

Factual claim: Some biochemical systems are irreducibly complex, meaning that if you took out any single component of the system, the system would fail to function.

Factual claim: Irreducibly complex systems could not have evolved step by step because the intermediate or precursor systems would not have been functional.

Explanatory claim: Therefore, when we find an irreducibly complex system, we know that it must have been designed from scratch and came into existence all in one step.

Only the explanatory claim is an explicit statement in support of ID, but one can still falsify the argument if one shows that either of the two factual claims it is based upon is false. For instance, when we look at Behe’s example of the blood clotting cascade, we can falsify it simply by looking at the first factual claim. Is the blood clotting cascade irreducibly complex? The answer is no. There are animals who lack one of the components of the system, yet their blood clots just fine. Dolphins, for example, lack Hageman factor (or Factor 12). By Behe’s definition of irreducible complexity, this should be impossible. The fact that it’s not shows that this is not, in fact, an irreducibly complex system.

Likewise on the bacterial flagellum, Behe’s favorite example of irreducible complexity, the fact that one subset of the system works well for another function shows that the second factual claim in Behe’s argument is not necessarily true. We have lots of examples in molecular biology of components for one system being adapted or co-opted for use in a different system. Even Behe would admit as much. Lots of examples, for instance, of a given gene duplication resulting in the production of two proteins, one of which is then coopted for a different function in a system it was not originally involved with inside the organism. So when we see that the flagellum includes a subset that functions well in a different type of system, we can reasonably infer that perhaps it was coopted in exactly the same way. Add this to the fact that we in fact have multiple different types of flagella at work in the bacterial world, suggesting that rather than being irreducibly complex there are multiple different ways to get to the same result, and you have good reason to think that Behe’s second example fails because the second factual claim may well not be true.

So Miller is in fact correct when he says that ID is not falsifiable, while specific arguments for ID have been falsified. He’s also correct to say that there is not positive theory of ID, only a set of negative arguments or criticisms of evolution. As Miller points out, this is the either/or fallacy at work - “if not evolution, therefore God”. Witt tries to debunk this argument by pointing to positive statements from Of Pandas and People, but these are easily debunked. He writes:

“If experience has shown that a certain class of phenomena results from intelligent causes and then we encounter something new but similar, we conclude its origin also to be from an intelligent cause.”

It seems a reasonable argument, but the analogy is very poor for one obvious reason: we have no experience with supernatural designers. IDers love to make this analogy between human designers and the “intelligent designer” and to pretend that the “intelligent designer” doesn’t necessarily have to be supernatural, but that is completely false. Their own definition of ID shows this to be false, as I’ve argued many times without refutation (including DI’s John West, who ignored it completely). The DI’s own definition of ID says:

The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Their own definition combines biological ID with cosmological ID, which means the designer is responsible not only for living things, but for creating the universe itself. The DI’s writings on cosmological ID make clear that when they say “certain features of the universe”, they mean the nature of the universe itself - the nature of nature. This pretty much closes the door on their mantra-like citation of aliens as possible “intelligent designers”. If the argument is that the universe was designed with the ability to sustain life, invoking alien life as an explanation is clearly absurd - alien life would be an effect of that universal design, just as human life is, not a cause of it.

(Incidentally, let me add that I have no problem whatsoever with the claim that the universe is designed to support life. Indeed, this is something I agree with. I am a deist and I do believe that the universe was created with the attributes to allow life to begin, exist and evolve when the conditions are right. But not only does this have little to do with whether evolution is true or not, I would maintain that there is a tension between accepting cosmological ID and rejecting evolution. As my friend and colleague Howard Van Till likes to point out, the ID movement believes in a God who created the universe with the ability to sustain life, but did so poor a job of it that he had to continually intervene to make sure it happened.)

And I am not alone in making this argument. William Dembski himself has admitted that the intelligent designer could not be natural but must be supernatural, in an August 1998 article called The Act of Creation, published on ARN:

The complexity-specification criterion demonstrates that design pervades cosmology and biology. Moreover, it is a transcendent design, not reducible to the physical world. Indeed, no intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life.

So the only “positive statements” of ID “theory” that Witt can come up with are in fact weak inferences based upon a terrible analogy between objects designed by human beings and objects allegedly designed by a supernatural being unconstrained by the laws of nature. It is the invocation of the supernatural that makes ID outside the realm of science. Science does not deal with supernatural explanations, not because of an a priori rejection of the supernatural, but for the very practical reason that there is no means of testing such explanations, no means of distinguishing between true and false explanations of that type.

And because the history of science clearly shows that phenomena that we once believed could only be explained by the kindness or anger of God were eventually explained, through science, in purely natural terms. Where once we could only explain bad crops or disease as the result of God’s anger with us, or good crops and good health as proof of God’s pleasure with us, we now know the full range of environmental and microbial causes of those outcomes. Where once we could only explain earthquakes or hurricanes as proof of God’s judgement upon us, we now understand the natural causes of such events well enough to predict them with a high degree of accuracy.

And this points up exactly why supernatural claims are not falsifiable - because no matter what the outcome, it can be ascribed to God’s whims. Good crops or bad crops, good weather or natural disaster, sickness or health, all can be easily “explained” by reference to the whim of a supernatural being with the power to manipulate nature. But because we didn’t stop there, because we didn’t accept this unfalsifiable explanation and continued to search for solid and testable explanations for these natural phenomena, we now have modern medicine that has extended human lifespans greatly. We now have modern agriculture that feeds billions, and modern seismology and meteorology that saves countless lives through their ability to predict disasters before they happen.

Science is ruthlessly practical. Give scientists an explanation that works and they’ll run with it. But explanations that invoke the supernatural have never achieved anything in science, while rejecting those claims and continuing to search for natural explanations has literally transformed our world. Small wonder, then, that scientists - including that sizable portion of them who do believe that God, and therefore supernatural entities, does exist - insist upon continuing the search for natural explanations rather than giving up and accepting the untestable and unknowable as an explanation and thereby ending the search that has proven so fruitful in the past.

23 Comments

As Miller points out, this is the either/or fallacy at work - “if not evolution, therefore God”.

Yes! Do you know the line given to Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Sign of the Four? “[W]hen you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…” This is part and parcel of the strategy of the ID creationists. When evolution is “shown” to be impossible, then something as ridiculous as creationism (prettied up in its ID disguise, of course) wins by default. I wrote a brief rant on it a couple of weeks ago.

It never ceases to amaze me that someone could believe that all life was designed as-is, when there are so many absurd, bad, nonsensical, and just plain weird “designs” out there. By any standard of design, the biological world is pervasively populated by “designs” similar to the house the residents of Springfield built for Ned Flanders after his was destroyed in a hurricane. If there was a designer, it would have had to have been a committee with a huge budget, no mission statment, and zero oversight.

What Witt has overlooked is that the falsifiability of specific arguments offered to support a hypothesis does not mean that the hypothesis is itself falsifiable. For that to be the case, there has to be some imaginable test of the hypothesis itself, not just of a supplementary argument made for it - and as I’m sure many ID believers would insist, even if Behe’s argument were disproven to their satisfaction, that would not prove that life is not designed, only that IC is not a reliable criterion for the presence of design. When Behe and the like offer a test of intelligent design itself, then I’ll be willing to accept that they offer a falsifiable hypothesis.

Here we go again. I hope this time it sticks. At least for another 10 years–when ID will morph into The Flying Spagetti Monster!

And…Ed, You are awesome

Adam is basically correct. But I think it’s a bad idea to talk about falsifying arguments. Arguments are not true or false. It is statements/hypotheses/theories which are true or false. Arguments are valid or invalid. So it would be better to say that Behe’s argument has been shown to be invalid. That would make the distinction clearer.

He’s missing a crucial distinction by conflating Behe’s argument for ID with ID itself.

Examine the consequence of this conflation: if/when Behe’s ‘irreducibly complex’ examples can be falsified, then Witt will presumably consider IDC itself to be falsified. Right?

Has anyone ever looked at the meta-issue: how do we know something is factual or imagined, real or made up? Seems to me that dignifying ID by arguing the details misses the real point.

Here’s the entire report sent to James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” fans:

Intelligent Design Case gets Underway

“I guess I should say, ‘Class dismissed.’ “

That’s how federal Judge John E. Jones III reacted Monday to opening-day testimony in a landmark trial in Dover, Pa. – a case which could decide whether public schools must provide students information about intelligent design when they teach Darwinian evolution.

The suit was brought by eight families who object to the Dover school board’s mandate that students be presented with information on intelligent design – the first such mandate in the country. The challengers argue that intelligent design promotes the Bible’s view of creation.

Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller attempting to dazzle the judge, used a projection screen and flip-charts to make points that courtroom observed compared to a science lecture.

Patrick Gillen of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., who is defending the school district and its policy, says intelligent design merely discusses the fact that there is considerable evidence that the world was the product of an intelligence – and shows evidence of design. It does not draw conclusions about the nature of the “intelligence” behind the universe.

“This case is about free inquiry in education,” Gillen said, “not about a religious agenda.”

Did Miller shine his projector directly into Judge Jones’s eyes, or are all science lectures intrinsically dazzling?

Would someone please explain to me how Michael Behe’s arguments about irreducible systems have been explained by Darwinism?

Art Powell asked

Would someone please explain to me how Michael Behe’s arguments about irreducible systems have been explained by Darwinism?

The short version: By showing that Behe’s claim that such structures cannot evolve by ‘Darwinian’ mechanisms is false. See here for a collection of resources on the topic. Pay particular attention to this review and this one for overviews of the fallacies in Behe’s argument.

RBH

Shucks. I forgot to emphasize Pete Dunkelberg’s Irreducible Complexity Demystified. That’s among the best.

RBH

Over on the DI blog, Jonathan Witt just posted “Dembski’s Expert Testimony on Dover Trial”, which seems a bit odd if you consider the fact that Dembski isn’t testifying. After thumbing through Dembski’s “Rebuttal to Reports from Opposing Expert Witnesses”, I feel that all evolutionary biologists should feel grieved that he is not.

I am filled with glee that this trial is finally occurring. What frustrates me (still) is the fact that there is so much that *won’t* have to stand up and defend itself in court.

I’ve often found myself wondering if there isn’t something more proactive that defenders of evolution can do, instead of waiting for some school board to cross the legal line so that we can drag the whole mess into the bright lights of a court battle. The DI has proven its ability to cause a lot of damage and confusion without crossing that bright line. There must be a way to expose this stuff to scrutiny sooner.

–B. Spitzer

I’ve often found myself wondering if there isn’t something more proactive that defenders of evolution can do, instead of waiting for some school board to cross the legal line so that we can drag the whole mess into the bright lights of a court battle.

Here’s something I have been advocating for a long time now:

Most states in the US have, in the past years, either strengthened or added in their state curriculum standards a requirement that evolution be taught as a part of a good science education. While some states have very strong detailed standards and others have brief ambiguous ones, the fact remains that they have decided that evolution is an important part of biology and must be taught as part of any good science education.

Creationists, on the other hand, have still been able to intimidate many local schools into dropping mention of evolution as “too controversial”, and this local base of support is the only thing holding the creationists up right now.

So I propose we kill it.

I propose we find a state which has very strong detailed standards requiring evolution, find a district within that state which is NOT teaching evolution (either because the local school board “doesn’t believe in it” or because they “don’t want to offend parents” or because the subject is “too controversial”), and then sue them on the grounds that they are not meeting the state’s educational standards and are therefore, by the state’s own definition, providing a sub-standard science education to its students.

Here is why I think it’s a good tactic to take:

(1) we can’t lose. The district has no defense to offer —- they must meet the state standards, and they are not. Case closed.

(2) It will accomplish what we all have said for years that we want – it will get evolution into all our schools and textbooks, and it will make it impossible for creationists to intimidate or pressure anyone into keeping it out.

(3) it will establish the legal precedent that evolution is a standard part of any good science education and that any school which does not teach evolution (for whatever reason) is not meeting its obligation to teach good science.

(4) it will negate the fundie’s power in local school board elections by making those elections irrelevant to the issue – state school standards apply to every school in the state, and those districts MUST comply, no matter WHAT their local school board wants to do. Even if the fundies capture the entire local school board and they ALL vote to drop evolution, they can’t do it – they *must* comply with the state education standards.

(5) Winning in one district will establish the legal precedent, and force every school district in the state to comply. It will also send the message to all the other districts in other states, sicne they will all be equally vulnerable to such a lawsuit. At that point, the fundies will have a choice; they can either choose to contest us in each and every state, which will lead into a long drawn out legal fight for them which will drain their resources and disrupt their own plans, all for a fight that they cannot possibly win anyway; or they can choose to not waste their resources and to cede the field to us, giving up their influence in local districts. Either choice makes me happy. We win either way, they lose either way.

(6) such a strategy disrupts the fundies’ coherent national strategy. For too long, the fundies have been calling all the shots, free to pick and choose fights when and where they want, and the anti-creationist movement has just been following behind them, reacting to what they do. It’s time we stop being defensive with them and go on the attack, forcing them to react to *us*.

Interesting idea. I had thought that there was no legal impediment to teaching bad science, or to teaching science badly - that the only tool we had was when they crossed the establishment clause line. Was I wrong, or has that changed?

I think we probably need a lawyer on this one. It sounds a bit like suing states that have speed limits on the grounds that many drivers exceed it without the state apprehending them. I vaguely recall that state legislatures tend to stick far more stuff into the official curriculum than even the most advanced classes can cover in the time available. Some states have standardized tests the students must take periodically (maybe after 8th and 12th grades?) to demonstrate that the schools are actually educating anyone, and my experience has been that in these cases, the teachers “teach to the test”. In other words, if you want evolution covered, put a bunch of related questions on the standardized test. But in that case, you must decide which questions to remove, because the test is already as long as possible.

I doubt there is any state that could do more than the most cursory and useless job of “covering” everything they’re supposed to cover. Administrative discretion isn’t illegal, it’s a practical necessity.

On the other hand, let’s be optimistic and suppose that the courts can force the state to cover evolution. We might (very probably) run into the same situation we’re seeing with respect to pharmacists filling birth control prescriptions – many pharmacists refuse to do it on religious grounds, and several states have passed (or are considering) laws to protect the pharmacists against having to do their jobs. So we *might* end up with laws permitting teachers to refuse to teach evolution on religious grounds.

Here in Alabama, Judge Roy Moore is running hard for governor, and is considered a strong candidate. What sort of legislation do you suppose he’d suggest?

I’m a little uneasy with the idea of hitting school districts with lawsuits. That strategy would certainly intimidate schools into putting evolution into the classroom– and balance out the fact that they are often intimidated into taking it *out* of the classroom. However, 1) I’m not sure whether or not you’d have to have kids in a particular school to press a suit against that school, 2) it would certainly come across as high-handed, and would likely provoke a backlash, and 3) the schools already have too many problems and pressures to deal with. It’s an option, though, especially in districts where a majority of the public supports teaching evolution.

I don’t suppose that it’s possible to bring a defamation suit against the DI? That would be fun– a class-action defamation lawsuit on behalf of all evolutionary biologists. I don’t support we can point to any genuine “damages” other than annoyance, though.

Whether or not these legal options are viable, I definitely feel as though evolution education needs a more aggressive, media-savvy PR campaign. Something completely unconnected to humanism, and outgoing rather than merely defensive. And while hour-long “debates” aren’t productive, I wonder if a prolonged “mock trial”, where we would have time to dissect all of the ID arguments and get that bright light in there, would be more effective.

–Brian

I’m a little uneasy with the idea of hitting school districts with lawsuits.

Are you more comfortable with allowing them to censor our science that they don’t like?

That strategy would certainly intimidate schools into putting evolution into the classroom

It’s not “intimidation” – it’s “enforcing the law”. It is illegal to not follow state education standards. Period. Forcing them to follow the law by teaching what the standards require, is no more “intimidation” than is fining people for speeding.

Brian Spitzer said:

I’m a little uneasy with the idea of hitting school districts with lawsuits. … It’s an option, though, especially in districts where a majority of the public supports teaching evolution.

And so, in districts where a majority of the public don’t support evolution, and where therefore the district would be much more likely to be intimidated into NOT teaching evolution–and much more likely to need the prompting of a lawsuit–we would do what? Bow to the will of the majority, and just let the kids receive a watered-down education? Allow the minority of the public to have their constitutional rights violated?

It won’t be necessary to sue every recalcitrant school district. If science keeps winning the “test cases” against the truly dim school districts, the rest will get the message…

Lenny, you are asking for trouble. I know you think you have a good idea, and I know you won’t accept even legitimate doubts, but they exist anyway. NO teacher can cover everything in the curriculum, even with the most gifted students. Administrators understand this; they must pick and choose among the smorgasbord of “requirements” what they consider most important.

Nor are all the states particularly clear about what constitutes evolution, or how it should be taught. Different teachers can take wildly different angles on the same topics, sometimes truly bizarre. Heddle claims (if I recall correctly) that he has taught ID *as evolution* because he considers it self-evident.

Once again, I must repeat that the best approach is NOT a lawsuit. Lawsuits will cause lots of animosity, lots of bad publicity, lots of resentment. Perhaps some court can be persuaded to drop some other valuable lesson to cram in evolution “with all deliberate speed”, which means forever when whoever teaches it will catch hell from parents, students, school administrators, the local preachers, etc.

Instead, the way to get evolution taught is to emphasize it on the standardized tests like the New York State Regents Examination, or on the SAT. Get colleges to publicize that those whose background in evolution is strong will receive preferential admission consideration. Get some large employers to announce that they are moving to a state where the 19th century has been discovered, at a minimum. Rewards for teaching evolution work a LOT better than punishments for failure to teach it. The courts started demanding integration here in the South over 50 years ago. Still waiting…

This is a double-edged sword.

Most local districts retain at least nominal control over curriculum, and teachers are contracted to teach the district curriculum, not that of the state. Of course, in these days of assessments, there’s often little difference between the state and local curricula.

But … having local control is a plus when you teach in Kansas, and your IDiotic state school board hands down standards that your district won’t support.

So I’m not sure that suing districts for not following the state curriculum is quite the right approach. But, there’s gotta be a way …

I am looking for the e-mail address of prof Brian Spitzer, who reviewed Johnson’s “Darwin on Trial” on the talkdesign.org website. His e-mail address as given on that website is no longer active. I’d appreciate it if someone (perhaps Brian himself) will be so kind as to send the address to me privately.

Thanks and best wishes

Leon Retief Cape Town South Afica

Oops - I just noticed that my e-mail address is incorrect (blush) it should be [Enable javascript to see this email address.]

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This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on September 27, 2005 2:39 PM.

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