Can you hear me NOW?

I have a confession: although I am convinced that, at this stage of the game, the vast majority of ID’s claims are either consciously or unconsciously fraudulent, I sometimes find it hard not to feel empathy for some of its proponents. Perhaps because of his legitimate scientific training and past accomplishments, Behe in particular strikes me as worthy of compassion, someone who is often more deceived (by his fellow ID advocates, his Creationist groupies and adulators, and his own ego) than deceiver.

Although I was not there to see him, the transcripts of his appearance at the Kitzmiller trial make for compelling, almost tragic reading, transpiring with steadfast quasi-delusional self-assurance as the testimony unfolded into a progressively more predictable humiliating fiasco. This impression was reinforced when Behe confidently stated, on the ID-the-Future weblog, that as far as he was concerned his testimony was pretty much a smashing success (the need for such an act of unequivocal public reassurance, with the verdict still unknown and in the works, is in itself puzzling to me). I can just barely imagine what reading Judge Jones’ ruling must have felt like for Behe. Very clearly, his own claims were the centerpiece of the decision, and their surgical, at times merciless dismantling was the main motivation for the final decision that ID “science” is essentially a sham.

It took Behe some time to answer Judge Jones’s verdict, but his reply is surprisingly weak, at times almost whiny. Behe directly takes on 20 statements from the central, and crucial, part of Judge Jones’s decision, supporting its conclusion that ID is not science. Most often, Behe’s answers consist of simply repeating the arguments he made at trial, as if the Judge was just hard-of-hearing instead of utterly unconvinced by them. And when Behe does try to explain himself, the outcome is often worse.

Behe starts with addressing the Judge’s claim that ID, by invoking or admitting the supernatural, violates the scientific method, and promptly puts his foot in his mouth by saying ID “does no such thing”. This will come as a surprise to almost all other ID movement leaders (such as Dembski, Wells, Johnson, Meyer etc) who not only have explicitly called for science to dispense with methodological naturalism (with it in place, according to Dembski, ID has “no chance in Hades” to succeed), but are right now engaged in a political struggle over the Kansas science standards which revolves, in significant part, on the local ID advocates’ attempt to change the definition of science to implicitly admit the possibility of supernatural explanations. Oops.

Behe follows this faux pas with his now well known, but unsustainable analogy between ID and the Big Bang (clearly his new favorite mantra, clocking 6 independent appearances in the 10-page document!). Since the Big Bang theory, Behe says, has potential supernatural implications, ID should be allowed to do the same. But of course, this is nonsense: Big Bang Theory per se does no more admit the supernatural than evolutionary theory does (think theistic evolutionism, for instance). Unlike ID, Big Bang theory makes no claim about ultimate causation, but focuses only on the mechanisms that explain how the Universe has been expanding for the last 15 billion years, and still is. ID, on the other hand, is entirely a theory of ultimate causation (the Designer), but refuses steadfastly to speculate about mechanisms, indeed proudly claims to be unable to. Of course, one is free to philosophize about ultimate causation regarding any scientific theory, from evolutionary theory to plate tectonics, but only ID makes this speculation its centerpiece, at the expense of empirically testable mechanistic hypotheses, and still tries to call itself science.

Behe’s next reply, to Judge Jones’s observation that ID uses the same strategy of “contrived dualism” as scientific Creationism did in the 1980’s, is equally logically muddled, so much so that it actually makes the Judge’s point. I am going to quote it verbatim, since it’s short:

The dualism is “contrived” and “illogical” only if one confuses ID with creationism, as the Court does. There are indeed more possible explanations for life than Darwinian evolution and young earth creation, so evidence against one doesn’t count as evidence for the other. However, if one simply contrasts intelligent causes with unintelligent causes, as ID does, then those two categories do constitute a mutually exclusive and exhaustive set of possible explanations. Thus evidence against the ability of unintelligent causes to explain a phenomenon does strengthen the case for an intelligent cause.

Let’s leave aside that the Judge’s purported “confusion” stems in fact from the abundant, striking evidence emerged at trial about the politically opportunitistic sudden emergence of ID from Creation Science in the late 1980s, and from the demonstrable substantial, if not complete overlap of their arguments. Behe here seems to be unaware that the contrivance is precisely the conflation, which Behe repeats in this paragraph, of “Darwinian evolution” with all unintelligent causes. Of course, this is preposterous: we already know of many naturalistic theories of evolution which are potential alternatives to Darwinian evolution, and which do not require “intelligent causes”, such as Lamarckism and various forms of structuralism and self-organization theories, for example. Several ID advocates and supporters have even spoken very positively of some of them, pointing out how strongly, in their opinion, they challenge the Darwinian “status quo”.

Behe’s own clear focus on selectively disproving Darwinian mechanisms (not “unintelligent processes” as a whole), whether successful or not, would therefore do nothing in and of itself to counter those alternatives or support ID, in the absence of the contrived dualism approach. (In reality, the shrewd reader would realize that there is yet another layer of contrived conflation at play in Behe’s work: the subsuming of the whole of evolutionary theory under the rubric of “Darwinian mechanisms”, when the latter are only a part, though an important one, of the former.) To be fair to Behe, the other prominent ID advocate to have tackled this problem, Dembski, does even worse than him, conflating every non-intelligent mechanism into the “chance” category (of course, Dembski did not testify at Dover, so we cannot know how he would have addressed the many scathing critiques of his methods, including that of counter-expert and PT contributor Jeff Shallit, but Behe cannot fault the Judge for ignoring the arguments of a witness who hastily bailed out of the trial).

Behe clearly knows that contrived dualism, while useful for lay public consumption, is a losing proposition scientifically, because he later directly contradicts himself :

In the history of science no successful theory has ever demonstrated that all rival theories are impossible, and neither should intelligent design be held to such an unreasonable, inappropriate standard. Rather, a theory succeeds by explaining the data better than competing ideas.

In other words, ID does not stand in opposition of a single, vague, artificial category of “unintelligent mechanisms”, but to a number of potential independent theories, and cannot address them all. ID therefore cannot, even in principle, gain ground by negative argumentation against Darwinian mechanisms alone. Positive evidence for an empirically investigatable alternative explanation based specifically on ID principles is required, and so far is sorely lacking.

Things shift to comedy when Behe complains that his “biochemical arguments against Darwinism” cannot be considered to have been refuted by the scientific community, as Judge Jones claims, because he “strongly disagrees” they have. In other words, Behe raises himself as the ultimate arbiter of the refutation of his own claims: as long as he “strongly disagrees” that they have been refuted, they haven’t, and that’s that. It seems to escape Behe that the same logic would apply to his own claims against “Darwinism”: as long as a single “Darwinist” held fast in his/her belief, no matter if every other biologist had since converted to ID, Darwinian theory would apparently stand unrefuted. Alas, science is a communal enterprise, and it is the community of scientists which decides which claims are refuted, and which stand. They do so mostly by voting with their own hands, so to speak: scientists will choose to use in their daily work, to formulate new hypotheses, to design experiments and to pursue intellectually, those claims they think are valid, and ignore those that are not. In this respect, the contrast between the vibrant field of evolutionary biology, with its continuous stream of publications and its numerous applications (in biotechnology, genomics, medicine, etc), and ID, which by Behe’s own admission has generated close to nothing in terms of scientific output of any kind (including non-peer-reviewed works), could not be starker and more damning.

Behe’s response goes on pretty much like this for the whole 10 pages: he repeats his trial claims as if repetition made them more convincing, freely contradicts himself and other ID advocates, and occasionally appears simply befuddled that the Judge would not see things his way. At one point, he says he considered being challenged with a large amount of literature on immune system evolution “bad courtroom theatre”, and complains he did not have a chance to read the stuff, as if a thorough knowledge of the relevant literature was not required before making his claims about the nature of the evidence for immune system evolution. Behe’s tone then almost drifts to petulance, asking:

How can the Court declare that a stack of publications shows anything at all if the defense expert disputes it and the Court has not itself read and understood them?

ignoring that the Court has very good reasons to trust the word of dozens of experts in the field, writing in peer-reviewed publications, prominent textbooks etc, when they explicitly discuss the evolution of the immune system, especially in the absence of any evidence of the contrary by the “expert witness”, who by his own admission didn’t even read the material himself (nor, bizarrely, even asked to, which I believe would have been his prerogative).

Similarly, Behe insists, as he did at trial, with the bizarre notion that a text search for key phrases such as “random mutation” should be taken as a reliable indicator of whether a paper addresses Darwinian mechanisms or not, even though during his testimony it was shown that some of the “failing” papers in fact went even further, discussing specific mutation mechanisms, such as transposition. (As someone who has to read content-thick science papers essentially on a daily basis, I just wish it were so simple to judge the literature’s relevance to a topic.)

I can’t really go through the entire response, but here is one more nugget: in section 19, Behe strongly argues that, since the “appearance of design” in biology is, in Richard Dawkins’s and most biologists’ opinion, overwhelming, the recognition of “purposeful arrangement of parts” as a telltale sign of design cannot be considered simply subjective. But of course it can: just because our brains are wired in such a way to “see” purpose in phenomena occurring around us, it doesn’t mean that actual purpose exists in them, just like the fact that our brains are wired to “see” human faces in simple arrangements of lines or natural objects does not make the Face on Mars a bona fide human face depiction. The distinction between “subjective” vs. “objective” does not depend on the distribution or relative abundance of opinions: only one century ago, essentially 100% of human beings, including all scientists, agreed with the overwhelming appearance of immobility of continents on the surface of the Earth, but objective evidence has since shown that theirs was just a subjective, if unanimous, impression.

Going back to my original expression of empathy for Behe, I find myself wondering how I can harbor such feelings for someone who is so obviously wrong, so often, and so unrepentantly. In large part, I have decided, it’s an issue of “There but for the grace of God go I”. As scientists, we are trained to apply as much objectivity and detachment as possible, but also to be strongly argumentative and ambitious. We are told to resist the pull of our egos, trying to keep enough distance between our analytical abilities and our very own theories and ideas not to be sucked into whirlpools of self-perpetuating error and delusion, and on the other hand we are also encouraged to stand up for what we believe is true, regardless of how strong the opposition, as the more numerous and vocal the opponents, the sweeter and more rewarding the vindication and final recognition. It is a hard equilibrium to maintain, and occasionally we all, to some degree, fail one way or another. The trick is being able to tell when enough is enough.

Anyway, Behe is at least correct in his conclusion, when he says that “the realities of biology… are not amenable to adjudication”. If this statement in fact signaled the end of the political-legal strategy for placing ID in science classes before it makes it into science journals, at some point in the future it may end up sounding less irony-deaf than it does now.