My letter to New Scientist

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In the 16 December issue of New Scientist, there was an editorial (“It’s still about Religion”, subscription required) and an article “The God Lab” (free access), which investigated the Biologic Institute, an institute that was set up with money from the Discovery Institute supposedly to do laboratory work into Intelligent Design. Not surprisingly, the Biologic Institute does not come out well. On the 13th of January, Douglas Axe, Brendan Dixon and Ann Gauger wrote a letter (subscription required) addressing the editorial, saying they are convinced that Intelligent Design will lead to good science, but they won’t talk until their research is finished. I wrote a letter myself in response, but it didn’t make it into either the print or web letters. For the record, here is my unpublished letter.

Douglas Axe, and fellow members of the Biologic Institute claim that they are doing science (Letters 13 January Pg 18), and that they insist on completing their research projects before talking about them. However, this has not stopped their sponsors, the Discovery Institute from funding and distributing glossy DVD’s on Intelligent Design to schools, promoting Intelligent Design in various political fora, nor from funding expensive (and ultimately disastrous) legal forays to support teaching of Intelligent Design in High Schools. Indeed, their admission that only now, 16 years after the beginning of the Intelligent Design movement, are they beginning to get around to doing any research at all is a damning indictment of the movement.

In contrast, Stanley Prusiner, who came up with the truly heretical idea that the scrapie agent was a self-replicating protein (prions), had published over 250 papers alone, and won a Noble Prize in less than 16 years. Hundreds of more papers were produced by others in the same time frame, in a fruitful research program. And yet the concept of prions was a truly radical and unpopular one, striking at some of our central notions of how cells work. That the Intelligent Design movement has failed to do any scientific research themselves yet, let alone inspire other to do research, shows the intellectual and scientific vacuity of intelligent design.

Disclaimer, Ian Musgrave is a chapter contributor to Why Intelligent Design Fails (reviewed New Scientist 17 July 2004, p 47)

Now there is not much you can go into with a letter to the editor. I was pretty gobsmacked by this statement from Axe and co.

If that [the ability of nature to produce complex systems without intelligent input] is wrong - and we think it is - whole new fields open up, waiting to be explored. Perhaps neurobiologists would learn something from computer designers and network whizzes. Maybe systems biologists would start hanging out with systems engineers.

Where have these people been? Engineers, computer scientists and biologists have been hanging out together for as long as the respective disciplines have existed. At just one local university, people are studying visual systems of insects to improve robotic vision and motion sensors. To quote from one of the researchers here:

How has the brain evolved to optimally extract the features from scenes that are most relevant to the behavior adopted?.……We adopt a wide variety of techniques drawn from biology, computer science and engineering to augment our basic neurophysiological approach to studying this system.

And there are hundreds, if not thousands of collaborations like this around the world. In many cases, evolutionary biology has informed engineering, just like the evolutionary algorithms that are used to design aircraft wings and antenna. Computer designers have been working with neurobiologists for decades (what about brain cells on a chip).

If Douglas Axe and his co-signers are so badly misinformed about something as basic and well known as the relations between engineers, computer designers and biologists, can we trust their judgment on any research that comes out of this Institute?

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What's the matter with New Scientist? Check out Ian Musgrave's smackdown of Douglas Axe and the Biologic Institute is good stuff. If Douglas Axe and his co-signers are so badly misinformed about something as basic and well known as the... Read More

28 Comments

Well said! But is it any surprise? Intelligent Design arose from the ashes of the creationist movement after it had crashed and burned in the courts. Basically, they stripped out any references to God while still searching for evidence of a Creator whose name they now dare not speak. It must be a bit like trying to develop a germ theory of disease when you aren’t allowed to say anything about the microbes themselves.

When are those twits at the DI going to realise that they need to actually do research into design, not evolution.

Very good letter. A minor correction. Prusiner was not the first person to suggest that prions are solely proteins. Someone else actually made the suggestion in, I believe, an anonymous lettet published in the Lancet. Prusiner deserves all the credit he has received for his determined and creative pursuit of the hypothesis.

A very tiny nit: It’s Stanley, not Stanely.

I refuse to believe Axe is unaware of the cooperation between biologists, programmers and engineers. The error here seems to be common: interpreting a creationist’s statement in light of the evidence, rather than in light of the intended PR goals. The goal of Axe’s statement seems fairly clear: to convince the target audience (guaranteed not to know better) that ID is “real science”, that results are forthcoming Real Soon Now, and that Traditional Scientists have overlooked an important synergy because they are too hidebound. None of which has to be true; only persuasive. If it were both true AND persuasive, it could not be creationism.

“If that [the ability of nature to produce complex systems without intelligent input] is wrong - and we think it is - whole new fields open up, waiting to be explored. Perhaps neurobiologists would learn something from computer designers and network whizzes. Maybe systems biologists would start hanging out with systems engineers.”

Interesting… It would spawn a whole new discipline. Something that involved biology and information. You could call it bioinformatics

Wait, isn’t that the subject my sister has a master’s degree in? Can’t be.

I see someone has already been sent to the gulag …silly boy didn’t read the memo.

. . Last week I learned that following his communication with New Scientist, Weber has left the board of the Biologic Institute. Douglas Axe, the lab’s senior researcher and spokesman, told me in an email that Weber “was found to have seriously misunderstood the purpose of Biologic and to have misrepresented it”. Axe’s portrayal of the Biologic Institute’s purpose excludes religious connotation. He says that the lab’s main objective “is to show that the design perspective can lead to better science”, although he allows that the Biologic Institute will “contribute substantially to the scientific case for intelligent design”.

So “the purpose of Biologic “ is not to mention ..er Intelligent Design?

Time for brand renewal and a new slogan that doesn’t use the words Intelligent or Design.….Smart Plan?

He says that … the Biologic Institute will “contribute substantially to the scientific case for intelligent design”.

It’s almost as if they know what their research will find before they even do it. So why do the research? Oh yeah, they don’t.

Until there’s evidence that intelligent design is a more productive way of learning biology than communicating with extraterrestrials we should invest equally in the two alternatives. I believe that the scientific community agrees on what that level of investment should be.

k.e., nice catch. But I think they will try harder for “Critical Analysis” (“Teach the Controversy”) now.

It will be fun to speculate about what their next failure will mean. Will it be “Creative Ideas” (aka “Optimistic Thinking”) next time?

It must be a bit like trying to develop a germ theory of disease

Except that they don’t do predictive theories; they are the DIsease.

I refuse to believe Axe is unaware of the cooperation between biologists, programmers and engineers.

Remember the experience these folks have had: numerous engineers have flocked to the Intelligent Design movement (And I am thankful for those who have not), but ID has precious few biologists, and even fewer competent biologists.

It does look like they intend to do some serious science for a change:

The God Lab Article Wrote:

According to Axe, the projects currently under way at Biologic include “examining the origin of metabolic pathways in bacteria, the evolution of gene order in bacteria, and the evolution of protein folds”.

The real question is whether they will add some value, or just produce future citations for nut cases.

Time for brand renewal and a new slogan that doesn’t use the words Intelligent or Design.….Smart Plan?

“Sudden Appearance”. Once it has been proven that (of course) evolution cannot possibly account for innovative biological features, those features can be explained by “Sudden Appearance”. Why did they suddenly appear? Was it because of a Designer? Gosh, we don’t know! They just appeared, that’s all! It’s not my task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories, that’s not the kind of theory Sudden Appearance is.

If that [the ability of nature to produce complex systems without intelligent input] is wrong - and we think it is - whole new fields open up, waiting to be explored. Perhaps neurobiologists would learn something from computer designers and network whizzes. Maybe systems biologists would start hanging out with systems engineers.

Did Axe actually say the words “the ability of nature”? The reason I ask is that the usual ID phrasing is “the ability of natural selection”. Of course, depending on whom they are trying to fool, they will occasionally admit that there already are non-IDer scientists who do think that “natural selection alone” cannot accomplish what IDers assert it cannot. Scientists who don’t pretend that we know everything that “nature” can and cannot do. And like the “network whizzes” Axe has in mind, know something about math and computers, and their applicaton to biology. How do IDers deal with such people? For at least one, Stuart Kauffman, they tried to pass him off as “just another Darwinists” and “a fellow dissenter from ‘Darwinism’.”

It must be nice to be able to have everything both ways.

In contrast, Stanley Prusiner, who came up with the truly heretical idea that the scrapie agent was a self-replicating protein (prions), had published over 250 papers alone, and won a Noble Prize in less than 16 years.

great gravy-soaked FSM, that’s over a paper a month! does that man have caffeine instead of blood plasma, or was the number a typo?

Ian H Spedding Wrote:

Intelligent Design arose from the ashes of the creationist movement after it had crashed and burned in the courts. Basically, they stripped out any references to God while still searching for evidence of a Creator whose name they now dare not speak. It must be a bit like trying to develop a germ theory of disease when you aren’t allowed to say anything about the microbes themselves.

Is anyone but me ever going to get it?

Much more importantly, ID, or whatever you call its immediate precursor (e.g. the early “Pandas” drafts), arose from the ashes of the creationist movement after it crashed and burned as science. Not only did YEC and OEC claims fail the tests, they suffered from a growing awareness of their irreconcilable differences. Omitting the Creator’s identity or even the word “creator” was a piece of cake compared to having to provide a “theory” in which you aren’t allowed to ask or tell what the creator did or when, let alone how.

Nomen Nescio Wrote:

great gravy-soaked FSM, that’s over a paper a month! does that man have caffeine instead of blood plasma, or was the number a typo?

No. Actually, looking at the pace of the publication, it is quite interesting. First Prusiner has a small group, and publishes about once every three months, then there is a batch of three papers published in one month, another break, then another batch. The group begins to grow, and the pace steps up during 82 and 83, throttles back in 84 to about 1 every three months, accelerates again in 1985 to around one a month (although reviews start appearing more often now) and by 1995, with a large group of researchers this had stabilized to about two papers a month.

In the first five years, when almost no one believed him and he was getting significant flack, he was publishing roughly one paper4 every month and a half. Of course, he had a research group, so he wasn’t doing this on his lonesome (but he still must have had a serious caffeine addiction even so). The point is, even when nobody believed him, he still got his (then) highly unorthodox ideas published in peer-reviewed papers.

Now, Behe (as the only current example of any ID promoter who has even marginally tried to test their ideas) has no group as such, he occasionally publishes with one or two co-authors but usually it’s just him. Since 1995, when he published “Darwin’s Black Box” Behe has managed only one peer-reviewed paper even vaguely relevant to ID (and even that shows, in the complete absence of selection, that complex binding sites can form in evolutionarily relevant time scales, hardly an ringing endorsement of ID). Behe was involved in ID long before DBB was published, so he had some lead time to establish an experimental regime.

I don’t expect paper output on a Pruisner scale, but one paper, which doesn’t even put a crimp in evolutionary biology, let alone support ID, in 11 years has to be pretty sad. It can’t be prejudice of the system, Prusiner managed to publish in the face of complete and utter disbelief.

It does look like they intend to do some serious science for a change:

The God Lab Article wrote:

According to Axe, the projects currently under way at Biologic include “examining the origin of metabolic pathways in bacteria, the evolution of gene order in bacteria, and the evolution of protein folds”.

The real question is whether they will add some value, or just produce future citations for nut cases.

Rust never sleeps.

They apply that new scientific tool the Machiavellian Scalpel.

It’s all part of the 5-25 year plan for their dear leader (blessed be his meme). In the mean time a bunch of sleazy hacks get paid by the robbers of the great unwashed to preserve the established rule of mammon.

Now here is the best bit …they have to publish their papers without mention of ID (aka Dover Blow Back) or the dear leader Mr. Megabucks Homophobe Twinkly Star Fairy.

So the best they can do is say nothing happened by chance …say at least in 50% of the time and the rest of the time it WAS the dear leader Mr. Megabucks Homophobe Twinkly Star Fairy (who they can’t mention).

The final product will be burned to millions of DVD’s and sold at a prophet to all the Red Jesus Madrases.

Thats Nobel, not noble prize, surely?

Coin Wrote:

those features can be explained by “Sudden Appearance”.

Brilliant! It could “Poof!” both features and species. Of course, they also need the complement “Sudden Disappearance”.

Um, wait. Two theories could mean two poofters … Hmm.

Of course, they also need the complement “Sudden Disappearance”.

Well, disappearances can be sudden, so no problem there. ;)

And on a side note, migration from elsewhere can produce the appearance of sudden appearance. So to speak.

Another thought - seems to me that the earliest known fossils will also have the appearance of sudden appearance. (If something earlier gets found, it just takes the place of the earlier earliest one. Even if “earlier earliest” does sound funny.)

Henry

Henry J wrote

And on a side note, migration from elsewhere can produce the appearance of sudden appearance. So to speak.

Which is pretty much what Eldredge and Gould argued in their original PE paper – small isolated populations evolve relatively fast, and then in a very short (geologically unresolvable) time over-spread the range of the original parent population, giving the appearance of sudden appearance in that range. They actually offer examples in their original paper identifying the fossil series from the small isolated population in a species of trilobites and one of snails, IIRC, and describing the subsequent overspread to the range of the parent population.

RBH

Henry J Wrote:

And on a side note, migration from elsewhere can produce the appearance of sudden appearance.

Let me guess: New species migrate in from heaven and failed species go to hell. :-)

Henry J Wrote:

If something earlier gets found, it just takes the place of the earlier earliest one. Even if “earlier earliest” does sound funny.

It is the difference between choosing the minimum of the set of found fossils and searching the infimum of the set of possible fossils. Even if “the set of possible fossils” does sound funny. ;-)

Let me guess: New species migrate in from heaven and failed species go to hell. :-)

This theory could have significant impact on our understanding of environmental science. The implication is that species are not “going extinct” as darwinist environmentalists will tell you; rather, the species are simply Suddenly Disappearing.

The Endangered Species Act, thus, is based on flawed logic.

Re “The implication is that species are not “going extinct” as darwinist environmentalists will tell you; rather, the species are simply Suddenly Disappearing.”

And the difference is…? ;)

Henry

The difference is, that if species are going extinct because of us we might have some moral responsibility to do something about it. If they are Suddenly Disappearing due to the will of the Intelligent Designer, then obviously we can carry on driving our SUVs and destroying fragile ecosystems with no moral qualms whatsoever.

The Intelligent Designer loves beetles and HATES the Yangtze river dolphin.

Re “The difference is, that if species are going extinct because of us we might have some moral responsibility to do something about it. If they are Suddenly Disappearing due to the will of the Intelligent Designer,”

Yes, there’s a difference in the described causes, but the phrases “going extinct” and “suddenly disappearing” could be exchanged in your note without changing its meaning.

Henry

Ian, I also sent NewScientist a letter in response to the letter published by Axe, Dison and Gauger. Since it is not too long, I take the liberty of pasting the full text:

Sir,

I feel that Douglas Axe, Brendan Dixon and Ann Gauger of the Biologic Institute (Letters, p18, New Scientist 13 Jan 07) are either labouring under a misapprehension or are seeking to mislead your readership.

First, their paraphrase of the question posed by New Scientist: “can the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) lead to good science?”(1). This is a non-scientific use of the word “theory”. ID is speculation. It does not have the rigour of a scientific hypothesis, and it is leagues away from meriting the term “theory” in a scientific context.

Second, I find their “scientific caution” extraordinary. I have never met a scientist who was not keen to talk about their research with anyone who showed an interest. Since this topic is of such interest to the media and the public, I would have expected them to leap at the chance to share how ID is being turned into productive scientific inquiry.

Third, they criticise the accusation that ID is no more than a critique of what they call “Darwinism” (by which I presume they mean evolutionary theory). Yet publications in support of ID are certainly not contributing new science. Every publication expounding ID has been demonstrated to be, at best, sloppy scholarship, or, at worst, deliberately misleading. For examples of criticism of the work of two leading Discovery Institute fellows, I refer you to these web pages: http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives[…]tically.html http://www.talkorigins.org/design/faqs/nfl/ http://talkdesign.org/cs/index.php?[…]hat_response

Furthermore, Axe, Dixon and Gauger compare processes that occur in nature to the way in which human ingenuity has performed approximately similar processes, while ignoring the facts that both the way in which these processes occur and the hardware that bring them about differ hugely between natural and man-made processes. (Here, I use the term “natural” as an opposite to “artificial”, not as an opposite to “supernatural”).

Fourth, they claim that “[w]hat humans accomplish only by intellectual effort, nature puts to shame by mindless accident, we are told.” This is the “straw man” logical fallacy. The “mindless accident” is the random nature of mutation and recombination. They ignore the not-so-accidental selection that acts upon the variation brought about by the “mindless accident”.

Finally, they seem unaware of the fact that ID has been proved in a court of law to be no more than Christian apologetics in a new suit.

I do sincerely hope that the intention of the Biologic Institute is to conduct objective scientific inquiry. Then they will see that the entire ID edifice is built on sand. I feel it is a shame that they do not trust the existing corpus of work pointing this out.

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