"Intro to ID" by Gonzalez at U of Northern Iowa

Things were hoppin’ last night in Cedar Falls for DI fellow Guillermo Gonzalez’s talk. I have about 6 pages of notes from the lecture and subsequent Q&A period here, so if yu’re interested in the nitty-gritty, read below. For anyone who just wants the newspaper version, I’ll try to provide a link to the story when it’s published. My thoughts are in italics below.

Edited to add: Not chance, but design, ISU professor says from the Des Moines Register (thanks, Jason Spaceman); ISU professor argues for intelligent design, from the Ames Tribune.

Additionally, wanted to add that the next Sigma Xi lecture, Thursday, Oct. 27, will present the other side of the ID argument, when John Staver, professor of science education and director of the Center for Science Education at Kansas State University, will speak on “Evolution vs. Intelligent Design: It’s Time to Saddle Up and Draw a Hard Line.”

The lecture took place in a pretty big lecture hall. I heard the seating capacity was 265, and all seats were full by 6:55 or so for the 7PM lecture. Others stood at the back or sat in the aisles, so there must have been at least 300 people there.

The title of his talk was, “What is ID?” He opened by saying what ID is not:

creationism (doesn’t start with religious premises–rather, uses evidence of nature)(uh-huh. What about the Panda’s and People text? More on that in the questions.)

natural theology

a theory of mechanism

cannot ID a designer uniquely

not “Christian plot” or conspiracy theory

Then he went on to say what ID is:

research program to answer scientific questions (such as “does nature display evidence of design?” (I thought that was already an assumption? A bit of circular reasoning here?)

Design detection

Testable and falsifiable

He went on to discuss “modern ID,” and mentioned two texts: Denton (1986), Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, and Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, Mystery of Life’s Origins (I might not have those names or title right–I don’t see that one in Amazon). He claimed ID is about specified complexity, then went on to talk about IC, giving the mousetrap example. (man, it was painful to listen to him talk about evolution.) He explained that IC items cannot be explained by direct Darwinian pathways, and that there is no direct evidence for indirect pathways that they may have evolved along. He noted that the flagella is an “icon” for ID, and said that the way to test for IC is just to do knockout experiments and see if it eliminates function.

He next talked about areas of ID focus in biology, which include the origin of life; origin of biological information (DNA); the Cambrian explosion; the origin of IC systems and machines; protein folding and assembly specificity (he kept mentioning Axe over and over throughout the talk–I really wish I’d boned up on the criticisms to Axe’s work beforehand); and convergence. Here he mentioned that Simon Conway Morris endorsed Gonzalez’s book. I’m only passingly familiar with him, so I wasn’t exactly sure what point this made here–is it related to convergence, or just the fact that another scientist supported him?

At this point, he went into Dembski’s Design Inference, and he made a big deal out of this being a “peer-reviewed” book. He then talked about specified complexity. He said that IC is a special case of SC–an indicator of activity of an intelligent agent, and used SETI (man, does he love that SETI example), archaeology, and forensics as examples. He then trotted out the Mt. Rushmore example, and said that complexity plus specificity always are a sign of intelligence.

Next he touched on the explanatory filter. Again, used the example of Contact and SETI (poor Sagan must be rolling in his grave). He asks first, do we have contingency? If yes, do we have complexity? If no, it’s chance. If yes, go on to ask–do we have specificity? If no, it’s again chance; if yes, then we can infer design. (I was looking around at this point; the crowd reaction was hilarious. Some literal jaw-drops, lots of laughing, and generally a group of people that weren’t swayed by the BS). The reaction was even better when he half-described Dembski’s calculations, and threw out his 10 to the 150th-power figure. I swear I heard guffaws.

After this, he went on to talk about modern ID and cosmology, beginning again with the timeline of this movement. He listed Henderson’s Fitness of Environment (1913) as a seminal text (Huh? I thought ID was “new”). Brown and Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) was another one. He then described the areas of focus of modern ID in physics:

Fine-tuning for life: constants in physics, forms of laws of physics, etc.

Properties of carbon and water

Fine-tuning of local parameters; requirements for habitability. These are often discussed in the context of the anthropic principle.

Fine-tuning implies our universe is highly improbably. Ergo, design.

He talked about “rare earth” theories a bit then–the idea that complex life is rare. This alone isn’t enough to implicate design, though–it could be due to chance. Here’s where his Privileged Planet theory comes in. (And of course, he had plenty of DVDs there for everyone to buy as well).

So, TPP. In a nutshell, the same rare conditions that make the planet habitable also make it a great place for scientific measurement and discovery. He then mentioned that his book was funded by the Templeton foundation on a cosmology and fine-tuning grant, and claims he used methodological naturalism to collect evidence and examples of his “correlation”. (Whoopie!!) Examples include eclipses, planet neighbors, stars, galactic location, plate tectonics, transparency of atmosphere, cosmic time (?), and a fine-tuned cosmos. For example, there is a circumstellar habitable zone in which it is possible to have life. This determines the apparent size of the sun from earth. Having a large moon is also necessary for life, and this makes it more likely to have an eclipse. The earth is the most habitable place in the solar system, and also the most likely to see solar eclipses. Therefore, our existence on earth is linked to our ability to see solar eclipses. This link is established at the level of the laws of physics. (At least he sounded better talking about this stuff than he did about evolution). So, the pattern (from his n of 1) is that observers plus good conditions for observing go together. And, he’s “not a crackpot” (oh yeah, he said that) for saying that, because Kepler and Blumenberg observed the same thing.

He thinks that ID will be a paradigm shift–that it will shake metaphysical assumptions. He ended with that, then we went on to questions.

Some notable ones:

Q: why did you choose your 2 features (habitability + observability?) How does the “intrinsic value” (he mentions this in his book) get defined? A: for the “how did you choose” portion, he basically repeated what he’d already said in his lecture. For the “value” one, he said that everyone thinks astrobiology is a valid question. Answering a qustion about life elsewhere has intrinsic value. (Again, begging the question a bit here?)

Q: How to know when something is specific? A: he discussed pattern matching, and the necessity to bring in “background knowledge” of the item you’re trying to match it to.

Q: Link between design and intelligence. Is it intelligence? How do you study the designer? A: we have lots of experience with designed things. Even when we don’t see a designer, we infer design. We do this with ID but can’t ID the designer.

Q: You mentioned in the first slight that anti-ID people “mischaracterize” ID as religion or creationism. In light of the Wedge document and the use of “creationism” as a placeholder in the ID text “Pandas and Peoples” by ID-supportive authors, why do you still consider this a mischaracterization? A: ID stands alone, with or without its cultural implications. Brought up Dawkin’s quote about being an “intellectually fulfilled atheist,” asked if that makes Darwinism wrong. Religious views are irrelevant. (And yet his biggest criticism about Hector Avalos is that he’s an atheist!! My, the hypocrisy…) It’s not re-packaged creationism, because there was a 1987 court case (anyone know which one he’s talking about? I didn’t catch the names) and ID was already beginning before then.

He didn’t really address the “Pandas and People” item, but suggested that anyone who said ID was creationism was just a conspiracy theorist.

Q: What discoveries would falsify ID? A: for him–finding another planet with life but not good observability; finding life not based on carbon and water. Falsifying the bacterial flagella as IC for Behe, he claims.

Q: Some stuff I missed here on the philosophy of science, but then asked if one could make inductive arguments from ID. A: “Is SETI scientific?” (Told you he loved the SETI example) He kept asking that question over and over, not answering the question. It was pretty great–allowed everyone to see him evade. The guy beside the one who’d asked the question started clapping when they finally made Gonzalez stop asking about SETI, with a shout of “way to not answer the question!”

Q: “So now we have a theory that can explain everything?” (Audience laughs) A: TPP makes a specific prediction about finding supernovae. Predicted gamma ray bursts are standard candles (? There was still audience chatter and I couldn’t hear all of this answer).

Q: I’m an ecologist. A problem we run into is that it’s often easy to find what you’re looking for, even if it doesn’t exist. For instance, bats see Mt Rushmore as designed to provide roosting space. How do you deal with this? A: There’s a chapter in the book dealing with it. (There was some more back-n-forth here, where Gonzalez tried to mischaracterize her stance, then went back to the SETI thing. The questioner stuck to topic, saying “design is in the eye of the beholder,” with another person chiming in asking if the earth was designed for cockroaches. Almost as good as the philosophy exchange.)

Q: haven’t Behe’s IC systems already been refuted? A: Behe has a website dealing with that. I’m not a biologist.

There was also a question asking him when he came to believe ID, but that didn’t catch him on anything. Not as good as Jon Stewart’s question to Dembski.

Q: hy invoke ID–bad science, god of the gaps, made-up patterns. Is it only to feel comfortable? A: (Gonzalez was obviously testy here) That’s not specific enough. (He didn’t elaborate further)

Q: Lynn Margulis and symbiotic evolution–she suggests the flagella may have been a free-living spirochete that got co-opted. Might IC be explained by other examples like that? A: I’m not a biologist, but biologists need to be more open-minded.

Q: what are the practical applications of ID? A: (this one was great): if the universe is designed, that’s a truth of the universe we can know. This may lead us to ask other questions and look at the evidence more carefully.

(Yes, that’s really what he said).

There were a few other minor Q&As which I might put up later…have to run and wanted to get this out there. Overall, a rather entertaining night, but having seen him in person, I have even less respect and more incredulity for Gonzalez’s ideas.