CURSES! Foiled again!

Vizzini copy.JPGIt looks like my latest “Darwinist scheme” fell straight into Jonathan Witt’s clever trap.

See, in his recent response to my post about the parallelisms between Percival Lowell’s and modern ID advocates’ arguments, Witt says that he didn’t originally mention Lowell’s failed design inference on purpose, because

… knowing how irrational some ultra-Darwinists can be, I knew some of them would raise the objection anyway, and in the process, perform invaluable rhetorical work for the cause of intelligent design.

I tell you, these guys are just too smart for us!

Alas, when it comes to actually showing how “invaluable” the rhetorical work that I supposedly did for him was, Witt just has to resort to putting words in my mouth, to do for me the work he claimed I was supposed to have done for him on my own.
(I know: Never mess with a Sicilian…)

Witt repeatedly tells his readers that my post intended to draw a parallel between Lowell and the modern ID advocates in order to imply that if Lowell’s design inference was wrong, ID’s design inference must be too. But that would be a silly argument, and I never made it, either as a sweeping conclusion or as a statement about any of the specific ID arguments I mentioned. What I did, instead, was simply say that the arguments used by Lowell to support his inference closely parallel in structure, logic and tone those of ID advocates today, and that it would be a good lesson for ID advocates and their supporters to be aware of that (hence, the lost lesson chance by Witt). At the very least, they should ask themselves if their version of the arguments is indeed substantially improved over Lowell’s, and why. This is a lesson that Witt chose to ignore in his original piece, preferring instead to construct a bizarre argument about science going backwards, and materialistic scientists accepting claims, later proven wrong, based on philosophical preferences (when, in fact, the majority of astronomists of the time rejected Lowell’s claims based on empirical grounds, regardless of metaphysical implications). (In truth, there’s a lesson in Lowell’s story for everyone of us, but it’s particularly meaningful for ID advocates, who routinely use the same kind of arguments.)

To get a sense of Witt’s approach, take a look at the following (italics mark Witt’s quotes from my post):

“You will find confident claims about the manifestly non-natural basis of the observed structures.” In other words: Lowell expressed confidence in his design inference. Design theorists have expressed confidence in their design inferences. Lowell’s confidence was misplaced. Ergo, the design theorists’ confidence is misplaced. Bottaro’s fallacy: hasty generalization.

You will not find those “other words”, or their equivalent, in my post - they are entirely a product of Witt’s imagination. First of all, Witt is wrong: saying that Lowell was confident of the non-natural origin of the Mars channels is not the same as saying that he expressed confidence in his design inference. In fact, in the passages from which I quoted, Lowell was claiming that he was confident about his design inference because he was confident he had ruled out all possible natural mechanisms. That’s a big difference - one could in principle make a design inference first, and therefore state with confidence that natural mechanisms did not play a role in the origin of the designed item in question. Indeed, that’s the kind of design inference we all do most often: we don’t go about wondering what natural process may have caused this or that, we use independent evidence about designers, design processes, etc (that’s actually why we infer design when we find a watch on the ground during a walk - because we have independent knowledge of watches, watch-makers, watch-making processes, human technology and artifacts in general, watches’ function, the human need to tell what time of day it is, etc)

My actual point was that, just like Lowell, modern ID advocates as well often claim that their design inferences rest, in significant part, on supposedly ironclad conclusions that natural mechanisms can be ruled out (absolutely or probabilistically). This doesn’t mean that ID advocates today are necessarily wrong simply because Lowell was, but clearly there may be a valuable heuristic lesson for ID advocates in Lowell’s story, if anything about the fact that natural processes can sneak up on you from unexpected places (in Lowell’s case, he tought he had ruled out geology, but the natural processes that doomed his hypothesis laid in the perception properties of the human visual system).

Witt’s next objection is cut from the same cloth:

_“You will find references [in Lowell’s argument] to diagnostic features of basic human design, and analogies with known designed structures.”_In other words: Since Lowell’s set of diagnostic features proved misleading, all sets of diagnostic features will prove misleading. And since Lowell’s analogies with known designed structures proved misleading, all analogies with designed structures will prove misleading. Bottaro’s fallacy: hasty generalization.

I challenge you to find that argument in my post – it’s not there. I did however comment on how Lowell’s use of the claim that “It was the mathematical shape of the Ohio mounds that suggested mound-builders” to bolster is argument that the Mars canals were also designed is (quite unarguably, in my opinion) very similar to Behe’s argument that the fact that the very shape of Mt. Rushmore points to a sculptor suggests that an intuitive design inference about the flagellum is justified. Note here that both Behe’s and Lowell’s arguments about the Ohio mounds and Mt. Rushmore are obviously correct - that’s not the question. It is the usefulness of using such arguments to prop up an unrelated “design inference” that is questionable, and should give the ID advocate some thought. Ironically, Witt himself makes a very similar mistake later on:

Even as children we accurately make countless such inferences [from function to purpose] concerning the things around us, usually unconsciously (e.g., “That machine functions to evenly cut the grass; its purpose is probably to evenly cut grass.”

Of course, since most of us live in design-rich environments, that’s hardly surprising, if anything from a statistical perspective. Historically, though, humanity’s attempts to assign purpose to natural objects and phenomena based on perceived “functions” have a much poorer track record.

Next, Witt says:

“Specious mathematical/probabilistic arguments and analogies are there, too.” In other words, because we know that Lowell’s mathematical/probabilistic arguments and analogies to design were specious, all mathematical/probabilistic arguments and analogies to design are specious. Bottaro’s fallacy: hasty generalization. The way for Bottaro to rescue his fallacious argument would be to show that a design theorist made the same specific sort of mistake that Lowell had made. Lowell inferred design from the appearance of three lines crossing on what was (in terms of Lowell’s situation as an observer) a two-dimensional surface observed at low resolution. Dembski, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Chicago, rules out chance explanations when the probability for something dips below 1 chance in 10 the 150th power (1 followed by 150 zeroes), and then insists on ruling out law-like explanations as well before inferring design (Cambridge University Press thought his methodology was sound enough that they published his monograph on the subject). Clearly, the two probabilistic arguments are highly dissimilar. If one wants to rebut Dembski’s argument, one will have to address the details of Dembski’s argument, not those of a radically different one posed by someone else.

Here, Witt seems to imply that, since the two items in the analogy are not identical, the analogy is invalid. But in fact, Lowell’s probabilistic argument that, for instance, three lines are enormously unlikely to cross at the same point, and Dembski’s probabilistic argument that a flagellum is enormously unlikely to have come together by chance alone are exactly analogous, regardless of pseudo-precision and arbitrary cutoffs. (As far as I know Lowell didn’t explicitly calculate the probability based on chance alone of all the multiple canal intersections he thought he observed on Mars - although he could easily have done so, since he knew the number of “canals”, their approximate length and width, as well as Mars’s size and the angle under which he was observing it – but he was probably correct in stating that that the result would have been staggering in its improbability) . It is also precisely the case that Lowell, like Dembski, confidently assumed that he had ruled out law-like explanations (see above). The parallels between the two arguments are hard to ignore. And once again, the point is not that Dembski’s argument is wrong because Lowell’s was, but that Lowell’s is a good lesson to consider when excessive confidence is put in a priori probabilistic arguments that do not take into account the actual variables affecting a natural system, but work from unrealistic abstractions.

Witt is right in one thing: I did call Wells’s argument that centrioles are like teensy-weensy turbines “fanciful”, when I should have probably called it “preposterous”. Here too, though, Witt states that I imply Wells’ idea is wrong because it is “fanciful”, but that’s not the case. In fact, it is entirely irrelevant whether Wells’ hypothesis is right or wrong. What I claimed is that, like Lowell came up with the vision of a desertic Mars in need of massive irrigation projects in order to support his design inference that the Martian lines he saw through his telescope were bona fide channels, Wells came up with an extremely convoluted and implausible model of how two turbines may work during cell division, in order to support his intuitive design inference that centrioles are turbines because they look like turbines. By the way, Witt is also right that Wells’s model is at least is testable, but I never said otherwise (so was Lowell’s, by the way, or the proposition that the Earth is 6,000 years old – testable claims are not hard to make and are not some sort of noteworthy achievement).

That’s pretty much how it goes throughout Witt’s response. Like Dick Cheney, Witt clearly likes his hunts “canned”, so instead of shooting at my real arguments, he lets loose some himself that are a bit easier to aim at, and pretends they’re the real thing. The reader can judge as to what extent there are real similarities between the arguments used by Lowell and those used by modern ID advocates to bolster their respective design inferences, and whether an analysis of Lowell’s use of such arguments might have been a good lesson to ponder for ID advocates (as opposed to the bogus lesson Witt provided them by oddly linking Lowell, habitability, the Big Bang, spontaneous generation and evolutionary theory). Indeed, in the discussion thread to my original post several commenters have raised interesting and pertinent points regarding precisely the similarities and differences between Lowell’s and modern ID’s arguments – some more or less agreeing with me, and others disagreeing. Witt could have done the same if he had taken my arguments at face value, instead of concocting some for me.

There is however another issue I would like to touch upon. Witt accuses me of making an argument from authority, first at the beginning of his piece, claiming that I “attributed this [Witt’s inability to see the lesson in Lowell’s story] to [Witt’s] Ph.D. training in literature, logic, and the philosophy of aesthetics, rather than in science”, and later again by saying:

Bottaro concludes by noting that I confessed to having learned Darwinist jargon at one point. He encourages the reader to conclude from this that my arguments against neo-Darwinism should be rejected out of hand. Let’s reconstruct the logical sequence, with the implicit premises drawn out into the light: People who learned Darwinist jargon as adults can never make good arguments concerning Darwinism. Jonathan Witt learned Darwinist jargon as an adult. Ergo, he’s a poopy head.

And once again, I did neither. (I note however that Witt himself seems to be quite sympathetic to arguments from authority directed the other way - see the quote above expounding on Dembski’s mathematics graduate training and his book’s publication by CUP.)

What I said is quite different, and it’s right there at the beginning of my post. I referred to Witt’s “almost comical lack of self-awareness”, which I reiterated at the end by quoting his own tone-deaf claim that he realized “Darwinism” was fallacious not by analyzing the actual evidence supporting it (although he was well aware of, in his words, the “wealth of arcane scientific data”), but supposedly, once he mastered the “jargon”, by showing errors in the logical structure of “Darwinist” arguments , of which he then provides a patently preposterous list. His response to my post follows the same pattern: ignore the facts, put words in other people’s mouth, and gloatingly point out how wrong they are.