Pesky realities and caricatures of ID

Rob Crowther, at the Discovery Institute’s blogsite, reports that

Cornell University, home of anti-IDer Hunter Rawlings III, has announced it will offer a course on ID, and in a science class no less. The class, Evolution and Design: Is There Purpose in Nature? is a breakthrough in my mind, simply because it IS in the science curriculum. It remains to be seen if the class will be presented fairly and if ID will be treated respectuflly, or if this is just an attempt to knock it down by attacking some ridiculous caricature of the theory. Regardless, the djnni is out of the bottle, ID is now being offered in university science classes.

Now back to reality, in fact the link Crowther provided gives us the ‘rest of the story’

The course description reads

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This seminar addresses, in historical perspective, controversies about the cultural, philosophical, and scientific implications of evolutionary biology. Discussions focus upon questions about gods, free will, foundations for ethics, meaning in life, and life after death. Readings range from Charles Darwin to the present (see reading list, below).

The catalogue lists it as “Seminar in the history of science of Biology”.

This surely gives a different meaning to ID being offered in university science classes… Is it just me or are ID activists somewhat ‘sloppy’ in their references?

What I find surprising is how defensive ID activists are about science actually addressing the vacuous claims of ID. Perhaps not surprisingly because of the scientific vacuity of ID.

So what could count as a ‘ridiculous caricature of the “theory”’? I have some ideas:

For instance the claim that there is a theory of ID? Blasphemy… Such a caricature of ID is just meant to place it into a bad light. Don’t these people know that ID is merely the ‘set theoretic complement of regularity or chance’? In other words, ID i s merely an argument from ignorance, also known as a ‘gap argument’?

What about the claim that “ID provides positive evidence for its claims”? Blasphemy again, don’t these people know that ID does not make any statements about the Designer, His capabilities, His goals etc? In other words, anytime someone claims that ID makes positive claims, it should be clear that this is merely a caricature.

So what about the caricature that ID can infer the agency of a designer? Few may be familiar with Dembski’s statement that:

“even though in practice inferring design is the first step in identifying an intelligent agent, taken by itself design does not require that such an agent be posited. The notion of design that emerges from the design inference must not be confused with intelligent agency” (TDI, 227, my emphasis).

In other words, even when “design” is inferred, there may not really be an intelligent designer involved.

Or what about the caricature that the explanatory filter is useful since it exhibits no ‘false positives’?.

Few may be familiar with Dembski’s observation that

“On the other hand, if things end up in the net that are not designed, the criterion will be useless.”

And while initially Dembski insisted that the explanatory filter was reliable, he eventually realized that

I argue that we are justified asserting specified complexity (and therefore design) once we have eliminated all known material mechanisms. It means that some unknown mechanism might eventually pop up and overturn a given design inference. But it also means that we have prima facie evidence of design and that we are justified in holding to this claim in the absence of such mechanisms being found. I also note that there can be cases where all material mechanisms (known and unknown) can be precluded decisively.


Now it can happen that we may not know enough to determine all the relevant chance hypotheses. Alternatively, we might think we know the relevant chance hypotheses, but later discover that we missed a crucial one. In the one case a design inference could not even get going; in the other, it would be mistaken. But these are the risks of empirical inquiry, which of its nature is fallible. Worse by far is to impose as an a priori requirement that all gaps in our knowledge must ultimately be filled by non-intelligent causes.

Allen MacNeill, who will be teaching the Cornell class, relentlessly exposes these caricatures of ID. Such as the claim that Genetic Fingerprinting is somehow a valid example of Dembski’s ‘Explanatory Filter’ as proposed by ID activist and young earth creationist Salvador Cordova,

And of course there is the caricature of all caricatures namely that ID provides competing scientific explanations for systems which are considered to be ‘designed’. When a leading ID activists was asked to provide a detailed scenario as to how ID explains a particular system, he was quick to respond

Dembski wrote:

As for your example, I’m not going to take the bait. You’re asking me to play a game: “Provide as much detail in terms of possible causal mechanisms for your ID position as I do for my Darwinian position.” ID is not a mechanistic theory, and it’s not ID’s task to match your pathetic level of detail in telling mechanistic stories. If ID is correct and an intelligence is responsible and indispensable for certain structures, then it makes no sense to try to ape your method of connecting the dots. True, there may be dots to be connected. But there may also be fundamental discontinuities, and with IC systems that is what ID is discovering.

William A. Dembski Organisms using GAs vs. Organisms being built by GAs thread at ISCID 18. September 2002

This was in response to a question by Rafe Gutman who outlined how science explains an IC system, in particular the complement system

Rafe Gutman wrote:

admittedly, i left out a lot of details, but if you want more, you’ll first have to propose a model for the origin of an IC system through intelligent design in at least as much detail as i presented. that shouldn’t be too hard, it’s only 8 sentences.

Note also how Crowther takes John West’s hypothetical scenario about Beckwith

If it turns out that Beckwith’s views on intelligent design played a role in his rejection at Baylor, then he will have become the latest victim of a campaign by Darwinists to deny academic freedom to any scholar or grad student who disagrees with them.

and turns it into

Heck, even if you’re not a proponent, but have simply written about ID in a way that is supportive it can get you in trouble, much as it did for legal scholar Francis Beckwith. Baylor University recently deined tenure to Beckwith, in part because he’s written that in his opinion as a scholar of the law intelligent design is permissable in public school science classes.

I have to admit that I have not followed the Beckwith tenure discussion in too much detail and so far I have found the following reference to an email

When tenure time approached, the anti-Sloan interim president, William Underwood, appointed psychology professor Jim Patton, the chair of the anti-Sloan faculty senate, to Mr. Beckwith’s tenure committee. In an e-mail message about another faculty member shown to WORLD, Mr. Patton wrote, “I clearly do not think highly of anyone who claims ID theory is science.

Source: New tenor on tenure: Baylor can’t shake faculty flirtations with secularism Free Republic April 15, 2006

In the mean time

Baylor’s provost, J. Randall O’Brien, would not comment on the particulars of the tenure review, but said Mr. Beckwith’s “writings on intelligent design has absolutely nothing to do with the decision.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Perhaps Crowther has additional information about the Beckwith tenure decision that shows support for his claims?