Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Two

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June 21, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

Would You Like Fries With That Theory? Part Two

The first part of this series can be found here.

My blog about the importance of taking scientific consensus seriously generated some heated response from several directions, most noticeably over at Uncommon Descent, the Intelligent Design blog run by William Dembski. This is a critically important issue for the Intelligent Design community because its whole approach to origins requires that it set aside scientific consensus in favor of alternative views accepted by less than 1% of practicing biologists. ID requires that there be some criteria other than consensus for the evaluation of what constitutes “science.”

A variety of arguments are provided to support this, which I would like to examine over the next few months. I will start with the historical argument first.

Dembski writes: “If the history of science is any indicator, every scientific theory has faults and is eventually abandoned in favor of a better, more accurate theory. Why should we expect any different from evolutionary theory?”

I find it hard to understand what Dembski means by this. He speaks of every theory. If he had said some theories, he would OK. But every theory? Over two thousand years ago Greeks developed, to consider one example, a theory that the earth was round and not flat. Their reasoning was quite ingenious and included observations like the shape of the earth’s shadow on the moon during an eclipse, and the way a ship appeared to sink down as it sailed out to sea. This theory seems quite secure to me and unlikely to be abandoned. In fact this idea is now a simple fact, as photographed from space.

Two millennia after the enduring success of the round earth theory, Copernicus developed a theory that the earth was moving. To be sure, this overturned a theory that the earth was stationary, but are we really supposed to believe that the motion of the earth will be “eventually abandoned” in favor of a “more accurate theory”?

Let’s take a stroll through science and look at some of the central ideas: electrons and protons have equal and opposite charges while neutrons are uncharged; radio waves travel at the speed of light; the orbits of electrons are fixed to certain positions and cannot be anywhere in the atom; stars shine by fusing nuclei; the universe is expanding; disorder increases through time. These theories once seemed speculative and controversial but now they represent the consensus of the scientific community. Are we really being asked to believe they will one day be overturned?

The history of science does not suggest that theories are abandoned. Scientific progress occurs most commonly when theories are refined and extended. Physicists did not abandon Newton’s theory of optics in the 19th century--it was extended and refined with the discovery that visible light, radio waves and infrared radiation were all part of a continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Similarly, the “solar system” model of the atom was not abandoned when it was discovered that the nucleus had both protons and neutrons in it. And that nuclear model was not abandoned when it was discovered that protons and neutrons are composed of quarks.

So how about evolution? Is it reasonable to hold out hope that it will one day be abandoned? The situation with evolution is quite the reverse. Evolution has been around for over 150 years and remains within the broad outlines traced by Darwin in The Origin of Species. During that period it has become steadily stronger and more successful at explaining the natural world. When DNA was discovered, for example, it fit evolutionary theory exactly, confirming Darwin’s intuition about how natural selection had to work. And when the mapping of genomes of multiple species began a few years ago, the data confirmed the ancestral patterns that had been developed based on comparative anatomy and other approaches.

The consensus that exists now about evolution is close to 100% of research biologists. Comparative anatomists, geneticists, cell biologists, paleontologists, embryologists and every other sub-field of biology have all compared their data with each other and found that evolution ties it all together and makes it into a remarkably coherent system. This conclusion is so broad and based on so many different technical fields that I cannot imagine how a layperson could even begin to understand it well enough to decide that all these experts were wrong.

Thomas Cudworth, also on the Uncommon Descent blog, is appalled at my consensus argument, which he summarizes as “everyone should defer to the majority of evolutionary biologists simply because they are the certified experts.” Leaving aside the fact that “certified expert” is not a label in use in the scientific community, Cudworth is properly stating my position. A simpler way to put it would be like this, however: People who know a lot about a subject are more likely to be correct when they speak about it than people who know very little.

Is a challenge really being made to this statement? Are we really to believe that it is acceptable to put the conclusions of people who know very little ahead of those who know a lot? If I, a physicist who took my last biology class in 1975, decide to challenge Francis Collins on a question of genetics, should anyone listen to me, just because they like my “science” better? (Please don’t, if I go off the rails and do something like this.)

And why is this “everyman science” proposed only in the area of biology? Can we apply Cudworth’s argument to physics and astronomy? If I can find three trained astronomers who are absolutely certain that astrology is valid, does this mean we should consider setting aside the consensus view from tens of thousands of other astronomers who think the opposite? If I find three psychologists who believe the stories of alien abductions, does that idea become worthy of consideration? How about three historians who deny the Holocaust?

The sad truth of the matter is that the argument made against the validity of consensus in science is selectively applied only to evolution and only because the ID movement has no choice. Its confident predictions of a decade ago that evolution was tottering and would soon collapse have not come true. The consensus remains against ID and so the consensus must be wrong.


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

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Dunemeister - #18318

June 22nd 2010

Getting back to the point made about biblical scholarship and its relationship to Christian knowledge. This is a good point because, if deference to exper consensus is the way we should govern all aspects of our knowledge, then belief in the resurrection on the basis of biblical stories is out. What to do? I suggest the approach of Alvin Plantinga in “Warranted Christian Belief.” Basically, Christian belief, like memory beliefs or perceptual beliefs, are properly basic. They obtain warrant not because there is evidence for it but because it arises as the result of cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial cognitive environment where the believer has no defeater for Christian belief. Read the book to unpack that. The point is that Christians can quite safely ignore scholarly consensus because our knowledge about “the great truths of the gospel,” as Jonathan Edwards put it, is not based on it.


Bilbo - #18319

June 22nd 2010

Hi Glen,

By rational design, I mean that it looks as if a rational designer made it, even if it wasn’t designed by one.  For example, if there is very good evidence that the genetic code is optimal then it is a rational design, regardless of whether it was designed by a rational designer, or evolved by non-teleological processes,  Does that sound like a reasonable way of thinking about rational design to you?  Or are you insisting that we can’t know if the design is rational until we first know that there was a designer?

As to your evidence that legs don’t make good wings, I’ll grant that legs are not aerodynamic.  But wings are, aren’t they?  If so, then it seems irrelevant what wings came from.


Bilbo - #18320

June 22nd 2010

There seems to be this argument going on that looks like this:

1)  ID isn’t science.

2)  Therefore it is more rational to believe the scientific consensus than accept ID.

But that only follows if we should always accept the scientific consensus instead of the non-scientific one.  But that’s beggimg the question.  The question is, is it ever rational for a layperson to reject the scientific consensus?  If science refuses to consider ID for philosophical reasons, then a layperson is perfectly justified in rejecting that consensus.


Glen Davidson - #18321

June 22nd 2010

By rational design, I mean that it looks as if a rational designer made it, even if it wasn’t designed by one.

Well, that leaves out life.  Few ancient creation stories involved rational design of life, since of course it doesn’t look like what known rational beings make.  Cicero did make a few noises about “design” of life, and of non-life aspects of the world as well, but largely the “design” idea is an outgrowth of the industrial revolution.

For example, if there is very good evidence that the genetic code is optimal then it is a rational design, regardless of whether it was designed by a rational designer, or evolved by non-teleological processes,

First off, the genetic code is hardly optimal with respect to selenocysteine and to phyllolysine.  I’ve already referred to that obliquely.  You haven’t even defined what “the genetic code is optimal” would even mean, and I am not about to set anything up to agree that optimal in any way whatsoever is somehow “meaningful.”

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18322

June 22nd 2010

And secondly, why would you conflate “optimal” with “rational”?  Other than that IDists make that mistake all the time?

  Does that sound like a reasonable way of thinking about rational design to you?

No, it would have to make sense.  “Optimal” does not necessarily mean “rational” at all.

Or are you insisting that we can’t know if the design is rational until we first know that there was a designer?

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How does that even follow as an alternative to your conflation of “optimal” and “rational”?  “Rational” means seeing solutions to problems of the sort that non-rational processes miss, for instance, something that evolution would not be expected to produce.  It’s what minds do, and it often mimics the manipulation of numbers and of figures.

We need to know who the “designer” is if you’re not actually talking about design as we know it, rather about miracles which have no bounds.  So far I have no reason to believe you are talking about design as we know it.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18323

June 22nd 2010

As to your evidence that legs don’t make good wings, I’ll grant that legs are not aerodynamic.  But wings are, aren’t they?  If so, then it seems irrelevant what wings came from.

Then why didn’t the Wright brothers start with legs instead of wings?

Oh, that’s right, because you’re not discussing design as we know it, rather miracles that do not require good starting materials at all.  A wizard or a god can turn a broom into an airplane, so why fuss about the start?

Not because you really are interested in design, but because IDists constantly pretend to be talking about design, then say that the lack of good design principles in life—which importantly (to real science, that is) agree with evolutionary predictions—matter not one whit.

Life “looks designed,” unless you ask why good design practices are not evident in life, in which case the lack of appearance of design is utterly insignificant.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18324

June 22nd 2010

There seems to be this argument going on that looks like this:

1)  ID isn’t science.

2)  Therefore it is more rational to believe the scientific consensus than accept ID.

The ad hominem attack upon scientists that IDists begin with and never quit.

Paley’s claims were actually well considered, by Darwin and many others—but, unlike today’s unfalsifiable ID, Paley’s used meaningful words when he wrote of “design.”  That need for actual reference was what prefaced at least one of Paley’s claims that he only meant by “design” something that an “architect or artificer” would do.

So ID has been amply answered, but religious bias won’t allow many to accept this.  Which is why a false representation of the response to pseudoscience is presented again and again.  IDists have to believe that the response was not legitimate, even though they have no more evidence of that than evidence that life was designed.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18325

June 22nd 2010

But that only follows if we should always accept the scientific consensus instead of the non-scientific one.

It only follows if we take ID seriously and show that ID has no answers and no science.  It does not follow if one will never allow the conclusion that ID is lacking the answers that science requires.

But that’s beggimg the question.

No, yours is merely a blatant misrepresentation.

The question is, is it ever rational for a layperson to reject the scientific consensus?

My answer was indeed yes, although I would hardly allow that anything other than the most educated laypersons has the grasp of evidence of evolution that would allow legitimate rejection of that theory even were it wrong.

If science refuses to consider ID for philosophical reasons, then a layperson is perfectly justified in rejecting that consensus.

And since it considers and rejects ID for compelling scientific reasons, there is absolutely no justification for rejecting the consensus.  Nor is there any justification for you repeating the blatant misrepresentations of IDists.

Glen Davidson


Bilbo - #18331

June 22nd 2010

Hi Glen,

So it sounds as if you are agreeing that if biological features look as if they were designed by a rational designer, then they have the property of rational design.

As to why the Wright brothers didn’t make wings out of legs:  because it would have been too difficult for them.  Are biological wings poorly designed?  Do they look like they were made by an irrational designer?


Bilbo - #18333

June 22nd 2010

And does the cilium look irrationlly designed?  Does the flagellum look irrationally designed?


unapologetic catholic - #18334

June 22nd 2010

“Regarding malaria, “intentionally designed” is not logically incompatible with “having evolved”.  The entire evolutionary process which produces malaria and all the other creatures might itself be designed.  In such a case, there need be no divine intervention in the process at all.”

Behe has suggested front end loadign—it doesn’t work with the evidence, but there’s more serious problem with your interpretation of Behe.

How do we distinguish “designed evolution” from non-designed evolution?”  How are the two different?  Propose a test to determine how the world would look different if it was not designed (if you think it is currently designed). 

“You must be able to tell by now that I have read more of Behe, and read it more carefully, than you have.”

Your sources for Behe’s “new” position are notably absent.

You’ve demonstrated only a selective, superficial reading of Behe without realizing what the implications are.  What specifically does Behe suggest the designer did?  Act through natural processes? Furthermore, your claim that Behe is at most only arguing that design is inconsistent with evolution conflicts with Discovery Institute ID version which denies both common ancestry and common descent.


Glen Davidson - #18338

June 22nd 2010

So it sounds as if you are agreeing that if biological features look as if they were designed by a rational designer, then they have the property of rational design.

I’m saying that it usually isn’t the least bit difficult to tell the difference between life and intelligent design.  There are similarities, but generally the differences are readily observable.

There is no “property of rational design” in anything.

And one does not refer to artificers and architects merely to claim that if aspects of life “look as if they were designed by a rational designer, then they have the property of rational design.”  Artificers and architects make rational designs, and it is because of the rational aspects that we know that a human made them. 

Your circularity gets nowhere.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18340

June 22nd 2010

As to why the Wright brothers didn’t make wings out of legs:  because it would have been too difficult for them.

Yes, because they were real designers, not magical beings who didn’t care about difficulty like you are really claiming made life—quite obviously due to religious beliefs.

Are biological wings poorly designed?

They were.  Archaeopteryx appears to have been a very poor flier indeed.  And that is exactly where the “poorest design” of something newly evolving, like wings, is predicted by evolution, and which you cannot explain by any reasonable “design” standpoint, rather your magical miracle worker increasingly shows up.

Do they look like they were made by an irrational designer?

Of course they don’t.  If you knew anything about science you’d know that they look as predicted by non-teleological evolutionary theory.  Indeed, evolution would be falsified if bird wings didn’t appear derived, which is how we know evolution is real science.

That you say “design” means anything at all indicates how unscientific ID is.

Glen Davidson


Rich - #18341

June 22nd 2010

U.C.:

False, false, false.  Do research before you make claims.

The Discovery Institute has *no* position on common ancestry.  Individual Fellows of the Institute have their own opinions, but Discovery, as such, has none.  Take time to read the official statements.

Even a selective, superficial reading of Behe would be deeper than yours, since you have obviously not read Behe at all, except for a few “sound bites” which you take out of context.  But my reading is quite thorough.

I “sourced” Behe’s new position at least twice already on various threads on this blog, in all of which you were an active participant.  Look it up.

Speaking of missing sources, you give none for your comment about Behe on front-end loading.  And in any case, even if Behe currently does not think that front-end loading (perhaps we should call it something else in deference to Mike Gene) works in practice, he doesn’t rule it out as a logical possibility within ID.  Michael Denton, on the other hand, thinks that it can work.  There’s a wide range of opinion within the “design” camp. 

You can distinguish designed evolution from non-designed evolution the same way you distinguish Mt. Rushmore from the rubble left after an avalanche.


Glen Davidson - #18344

June 22nd 2010

And does the cilium look irrationlly designed?

You aren’t even capable of asking science questions, apparently.

The cilium “looks” undesigned, like what unintelligent evolutionary processes would produce.

  Does the flagellum look irrationally designed?

I wish you knew even the basics of evolutionary science, rather than just the misrepresentations coming out of the CSC and its fellows.

Irrational design properly refers to the claims of ID, which are reactive and ad homina.  Even “design” might be questionable for the most part (although the propaganda is designed, sometimes well), but the irrationality of it is quite evident.

Glen Davidson


Bilbo - #18349

June 22nd 2010

Hi Glen,

Are you sure about archeopteryx being a poor flyer?  If it turns out that it was a good flyer does that weaken evolutionary theory?  So the cilium and the flagellum look like they were haphazardly cobbled together?


Glen Davidson - #18353

June 22nd 2010

Are you sure about archeopteryx being a poor flyer?  If it turns out that it was a good flyer does that weaken evolutionary theory?

Context matters.  If archaeopteryx somehow was, contrary to the evidence we have now, a good flier and an earlier bird were the poorer flier, well, evolution is contingent.  Derivation is a rock-solid prediction, not timing.

And no, I am not the least bit inclined to assume that archaeopteryx was a good flier, with its lack of fused wing bones, apparent lack of a tendon that modern birds use (and which function archy apparently had to effect using muscles), and feathers that were weak, even if the shafts were solid. 

Archy is no isolated case, transitionals are generally lacking in later “good designs,” for the obvious reasons—that they weren’t designed and were evolutionarily constrained.

That you “question” the basic facts of evolution indicates both your phenomenal lack of crucial knowledge, and your lack of good judgment regarding science altogether.  You don’t ask the most obvious questions of ID with its endless list of false claims, you ask uninformed “questions” about evolution.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18355

June 22nd 2010

So the cilium and the flagellum look like they were haphazardly cobbled together?

Did I write that?

Learn some science, so you’ll actually understand what someone knowledgeable writes.

If you ever can write an informed question, then you’ll be able to learn what science is about. 

Perhaps then you can even understand how evolution can often (not always) produce very fine results in spite of the fact that it usually begins with what is unpromising material from any design standpoint. 

And why it is actually remarkable that “poor design” and “good design” in life can be explained by the processes described within a single theory, while “design” fails to explain why even “good design” comes from such unpromising material.  To repeat, ID does not even explain “good design,” let alone the absurd (from any design standpoint) giraffe’s left recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Glen Davidson


Glen Davidson - #18363

June 22nd 2010

I have decided that I will likely not continue in this thread any further.  Frankly, I’ve written enough, and I do not have enough time to continue.

It is not possible to have a productive conversation for long when one side is all too happy to remain uninformed and “asking questions” that obviously do not reach to science, but only remain within the false dilemma that ID cannot do without, any more than it can do without misrepresentations of the scientists and their well-considered responses to ID (not counting the “naturalism” response, which has almost nothing to do ID’s lack of evidence).

Eventually, you just have to point out how much IDists have to learn about sound inferences, as demonstrated by ID’s utter lack of evidence for its major claims, as it can never adhere to any design principles despite design being what it claims in life.  The unspoken answer is always that God can do anything, so the masses of evidence for evolution are something that they will ignore.

Glen Davidson


Karl A - #18366

June 22nd 2010

Rich, I’ve thought of you as I’ve read a book and thought I’d mention it to you.  Perhaps others would find it interesting as well.  I mention it here for lack of a better place.

Shubin, Neil. 2009. Your inner fish: a journey into the 3.5 billion-year history of the human body. New York: Vintage Books.

I am not a physical scientist, so take my review with a grain of salt, but I’ve found it quite interesting and informative.  Shubin, a paleontologist, pairs comparative anatomy with “evo devo” (evolutionary developmental biology) and traces back several features of our bodies (e.g. sight, hearing, body plan, limbs) through mammals, reptiles, fish, invertebrates and even simple multicellular and single-celled organisms.  At least the way the book is written, the transitions seem quite seamless and lacking obvious gaps.  (For Rich’s specific interest, the book does not address the more philosophical issues of teleology or lack thereof in the above developmental path.)  I liked the pairing of the fossil record with evo devo - in one chapter you see what the fossil record shows us, and in the next you see the mechanisms for how it (could have) happened.  Evolution with RM+NS makes more sense to me now.


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