The NYT fisks "intelligent design"

Daniel C. Dennett has published a rather nice fisking of "intelligent design" creationism on the Sunday New York Times editorial page. Some choice excerpts:
The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.

To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced anything like that. No experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.
Precisely. The way for a scientist to win fame and glory is not to be conventional, but rather to take an established theory, look at a phenomenon that it doesn't explain well, and then come up with a better explanation that is supported by data and experimentation. You won't find many Nobel Prize winners who won for just supporting accepted theory of the day. They either find something new or find a new twist on an old theory.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.
Yes. "Intelligent design" advocates try to convince the lay person, who usually doesn't know much about evolution or even how science operates, that there is a genuine debate when there is not, at least not scientifically speaking (politically speaking, of course, is another matter). Dennett also nails it as far as why ID is not taken seriously by scientists:
To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.
That's what's most infuriating about ID, that it presents no testable hypotheses detailed enough to be falsifiable and presents no experimental evidence supporting those hypotheses. It's just a misstated mish-mash of exaggerations, misrepresentations of, and outright lies about known weaknesses in evolutionary theory with an attitude that, if we can't yet understand how evolution produced this particular biological structure, then an "intelligent designer" must have done it. As philosophy or religion, ID may be interesting to study, but it has no place in a science classroom until its advocates show some actual science to support it.

And what makes ID any more worthy than any other concept that has not yet reached the science classroom? Nothing:
It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of substantive scientific controversies in biology that are not yet in the textbooks or the classrooms. The scientific participants in these arguments vie for acceptance among the relevant expert communities in peer-reviewed journals, and the writers and editors of textbooks grapple with judgments about which findings have risen to the level of acceptance - not yet truth - to make them worth serious consideration by undergraduates and high school students.

SO get in line, intelligent designers. Get in line behind the hypothesis that life started on Mars and was blown here by a cosmic impact. Get in line behind the aquatic ape hypothesis, the gestural origin of language hypothesis and the theory that singing came before language, to mention just a few of the enticing hypotheses that are actively defended but still insufficiently supported by hard facts.
They won't, even though, as Dennett points out:
If intelligent design were a scientific idea whose time had come, young scientists would be dashing around their labs, vying to win the Nobel Prizes that surely are in store for anybody who can overturn any significant proposition of contemporary evolutionary biology.
Quite. Maybe if all the money being spent trying to dupe school boards across the country into including ID in their curriculae as "alternatives" to evolution or to beating students over the head with exaggerated "deficiencies" of evolutionary theory were instead spent on research, maybe some Discovery Institute "fellow" will be in line for that Nobel Prize in 20 years.

Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.


  1. Enjoyed this post. Would love to see the debate live.

  2. Patt Morrison, a commentator for the LA Times and our local public radio station KPCC, took a humorous approach to this idea a couple of weeks back.

    -- My blog entry

    -- Morrison's HP column

  3. did you see the flying spagetti monster yet?


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