Thursday, May 18, 2006

ID 2

I just finished reading a book by James P. Hogan, Catastrophes, Chaos & Convolutions. Throughout, Hogan challenges "mainstream" science with alternative theories. Among these is Intelligent Design.

It was disappointing to see a rational, logical thinker so readily adopt such an anti-science point-of-view. But I'm seeing it in a number of otherwise rational people, and I'm trying to puzzle out why.

Here are the primary arguments of why I think Intelligent Design doesn't rank as a useful scientific theory (although a prior post and an even better in-depth critique can be found here in Judge Jone's recent Pennsylvania decision). In a follow-on post, I'd like to talk about why I think people are starting to turn away from science as an approach to understanding the world and improving our quality of life.


Bad math.


ID advocates often use probability arguments, making a case for the likelihood of a given event being so remote as to be virtually impossible. Using examples such as there being 2E135 ways for 20 amino acids to combine into a small protein, then stating that the odds of a given useful protein emerging is 1/2E135 (which is a very small number indeed). This is like saying that the odds against winning the lottery are very tiny (1/100million in some cases) so it's not possible for anyone to win.

But people do win. All the time. Not only that, but the way DNA bases combine into amino acids actually allows for multiple ways to produce the same protein. Not only that, but most proteins primary function comes from 1-2 aspects of its shape, so there are multiple possible proteins that can serve the same function. What this translates to is that the odds presented against a given protein development are much more likely than claimed by ID.

The same argument is used against "viable mutations". In other words, the proponents argue that most mutations are harmful, so the genome couldn't change to introduce any really new sequences because the organism typically wouldn't live to propogate those changes. Some knowledge of genetics is helpful to understand why this not exactly correct. There are a number of places in the genome - in fact *most* - that are inactive in the current gene expression. These can be activated randomly by very slight changes in the genes which say what gets turned on and expressed when. Mutations can go on for years in these "junk" sections, and then finally be expressed - intact - after much change.

Not only that, but there are literally thousands of places in the active sections where mutations can be made without have dramatic effects on the resulting organism. Take blood types - A, B, O (which is just a lack of either proteins A or B), and Rh-factor (the postive or negative part of your blood type). These are all different mutations of the part of the gene that determine blood type, where the changes did not prove harmful to the organism. Even sickle cells, where the red blood cells are no longer round but are instead in a sickle-shape, don't damage the organism enough to be non-viable. In fact, sickle cells are likely another evolutionarily selected mutation, since the shape confers immunity to many tropical blood diseases such as malaria. And like most mutations, there are some potentially good aspects and potentially bad aspects.

This is how evolution works. It's messy. But very probabilisticly possible.

Bad Theory.

ID doesn't meet the criteria for a basic scientific theory. A scientific theory should accomodate the generally agreed facts, should be able to make predictions of heretofore unobserved evidence, and support the design of experiments to prove or disprove these predictions. ID does, in a way, accomodate the generally agreed facts, in that one could safely say that an extremely powerful designer could have developed and put into place all the evidence for the development of life over time that we see today. But it allows for neither prediction nor experimental validation - therefore it falls square into the realm of religion, not science.

Shell Game.

ID just moves the problem and creates an infinite regression. If an Intelligent Designer was responsible for creating life on this planet, then how did the life of the Intelligent Designer come about? The only outcome of this chain of logic that avoids an infinite regression is to form a theory about how the "original" designer came about through natural processes, or to simply throw up ones hands and declare that "there are some things beyond the ken of man" (a decidedly antithetical view to that of science).

Baby with the bath water.

ID is usually presented as an alternative to "Darwinism", one that better explains the gaps or controversies currently found in evolutionary theory discussions. It is true that there are many holes in our current understanding of evolutionary theory. The differentiation of species (related branches of biological organisms that can no longer interbreed) still lacks a solid, replicable model; Gradual vs punctuated/catastrophic speciation is still hotly debated; and the origin of life itself has a number of theories associated with it, some aspects of which have been supported by experimental evidence, but not all. But to then claim that because evolution is still a theory in progress, it should be thrown out and replaced with an idea that has even more holes and less evidence is a silly notion - that poor baby, sitting outside in a puddle of bath water. Did we throw out Newtonian mechanics when Einstein developed his theories? No - we recognized that Newton had it part right, and expanded our understanding and our theoretical descriptions (and designed new experiments to test the new predictions). Is there still some Einstein work to be done in evolutionary theory? You bet. But natural selection as a natural mechanism for causing what appears to be "directed" evolution over time has been demonstrated over and over again, in real life and in simulation. Unless someone comes up with a better, more predictive model (and "God did it" is not terribly predictive), then refining the basics of evolutionary theory seems like the most productive way to go.

Bad Attitude.

ID advocates in general share some traits with others in the world who reject the scientific method as a way to understand, predict, and successfully manipulate reality. One of these traits is the idea that if I can pick apart my opponents ideas, then that must somehow add validity to my idea. This is incredibly poor logic, and also demonstrates how poorly critical thinking skills are taught in our educational system.

(There's this great scene in "Thank You For Smoking" where the Dad demonstrates this rhetorical trick to his son. In the argument of "which is better, vanilla or chocolate?", the Dad just picks apart his son's position, then makes his point: I don't have to show I'm right. I just have to show you're wrong. If you're wrong, then I must be right!)

Human traits of desire for power, jealousy, xenophobia are easier to influence, inflame, and direct than the rigorous objective rational facilites that good science requires of its adherents. Demagoguery is more effective than rationality. In other words, science is a harder religion than many of the others available out there.

This is the premise of the next blog on this topic - the reason otherwise non-stupid individuals believe - and want to believe - in patently stupid ideas.

I don't have it figured out, certainly. But I have some ideas I'd like to put out there in the hopes that some of you can build on them.

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