Commentary on Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch's "Guest Viewpoint: 'Intelligent design' Not Accepted by Most Scientists," 7/2/02
By William A. Dembski
The National School Boards Association enlisted Eugenie Scott and Glenn Branch to criticize intelligent design bullet point fashion. Here I want to respond to these bullet-point assertions. I would repeat the entire article, but copyright restrictions prevent me. The article is available at http://nsba.org/sbn/02-jul/070202-8.htm.
The article begins by asking whether intelligent design (or ID) has a legitimate place in the public school science curriculum. It admits that ID is not identical with creation science, but then remarks that ID involves an intervening deity and is more vague about what happened and when.
Comment: ID is not an interventionist theory. It's only commitment is that the design in the world be empirically detectable. All the design could therefore have emerged through a cosmic evolutionary process that started with the Big Bang. What's more, the designer need not be a deity. It could be an extraterrestrial or a telic process inherent in the universe. ID has no doctrine of creation. Scott and Branch at best could argue that many of the ID proponents are religious believers in a deity, but that has no bearing on the content of the theory. As for being "vague" about what happened and when, that is utterly misleading. ID claims that many naturalistic evolutionary scenarios (like the origin of life) are unsupported by evidence and that we simply do not know the answer at this time to what happened. This is not a matter of being vague but rather of not pretending to knowledge that we don't have.
Next the authors comment that "ID proponents are tactically silent on an alternative to common descent. Teachers exhorted to teach ID, then, are left with little to teach other than 'evolution didn't happen'."
Comment: The most prominent design theorist, Michael Behe, is on record to holding to common descent (the evolutionary interrelatedness of all organisms back to a common ancestor). No design theorist I know wants to teach that evolution didn't happen. There is a question about the extent of evolution, but that is a question being raised by non-ID scientists. Carl Woese in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just a few weeks ago published a piece where he explicitly rejects common descent. What ID proponents want is to teach is the evidence for evolution as well as whatever evidence places limits on evolutionary change (like Carl Woese's idea of lateral gene transfer). Scott and Branch are here merely playing on fears of school boards and educators.
Next Scott and Branch mention my work on the design inference and Behe's work on irreducible complexity. After the barest summary, they conclude " Neither Dembski's design inference nor Behe's irreducible complexity has fared well in the scholarly world." To which they add that our work is not mentioned in the peer reviewed literature.
Comment: Note that they did not say that our ideas were refuted. Indeed, they have not been refuted. They have been vigorously opposed, but that's something different. The history of science is filled with violent altercations. As for our ideas not appearing in the peer-reviewed literature, that's not the case. Irreducible complexity was, for instance, the focus of an article by Thornhill and Ussery in the Journal of Theoretical Biology. Why did Scott and Branch's "search of scientific data-bases, such as PubMed or SciSearch" fail to find that article? What else did their search fail to find? As for my work on the design inference, it's certainly created a stir in the philosophy of science community and is now working its way into the sciences proper (e.g., the bioinformatics community). My newest book was just reviewed in Nature.
Next Scott and Branch bring up the old chestnut about ID amounting to an "argument from ignorance," relying upon "a lack of knowledge for its conclusion: Lacking a natural explanation, we assume intelligent cause."
Comment: Lacking a natural explanation of Mount Rushmore, are we making an argument from ignorance by inferring that an intelligent cause is behind it? The design inference is not an argument from ignorance. It's not just that we eliminate natural explanations (by which biologists mean explanations that involve no intelligent causation), but that in eliminating natural explanations we find features that in our experience are only the result of intelligent causation. Consider, for instance, the bacterial flagellum. This is a little outboard rotary motor on the backs of certain bacteria. It includes a propeller, a hook joint, a drive shaft, O-rings, a stator, and a bidirectional acid powered motor. We are seeing here a machine of the sort that in our experience only intelligence can produce. What's more, the biological community has come up empty on how systems like this could emerge apart from intelligence. This is not an argument from ignorance. This is an argument from what we know about the causal powers of intelligence and the shortfall of unintelligent causes.
Next Scott and Branch remark, "Most scientists would reply that unexplained is not unexplainable, and that 'we don't know yet' is a more appropriate response than invoking a cause outside of science."
Comment: This is the standard ploy of turning the subject matter of ID into a completely different subject matter from that of science. Accordingly, there's ID, with its religious invocation of supernatural sprites and spirits, and then there's "science" (said with a deep voice and plenty of gravitas), which investigates "natural causes" (said with the same deep voice and gravitas). But in fact, there's only one subject here, namely complex biological systems, and the question is whether natural causes, understood as unintelligent causes ruled by blind unbroken natural laws, can account for them. There are two possibilities: (1) natural causes are up to this sort of explanatory work or (2) intelligent causes are required as well. To say that if ID is correct, then the phenomena in question are "unexplainable" is to define science an enterprise that can explain only by natural causes (understood in a reductionist, design-excluding way). Scott and Branch are playing a game of definitions. Science is a search for the truth underlying natural phenomena. Whether an intelligent cause is involved is not something that can be excluded on a priori grounds.
Next, Jonathan Wells's Icons of Evolution is called in for the appropriate abuse. Scott and Branch write, "Although the reviews of Wells' book by scientists have unanimously regarded it as dishonest and devoid of scientific or educational value, it is being widely circulated among creationists and cited at school board meetings around the country."
Comment: Interestingly, the textbooks are changing in response to Wells's book, correcting or at least modifying the icons to which Wells refers. But before siding with Scott and Branch against Wells, do have a look at Wells's response to critics (see http://www.discovery.org/viewDB/index.php3?program=CRSC%20Responses&command=view&id=1180). The charge of dishonesty and lack of educational scientific and educational value seems more appropriately leveled at his critics. At the very least Wells has pointed to pervasive errors in biology textbooks regarding evolution. If evolutionary biology were not so politically charged, that ev-bio community should be thanking Wells for helping them clean up their act. Instead, he's treated as a black sheep who's uncovered a dysfunctional family's dirty laundry. Fix the problem and quit complaining about the messenger who's uncovered the problem.
Next, Scott and Branch focus on the "cultural renewal" component of ID, which "focuses on ideological and religious rather than scholarly goals." They conclude: "The sectarian orientation of the ID movement cannot be ignored in decisions about whether to include ID in the curriculum."
Comment: When Stephen Jay Gould testified at the Arkansas Creation Trial in 1981, should his Marxism, and thus sectarianism, have played a role in undermining his testimony. The goals, aspirations, and vision for society of Seattle's Discovery Institute is irrelevant to any court or school board decision to include ID in a public school science curriculum. The issue is whether ID is true and the grounds for thinking that it is true or false. The issue therefore comes down to the evidence in its support and the counterevidence to the reigning Darwinian paradigm and how that evidence is to be evaluated.
Next, Scott and Branch try to identify the designer of ID with the God of Christian theism. They do this by conflating the cultural renewal interest of some ID proponents with the theory of intelligent design. This conflation would, of course, be insupportable in a court of law, so they change gears and stress ID's need to prove itself in the scientific mainstream: "If the scholarly aspect of ID becomes established -- if ID truly becomes incorporated into the scientific mainstream -- then, and only then, should school boards consider whether to add it to the curriculum." They continue: "Until that day, proposals to introduce ID into curricula should be met with polite but firm explanations that there is as yet no scientific evidence in favor of ID...."
Comment: Scott and Branch have defined science as relying entirely on natural explanations and that to invoke an intelligent design explanation would constitute a nonexplanation -- to attribute design, as they pointed out earlier in their piece, is the equivalent of saying that something is "unexplainable." As a consequence, there's no way that ID could according to them ever enter the scientific mainstream. Indeed, they've defined science precisely so as to preclude intelligent design. As for there being no evidence for ID, what counts as evidence is always assessed against a backdrop of assumptions about how inquiry (the process of revising our beliefs) ought to proceed. The bacterial flagellum, its irreducible and specified complexity, from the vantage of ID provides overwhelming evidence for its design. But from a naturalistic perspective, this sort of evidence is merely evidence that scientists haven't worked hard enough and haven't figured out how blind natural causes might have produced the biological system in question.
Scott and Branch add, "... the sectarian orientation of ID renders it unsuitable for constitutional reasons."
Comment: They are herewith throwing down the gauntlet. I'll wager a bottle of single-malt scotch, should it ever go to trial whether ID may legitimately be taught in public school science curricula, that ID will pass all constitutional hurdles. To see why, check out the fine Utah Law Review article by David DeWolf et al. at http://www.arn.org/docs/dewolf/utah.pdf.
Scott and Branch conclude: "School board members should be aware that introducing ID into the curriculum is likely to lead to strong opposition -- up to and including lawsuits -- from those, including parents, teachers, scientists, and clergy, who do not want science education to be compromised."
Comment: In other words, if you don't want to face social and legal intimidation from the ACLU, NCSE, and other groups and individuals in that small ten percent of the population that are hostile to ID (Gallup poll after Gallup poll confirms that about 90 percent of the U.S. population are behind some form of intelligent design), stay clear of intelligent design. All it will take is a few school boards and individuals to stand up against this pressure, and in short order we'll see a Taliban-style collapse of the Darwinian stranglehold over public education.