Monday, November 14, 2005

Memo to Mark Shea: Reason is not the exact same thing as Science.

It might be worth going over in detail something that seems to really bug pro Intelligent Design types like Mark (who is a great guy by the way and runs a fun, engaging blog even for Evil, Dark Side pro-Darwin Papists like myself):

Why doesn’t the scientific establishment take the idea seriously?

Straight answer is: it isn’t science, but bear with me as I explain why.

Let it be said that Michael Behe begins with a perfectly reasonable observation, based on his experience as a biochemist:

1. the bacterial flagellum is extremely complex. He submits, it is too complex for evolution by natural selection to explain its development.

Fair enough. Many scientists have and do disagree, but at this point, no real problem.

Why?

Because –most scientists would be expecting Behe, as a scientist, to take the next two steps:

Let's have some fun imagining it:

2. Behe introduces the idea that some new, more dynamic system is responsible or co-responsible for the development of complex machines like the bacterial flagellum. It is a deterministic system, has nothing to do with chance and may not need natural selection. He suggests that some principle of auto-catalysis or self-organization (utilizing chaos theory) is responsible for this developmental process.

3. He calls Bill Dembski and says, “Bill, I got this problem. Is there a mathematical algorithm that might express itself in biochemical systems that could be responsible for the relatively fast development of a bacterial flagellum, or the blood clotting cascade?”

Bill says: “Let me get to work on this and I’ll get back to you.”

Six months or a year later, Behe and Dembski submit a paper to Nature arguing that the well-known Such-and-such Algorithm may have a physical counterpart in nature—indeed right inside the cell, and is potentially responsible (note their caution when they say potentially) for the evolution of complex parts of cells, such as the flagellum.

Fine.

“We suggest,” they further write, “a possible experiment in the lab to test this theory.” And they provide at least the outline of this test using some generations of fast-reproducing bacteria. NOTE: they don’t have to show that the flagellum actually evolves this way in front of our observational instruments. All they have to show to gain some interest in their theory is that the bacteria evince the development of some complexity and that it indeed seems to follow this algorithm.

Their paper gets published because it sounds like a new approach and it outlines testable features.

Six months later, Team Z headed by Drs. X and Y in the UK submit a paper to Science. They write how they came up with not just one but two ways based on Behe and Dembski’s outline on how to test Behe and Dembski’s theory. They describe their experiments, with graphics, data and conclude that… their results don’t seem to support the theory.

But wait.

A month later, another team from Japan publishes in the journal Cell, saying, “hold on, we did the same two tests and came up with a third, and factoring out certain “noise” features that should be considered, we conclude that Behe and Dembski’s theory is a very possible process that may work in tangent with natural selection—or indeed in isolation of it. We suggest continued tests.”

Behe and Dembski are psyched. They crack a six pack. They start writing some more papers. Some colleagues get excited and ask if they can pile on.

This is the way that science works, as mundane as it sounds. And had Behe come up with such a hypothetical model, we might today all be talking about Behe’s Theory.

Now, when pro-ID types get irate and wonder why most scientists don’t give the theory the time of day, it’s precisely because neither Behe nor Dembski have in fact done any of this kind of work. (Dembski’s information theory fluff basically tries to provide a mathematical undergirding for Behe’s dubious irreducible complexity.)

Instead, they stopped at point one. That’s it. Game over. We surrender. It’s just too hard to figure out. God did it. (No, wait, a giant blancmange from the planet Skyron in the Galaxy of Andromeda did it.) Whatever.

They decided…complexity is too hard to explain by science; they dropped their tools, so to say, and they leaped from point one to a non-scientific conclusion: that some intelligent agent (basically God) is responsible.

Most scientists and educated people are predictably underwhelmed. It’s a non-scientific ‘conclusion’. Meaning, by it’s very nature, it cannot be tested. And since neither Behe nor Dembski have bothered to even suggest a model by which some other mechanism than natural selection could be posited, most scientists conclude that neither Behe nor Dembski are serious.

I’m kind of bummed.

When the Dover plaintiff’s attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe during his testimony in the Dover case, what was the mechanism for ID, Behe essentially punted. Even though he explicitly said in his book that ID can propose a mechanism for ID. But Behe has never delivered in the 9 years since his book came out. No mechanism for ID. He pulled a Bill Clinton on the stand and started equivocating about what he really meant by the word mechanism.

Worse than that, he admitted that the definition of science basically needs to be broadened to accommodate his theory. Broadened so far that mumbo jumbo like astrology gets equal time.

This is why Intelligent Design isn’t taken seriously as science.

Kenneth Miller cites plenty of peer-reviewed papers that at least take the time and the trouble to explain how complex systems evolved by natural selection (not by pure chance, by the way, as many Christians utterly innocent of Darwin’s theory believe).

That in a nutshell is why Darwin still rules.

ID may have a future in philosophy class. Not in science class.

(Yeah, I’m a Catholic. I ain’t got a problem with Darwin. So sue me.)

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