Scott LaFee, from the San Diego UNION-TRIBUNE, proposed various questions about ID to several different scientists. So crack open a cold one, kick back, and enjoy the show.
QUESTION: How do you define science? Is intelligent design science?
Phil Unitt, an ornithologist from the San Diego Natural History Museum, answers:
Science is a mental activity consisting of observation and experimentation, synthesized by interpretation. The interpretation consists of developing a story that is consistent with the results of observation and experimentation. The key concept that distinguishes science from nonscience is that if new observations and experiments contradict the story, the story must be changed to accommodate them.
The challenge of science "“ the fun of science "“ is to make observations that compel the story to be changed or expanded. A story is not science if it is not open to testing "“ to change "“ by further observation and experimentation. Observations and experiments must be independently verified, or verifiable.
This all sounds good to me. So let's file it away for a later date.
Christopher Wills, a professor of biology from UCSD answers:
Advocates of intelligent design have observed the world, and have proposed the hypothesis that some vast intelligence must have created it because the world (or at least some portion of it) is too complicated to have arisen through natural processes.
I'm not sure where advocates of ID argue that the world is too complicated to have arisen through natural processes, but I can say this line of reasoning is not the basis for any design inference I would make.
This is their hypothesis, and it is in principle testable.
This is a significant assertion, given that many critics of ID argue the opposite, claiming that ID is inherently untestable.
Wills offers some examples of ways to test ID:
For example, one could look for messages or other evidence for the existence of a vast intelligence (see Carl Sagan's novel "Contact" for a fictional example).
But this is the very approach that is advocated by Bill Dembski. He considers something like a "message," asking what is it about the message that signals its origin from mind and then proposes such a signal (complex specified information).
Wills also adds:
Or, in the case of evolution, one could search for sudden discontinuities in the history of life, in which a new structure or function has arisen without any previous history and no relationship to structures or functions in other related organisms. (Such new structures have not yet been found, by the way.)
Well, this is the approach advocated by Mike Behe, where Behe identifies irreducible complexity as such a "sudden discontinuity."
Now, while the critics are not convinced by Dembski and Behe's attempt to detect design, doesn't it look like Wills is effectively endorsing the basic approach of these ID theorists? That is, he seems to be saying that if ID advocates want ID to be science, they should be looking in the places where Dembski and Behe are looking. This is a significant point given that many critics of ID argue that Dembski and Behe are entirely misguided and are simply trying to rationalize their religious beliefs. Wills helps us to see that if a critic were to stumble upon something that raises a serious suspicion of ID, that critic would likely begin to think along the lines of Dembski and Behe.
Exequiel Ezcurra, director of scientific research at the San Diego Natural History Museum gives us the standard argument about ID violating the basic rules of science:
It is based on the acceptance of the existence of a completely unnecessary conjecture "“ that of a supernatural "intelligent designer" "“ and violates one of the most basic principles of scientific philosophy, the principle of parsimony, which states that natural effects should be explained through natural causes and that unnecessary hypotheses should be discarded when trying to understand the way the natural world works.
So here is not a question of evidence or testing, but a question of requiring a "natural cause" explanation for phenomena. Given that over 90% of scientists equate the concept of ID with a supernatural cause, those who think like Ezcurra are ruling out ID in an a priori fashion. This position paints itself into a very uncomfortable corner.
Dr. Evan Snyder a neurologist and director of the Stem Cells and Regeneration Program at The Burnham Institute gives us the "you better watch out" reply:
If an "intelligent designer" is equated with "God," then, if they are true scientists, they must now spend their time trying to disprove the existence of God. I am not sure if the proponents of ID are prepared to go down that route "“ training a classroom of students to design experiments that rule out the existence of God. Yet, if they wish to add ID to the scientific curriculum, that is precisely what they must be prepared to do.
There are two big problems here. First, ID does not equate the intelligent designer with God. For example, if we consider the approaches of Dembski and Behe (echoed by Wills), neither one is dependent on the assumption that the designer is God. Furthermore, a successful design inference, based on these criteria, is insufficient for concluding that God is the designer. Secondly, ID is an attempt to detect design. Failure to detect design simply means that we failed to detect design with current methods. It doesn't mean that design does not exist. The conclusion of design may still exist in the realm of theology or philosophy, as neither perspective mandates that all of God's design should be detectable. For example, disproving ID does not disprove theistic evolution, as the position of many theistic evolutionists (such as Ken Miller) is that God's designs are too subtle to be detected by science.
We now turn to the next question.
QUESTION: A central tenet of intelligent design is that some aspects of life are "irreducibly complex." That is, certain biological systems are so complicated that they could not have evolved incrementally through random mutation and natural selection. Your response.
The thing that is immediately obvious is that the question fails to accurately describe irreducible complexity, as it is not about being "too complicated." Nevertheless, let's turn to the answers.
Jeffrey Bada, a marine chemist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography answers:
One cited example, among many, is how life began on Earth. Although we still do not fully understand the origin of life from a scientific point-of-view, research continues to provide vital information about the possible processes that may or may not have been involved.
There is optimism that science will eventually provide an understanding of at least the basic processes. Intelligent design claims that the processes involved are scientifically unknowable and thus must be explained by a supernatural or extraterrestrial creator.
This is akin to the widely held 19th century theory of panspermia that life on Earth began from a spore or seed from outer space. Scientific research subsequently demonstrated that panaspermia was not a testable and verifiable scientific theory and the same applies to intelligent design today.
Bada is clearly replying to the "too complicated" point rather than IC. But there are a couple of points worth commenting on. First, note that while Wills agrees that ID is testable, Bada tells us it is not. As you can clearly see, scientists disagree among themselves concerning such a fundamental issue as the testability of ID.
Secondly, Bada is correct in noting science's emphasis on the process (or mechanism). The problem here is that the non-teleological process may be quite different from the teleological process, such that it would be a mistake to treat the latter as another example of the former. For example, the teleological process may be best thought of as a recipe or protocol and information contained within such processes is extrinsic to the designed artifact. What's most interesting to me is that Bada would apparently be content with "an understanding of at least the basic processes." That's fine. But would it have anything to do with our history?
Moselio Schaechter, adjunct professor of biology at SDSU, answers:
How can anyone say that something is irreducibly complex, thus evolution impossible? How do they know? Could it not just escape our present state of understanding? Weren't phenomena such as how inheritance takes place thought to be unfathomable not long ago?
A very common reply "“ a version of the "god of the gaps" complaint. But wait, didn't Wills just suggest that we look for "sudden discontinuities in the history of life, in which a new structure or function has arisen without any previous history and no relationship to structures or functions in other related organisms?" Isn't the reason we're supposed to look for such a thing is so that we can come up with something evolution could not explain? If we found such a sudden discontinuity, people like Schaechter would simply argue it was a gap. Or what about John Rennie, editor of Scientific American? While dumping on Wells' hypothesis about centrioles, Rennie writes:
Even if the centrioles do turn out to generate a turbine force, that doesn't indicate they were designed to that end. All it proves is that centrioles act like little turbines. Unless they can establish that centrioles couldn't have evolved to function as turbines, they haven't done anything to validate ID.
Did you see that? An editor of Scientific American explains that Wells has to establish that centrioles could not have evolved to function as turbines. In other words, Wells needs to establish the centrioles as a gap, just so someone like Schaechter can come along and complain Wells is proposing gaps. It looks to me like the all the skeptical bases are covered here.
The next two replies don't seem all that persuasive/coherent to me. Dr. Mark Tuszynski, a neurologist/neuroscientist from UCS, thinks the Miller-Urey experiments successfully mimicked the ancient Earth and then argues, with enough time, one can imagine the building blocks transforming into cells. Yeah, I can imagine that.
Dr. Joshua Fierer, a professor of medicine and pathology at UCS, wonders whether sickle cell anemia was designed and its not clear to me if he understands the role of heterozygosity in maintaining such alleles.
Okay, time for a new question:
QUESTION: Many mainstream scientists have chosen to ignore or avoid the debate over intelligent design. Why?
This is going to be good.
Dr. Ajit P. Varki a professor of medicine from UCSD, tells us that scientists have been killed for providing evidence against a flat earth. Does anyone know who he is talking about?
Varki closes with:
Since such positions would be based strictly on faith, there is little point in discussing them, let alone giving them undeserved legitimacy.
Thus, this professor of medicine hears "faith" when he reads "ID." As such, he waves it away with his hands.
It gets better with J. David Archibald, a professor of biology at SDSU:
One should never debate such lunacy. It implies that there is something to debate. It only gives it legitimacy it does not deserve.
In Archibald's mind, ID is lunacy. As such, he waves it away with his hands.
Time for the final question.
QUESTION: One key principle of intelligent design is the belief that there are questions about life and the universe that science cannot answer, now or in the future. Your response.
Now that's odd, as I don't recall reading this as a "key principle" of ID. Anyway, let's check out the responses to this "key principle."
Tom Demere, a paleontologist from the San Diego Natural History Museum, writes:
I have to admit that it is not that clear to me just what constitutes ID. Since I could find no research papers published in peer-reviewed scientific publications on the subject, I have had to rely on Internet sources.
It shouldn't have been too hard to obtain Meyer's article, Behe's book, or one of Dembski's book. But if he's going to look to the internet, I'm partial to this site (even if its not mainstream ID). Anyway, the odd question has Demere thinking that ID entails the abandonment of scientific research. Oh well.
Michael Mayer, an associate professor of biology at USD, says:
I don't know of any working scientist who is ready to throw in the towel on any question regarding the life sciences or physical sciences.
Consider the question, "Were the first life forms designed?" It would seem many working scientists have thrown in the towel on that question, for as Demere just noted, there are no scientific papers that ask and explore this question. Now don't make the mistake of thinking in "us vs. them" terms here. Consider the simple sociological fact that the scientific community doesn't ask and explore that question in its literature. There are either lots of towels on the ground or lots of people don't think the question is interesting.
Lastly, Michael Simpson, a professor of biology from SDS, says:
I believe this is basically a religious or faith question. It seems to me that many who support this notion of intelligent design are doing so to bolster their own religious beliefs, specifically that there is a God, a divine creator. They are disturbed and angry and frightened that what is central in their lives is not generally taught or even mentioned in public schools, and they might view science in general (and evolutionary theory specifically) as a threat, e.g., to a particular set of religious beliefs.
We end with some psychoanalysis from a biologist, yet the psychoanalysis is simply a stereotype. What matters is we have another biologist who hears "religious faith" when "ID" is spoken/written.
Wrap up time.
I appreciate LaFee's effort to recruit various scientists to speak about ID. In fact, there are some "big picture" lessons here. We've seen quite a few perceptions about ID which don't seem to be all that informed about ID. The questions asked by the staff of the Union-Tribune are a case in point. And not only are some of the questions weird, you'll notice a big picture of a Nautilis shell with the following caption:
Proponents of "intelligent design" contend that aspects of life, from the beauty of a nautilus shell to the clotting mechanism of red blood cells, are too complex to have simply evolved through random mutation and natural selection.
Huh? Who has argued that the Nautilus shell is too complex to have evolved?
More importantly, consider the perceptions entailed in the answers from the scientific community: ID=God, ID=religion, ID=faith, ID comes from a tradition that kills scientists, ID=lunacy, and ID is not testable. Remember that the people who hold these views are among the pool of peer-reviewers who are supposed to peer review ID.