“Science Says You’re Wrong!” – How (Not) to Deal with Intelligent Design

The Internet isn’t a very structured place. Sure, there are central nodes of activity, such as Twitter, Facebook and popular blogging networks, but you don’t have to run your content by any formal body or group in order to place it up on a personal website. There are many reasons why this is a good thing – it encourages creativity and freedom of expression, for example – and nobody who values such a “free marketplace of ideas”, as the Internet has been called, would want to change it.

But this eschewing of structure does cause some inevitable problems, especially when it comes to the general style of the communicative output of particular communities and movements. While many online movements, such as that of skepticism, to pick a relevant example, pride themselves on a lack of central organisation, when it comes down to how they spread their “message” there are as many techniques and general approaches as there are blogs in the electronic aether. Some of these techniques work and some of them don’t, but it is often hard to tell, from the perspective of the person who’s communicating, which one does the job. There is currently considerable debate in the atheist and skeptical movements as to which approaches should be encouraged and which ones should be discarded, popularly known as “Confrontation vs. Accommodation” in the atheist movement1 and “Do/Don’t Be A Dick” in the skeptical movement.

This post isn’t going to wade into those particularly treacherous waters, but it is going to look at an area of skeptical communication that isn’t often discussed with regards to approach – the issue of communicating with, and addressing the arguments of, intelligent design proponents and the ID movement in general.

The differences between intelligent design and creationism

Intelligent design is usually seen by its critics as a recent offshoot, or even modern continuation, of the Biblical creationism movement based in the US. While this may be accurate from a broad, historical perspective, the reality at the level of the actions of the movement may be quite different. It is certainly true that particular pro-ID organisations such as the Discovery Institute have a clear foundation in orthodox Christian belief not dissimilar to the basic theology of traditional creationists, but this is where the definite link to creationism stops. To those who want to combat it, ID can’t be treated as simply another version of the creationism that everyone knows about.

Like any organic, modern movement, much like the skeptical movement in many ways, the ID movement reaches out to individuals, individuals who do not necessarily hold the same beliefs and opinions as the people behind the main organisations involved. While it’s easy to generalise and place all intelligent design proponents and supporters into the same box as young- and old-earth creationists, this is not a sensible thing to do, for a few reasons.

Firstly, not all self-identified supporters of ID also identify as creationists. While the two ideas are certainly compatible, ID does not require a belief in a literal interpretation of Genesis or indeed any religious text. As such, ID can stand alone as a self-sustaining proposition. Secondly, ID supporters don’t base their arguments on religion, but instead on what they perceive as the scientific method and scientific evidence. While some may incorporate theology into discussions about ID, there are others that never will or don’t want to. Thirdly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, ID2 is less scientific than the overall concept of Biblical creationism, at least when it comes to potential falsification.

This third point possibly requires a little more explanation. Biblical creationists3 essentially have a detailed model of how the Universe and life arose: the God of the Bible created everything in a six-day period approximately 6000 years ago in the order laid out in the Book of Genesis. This model, on its face, makes numerous predictions about the world around us that are, in principle, testable. For example, if the Earth really was 6000 years old, we could predict that the radiometric dating of rocks would be consistent with this figure, or if all life was created at once without any common ancestry, we could predict that we would never find fossil specimens that exhibit features transitional between those of major groups of modern organisms. In reality, these predictions have not been successful and an intellectually honest creationist would recognise this and admit their model to be flawed and falsified.

Obviously, modern creationists do not admit this, and that is one of the main reasons why creationism is not a scientific idea: its proponents refuse to admit when their hypotheses are falsified or when their model is shown to be flawed at nearly every level. To account for inconsistent radiometric dating data, they claim that basic principles of nuclear physics are wrong; to account for the existence of transitional fossil species, they claim either the specimens do not exist or that they are hoaxes. In short, their ideas seem superficially scientific and have the potential to be so on some level, but break down into pseudoscientific ad hoc rationalisation when subjected to the proper process of science.

Let’s compare this with intelligent design4. Unlike Biblical creationism, ID doesn’t have a model of how life arose and it doesn’t make testable predictions. This lack of predictions is due to the characteristic-less nature of the Designer: if nothing is known about the being that hypothetically created life then nothing can be predicted about the life that it hypothetically created. No design patterns can be tested for in morphologies, no particular qualities can be searched for in genomes or physiologies – there aren’t any qualities to life that can be predicted from the basic concept of intelligent design, and thus it can’t be falsified. No predictions means no testing, and no testing means no possibility of falsification. This is in contrast to Biblical creationism – creationism at least predicts something about biology, as we’ve seen. It appears to be, functionally, more scientific than ID.

To summarise so far: ID proponents aren’t necessarily creationists, ID isn’t based on religious arguments, and creationism and ID have differing degrees of scientific character. So how does this factor into forming an appropriate approach towards ID?

Transitioning away from critiquing creationism

Because of their different argumentative styles and bases, anyone who wants to move from addressing the claims of Biblical creationism to addressing the claims of intelligent design needs to tread carefully. While it might seem rhetorically powerful, equating the two often works against the person who claims it. ID proponents will waste no time in a discussion or response before effectively countering and the ID critic will be left looking like they have no idea what it is they’re arguing against.

But a straight-out equivocation between ID and creationism isn’t the only thing to avoid. References to religion in general are completely unnecessary in the context of a discussion about only intelligent design – for example, if one was debating an ID proponent about the scientific merits of ID, arguing that the Designer is God (and therefore ID has no place in science) would be a bad idea. Again, a savvy ID proponent would quickly dismantle the argument and use it against whoever made it. The ID proponent’s personal religious beliefs are also superfluous in this context.

However, the removal of religion from the discussion doesn’t make it acceptable to suddenly insert science. Remember how ID has less scientific character than creationism, bordering on none at all? This makes it fairly immune from scientific criticism in the form of falsification arguments. While such arguments may work against creationism, with its superficial falsifiability, they are certainly not effective against ID. Unfortunately, these arguments are frequently used by many ID critics, in particular Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, who have both attempted them in their popular books on evolution5. The most common is popularly recognised as the “bad design” argument: the existence of imperfections in many biological systems proves that they were not intelligently designed. But ID proponents have a potent response to this, centering around the fact that design does not necessarily imply perfect design, and this is true: with a Designer lacking defining qualities, ID is perfectly consistent with any level of design optimality6.

Another example of the kind of scientific arguments that are effective7 against creationism but useless when it comes to intelligent design are those pertaining directly to evolution. Because of its (theoretically) rigid explanatory model, Biblical creationism is completely incompatible with the evolutionary concept of common descent, so any argument that establishes and explains how all organisms are related to one another serves the dual purpose of supporting evolution and working against creationism. However, the same cannot be said when the argument is made in the context of ID, because, as many ID proponents submit8, it has no problem with incorporating common descent into its model of the development of life on Earth. They claim that ID need only be invoked when a biological system cannot be explained by evolutionary processes, such as in the case of irreducible complexity. The fact that this is an argument from ignorance will be touched upon later, but for now it’s only important to realise that ID proponents can easily wriggle out of any argument an ID critic makes using evolutionary biology, and thus they should be avoided.

So, we’ve moved away from treating intelligent design like we would creationism. What’s next?

Solidifying the approach against intelligent design

As I’ve hopefully made clear, intelligent design isn’t your typical pseudoscientific idea. You can’t critique ID like you would a discredited alternative medicine modality like homeopathy, by producing disconfirmatory papers of its efficacy or explaining how it violates the known laws of physics and chemistry. ID is unfalsifiable – almost the perfect example of a completely unscientific idea. We’ve learnt what not to do: so how does someone go about standing up to the many ID proponents that associate with the Discovery Institute and friends? What do they say and do? It’s certainly something that deserves a bit of thought on the behalf of the ID critic.

Most encounters with ID aren’t in a formal debate scenario, but in an informal discussion or a series of blog posts, where proceedings are a lot looser. However, because of the regularly-shifting strategies and argumentative approaches of many ID proponents, it’s often sensible to be grounded at the start with a series of points that should be brought up throughout, or, if they are questions, asked, much like one would have in a debate. These points could be about ID’s unfalsifiability, its lack of testable predictions, its seeming reliance on the apparent failings of evolution, and so on. The general focus should be about bringing up reasons why ID isn’t scientific so that the ID proponent is on the defensive. Attention should be squarely on ID – the critic shouldn’t become distracted by negative claims about evolution, unless that was one of the original reasons the discussion was initiated. Defending evolutionary theory is always important, but sometimes it’s simply a side issue to ID’s scientific credibility (or lack thereof).

Another good point to bring up, especially if the proponent is from the Discovery Institute (as they are the worst offenders of this), would be the “bad design paradox”9, as it forces them to make a decision between hypothesising about the qualities of the Designer, which is probably not going to happen, or admitting that ID doesn’t make predictions. While the ID critic is on the topic of inconsistencies and problems with the argumentation of ID proponents, it would be a good time for them to bring up the many arguments from ignorance and false dichotomy logical fallacies that proponents commit when arguing for ID via the illogical method of identifying biological systems that evolution cannot yet explain. This throws more evidence onto the pile that ID isn’t a scientific hypothesis that is being supported with testing and evidence, but rather an unscientific concept that requires rhetoric and logical fallacies to maintain an illusion of being scientific.

Ideally, the critic should just be constantly challenging the proponent to provide justifications for classifying intelligent design as a scientific hypothesis and then addressing those justifications. No claims about being able to falsify ID. No claims that ID is just another form of religious creationism. No random asides about how powerful evolutionary theory is. ID deserves to be under the electron microscope and it’s every critic’s job to make that happen every time they converse with an ID proponent.

Now, remember that this can all be applied to situations where an ID proponent is not present and one is presenting a case against ID in a vacuum – for example, in a newspaper article or a radio show. In fact, these are often the most important times to get the approach correct, as the responses are usually fairly public and can go a long way in influencing public opinion about ID.

The approach, summarised

  • ID is not Biblical creationism and it shouldn’t be claimed as such.
  • ID is not religious and it shouldn’t be claimed as such.
  • Scientific arguments will not work against ID due to its unscientific nature and should not be used.
  • The main problem with ID is it is unfalsifiable and makes no testable predictions, rendering it unscientific – this should be emphasised and demonstrated at every opportunity.
  • Evolutionary biology should only be mentioned when defending it from attacks, and not used as evidence against any part of ID.
  • Arguments from ignorance and false dichotomies used by ID proponents should be pointed out as soon as they occur.
  • ID proponents should be kept on the defensive as much as possible.

This approach will hopefully help prevent many of the mistakes some critics of intelligent design frequently make, mistakes that lead to opportunistic PR backlashes by prominent ID organisations such as the Discovery Institute. If all skeptics, atheists and evolutionary biologists tried to follow these guidelines when combating intelligent design, perhaps the ID movement would find itself in a much less comfortable position.

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  1. “Confrontation vs. Accommodation” does have components with focuses other than communication, but it is still a valid general example.
  2. I’m referring to “pure” ID here, the basic idea of an unidentified designer with no known qualities – this is the definition of ID that the Discovery Institute seems to implicitly endorse. Go here for more information about this concept.
  3. Let’s assume they’re the young-earth variety.
  4. Again, I’m referring to “pure” ID, and will be for the rest of the article.
  5. In fact, the bulk of their specific criticism of ID seems to be in the form of pointing out “bad design”, which I personally find extremely disappointing. I expect more from such high-profile evolutionary biologists.
  6. This counter-argument doesn’t get ID proponents off the hook though, as it perfectly highlights a paradox in their approach to testability – go here for more on this.
  7. I’m defining “effective” as “convincing to an intellectually honest creationist, one not so committed to the Bible that they would distort evidence to preserve its authority”.
  8. This will vary from proponent to proponent, but it doesn’t hurt to be safe.
  9. Go here for more on this.

5 thoughts on ““Science Says You’re Wrong!” – How (Not) to Deal with Intelligent Design”

  1. I totaly agree on your depiction of ID movement as unscientific and the fact that it appeals to the false dichotomy "if 'darwinism' is wrong, then ID is right". However, I slightly disagree about the idea of ID not being religious. I think it is creationism in disguise for at least two reasons:

    • Because of the way ID tenets are constructed, they imply that a designer exhibits too much complex specified information to have originated by natural causes. Therefore the logical conclusion is that either there is an infinite regression of designers, or an "undesigned designer" which by all purposes is the same as a metaphysical deity. Therefore, ID movement is not just based on a generic argument for design, it's pretty much an argument for deism.

    • If somebody is an ID proponent, there is a very high probability that he is also a theist (and very specially christian fundamentalist), which seems to indicate a religious bias. You cannot establish such a correlation between, say, evolutionism and atheism.

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