Thoughts on the first three chapters of Dembski and Witt’s “Intelligent Design Uncensored”

As mentioned, I have a couple of pro-ID books that need to be read and reviewed these holidays: Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer, and Intelligent Design Uncensored by William Dembski and Jonathan Witt. While I’ve done preliminary readings of both books, in order to grasp their overall structure and scope, I recently started reading the latter in a greater level of detail.

What I’ve found has not been pretty.

Yes, Intelligent Design Uncensored is not a very healthy book to read, if you get angry at slick rhetoric in place of rigorous argumentation, blatant strawman arguments, and an easily digestible style of writing that doesn’t at all match with the supposed gravity of the topic at hand. Unfortunately, those are some of the things that push my buttons, so I’m not a happy little “Darwinist”. No sir.

In fact, it has been so infuriating so far that I’m seriously considering not doing a proper review of it: it may not be worth my time nor my effort. Meyer’s Signature is a much more worthy target – it’s held up by the ID community as some shiny tome of pure knowledge, blessed to humanity from the heavens, whilst Dembski and Witt’s book is a barely-mentioned teaching tool for prospective members.

Then again, Casey Luskin seems to think it’s pretty good:

Intelligent Design Uncensored: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the Controversy is a book I’ve long hoped that someone would write. Don’t get me wrong — there are other good books out there that explain the fundamentals of intelligent design (ID) in plain language. But with clarity, elegance, and accuracy, Intelligent Design Uncensored fills this niche better than most. The authors, Dr. William Dembski (an expert in the technical arguments for ID) and Dr. Jonathan Witt (a writer with a strong grasp of the relevant science) — both Discovery Institute senior fellows — make an ideal team.

Hmm. We’ll see if a review is worth investing in once I’ve finished the detailed reading.

But anyway, I wanted to use this post to document some of the most annoying bits from the first three chapters of Intelligent Design Uncensored. Strap yourselves in, it could get painful.

Preach, baby, preach

The majority of Chapter 1 is in the form of a fictional story, where you – a software architect  – find yourself invited1 on an advanced spacecraft voyage to a distant planet, along with a physicist and a submarine engineer. As you approach the planet, it appears to be a wondrously complex object, almost like a space station! What an engineering marvel! Whoever designed this must have been quite advanced, you all think. As you enter a port in the side of the station, giant staircases appear, winding throughout the interior of th-

Hang on a minute. Oh no, you’ve been hoodwinked! What you thought was a spacecraft was actually a special shrinking ship, and you’re inside a cell! That’s right, those perfectly ordered, beautiful helices are actually DNA molecules – who knew? And you inferred design before you realised! Hah! Looks like ID is perfectly reasonable after all!

Yeah. That’s exactly what it’s like. But even that might have been bearable, if it weren’t for the addition of two other characters to the story: the “Darwinist” pilot and the ID-sympathising captain of the vessel, who knew all along. This bit of dialogue sent me over the edge:

The woman beside you – the physicist – interrupts. “How crude could it have been if it could build copies of itself? We’ve never managed to build a factory that could build a factory that could build a factory that could build a…”

“What are you suggesting?” the pilot snaps. “Are you some sort of religious freak?”

The physicist blinks, disoriented by the seemingly random charge. “No, I…” She tries again. “I just mean that the engineers who built this must have been brilliant. It’s phenomenal.”

Subtle, Dembski and Witt, subtle.

The captain and the pilot (who seems extremely irate compared to his calm and collected superior officer) discuss talking points of the ID movement over the last decade and a half, even mentioning Michael Behe, although not by name. And it all feels very… preachy. I don’t know how else to describe it. I know the point of the book is to stand as an accessible read for students or people without any prior knowledge of intelligent design, but it seems to be written for intellectually-challenged people who need everything spelled out for them, letter by letter: the pilot is angry because he’s wrong; the cell is a giant factory and DNA is software code, and random mutations don’t produce factories or software code; and intelligent design proponents are reasonable individuals who just want to get at the truth, without materialistic blinders. The logic is slippery and hard to define, yet at the same time easy to understand. You don’t really need to think about it too hard – it all makes sense!

Evil Darwinists want to deny God and vanquish love

Chapter 2 starts off all about how most “Darwinists” are actually philosophical materialists (aka. atheists, they are quick to point out) who don’t want to acknowledge that (supernatural) design is a possible force in the universe, and that methodological materialism is just a ploy so that God can stay out of science:

In its most ambitious form, methodological materialism says that we can believe whatever we want in our personal life, but when we’re doing serious academic work, we should only consider and defend explanations consistent with philosophical materialism. Otherwise, we might invoke the divine for things that later get explained by purely material forces – things like lightning or storms or romantic love. And wouldn’t that be embarrassing, God getting squeezed out of the little gaps we stuffed him into? Better to play it safe by assuming that everything in the universe has some purely material cause – the origin of human language, the origin of life, the origin of the universe and so forth. Better to keep God tucked away, safely outside the universe.

This single paragraph highlights Dembski and Witt’s angle: they’re writing for theists who are unsure about whether or not to accept ID, and their case is that if you don’t accept ID (or at least reject “Darwinism”) you’re not a proper theist – philosophical materialists are stealing your religious beliefs and slowly driving the divine out of all aspects of our lives.

Heavy stuff. But it’s written so lightly! As Michael Behe says on the back cover, they make it fun! Yay! What’s not fun about a sub-heading called “From Darwin to the Death of God”?

They then move swiftly to the social implications of “Darwinism” (including the use of the aforementioned sub-heading) and the fine-tuning, cosmological aspect of ID. They give two paragraphs (two!) on the firing-squad fallacy: what they term the main problem with the weak anthropic principle, the traditional answer to the fine-tuning argument. The reason this struck me as particularly annoying is that philosophers have written substantial papers about this topic – one that immediately comes to mind is Sober 20092 – yet Dembski and Witt brush the topic off like it has been solved. They don’t even give any references.

The most egregious part of Chapter 2, however, is the segment on “consensus science”, and this is where a significant strawman is set up. Opponents of ID don’t really argue that ID shouldn’t be taken seriously because the majority of scientists reject it – what they actually say and believe is that ID shouldn’t be taken seriously because of the reasons why the majority of scientists reject it. The consensus against ID is a symptom of its numerous problems, not the full extent of its problems.

However, there’s nothing better than a good ol’ rhetorical smackdown, and they deliver this in spades via a quote from the late author (and global warming “skeptic”) Michael Critchton:

Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

 This quote… I don’t think anything had ever filled me with equal parts laughter and rage before this. Are ID proponents seriously going to stand behind this quote? What if ID, in the distant future, becomes the consensus? Would they then reject it, because “if it’s consensus, it isn’t science”? Nonsense.

Consensus results from good science and is often a good indicator that a theory or idea is well-supported. After all, germ theory, gravitational theory, plate tectonics and quantum mechanics are all consensus-backed, and I’m not sure ID proponents are quite ready to take them on.

Self-flagellation

Chapter 3 is all about the bacterial flagellum, and I really don’t want to have to think about what they wrote. It’s too depressing. Plus, you’ve heard it all before.

———

Yeah, so that’s the first three chapters. After I finish the whole thing, I’ll consider doing a proper review. Really, I only touched on about 20% of the arguments they give, any of which could be expanded into a full, substantial blog post (especially all that flagellum stuff, sheesh) – and it’s just before Christmas, I don’t have the energy!

Perhaps I should read some proper books on the philosophy of science and biology now, to get the sticky, pseudo-popsci residue off my brain before I go to sleep. Wouldn’t want to dream about being shrunk down into a cell, forced to forevermore marvel at its orgasmic beauty…

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  1. Actually, you win a lottery, but details don’t matter.
  2. Sober. Absence of evidence and evidence of absence: evidential transitivity in connection with fossils, fishing, fine-tuning, and firing squads. Philosophical studies (2009)

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