“Pro-ID”, “endorse ID” and “ID-friendly” – Holy terminological ambiguity, Batman!

Intelligent design, as a scientific hypothesis, is in trouble if it doesn’t have peer-reviewed papers establishing, analysing and providing evidence for its core ideas – so it’s no surprise that proponents of ID are quite adamant that such papers do in fact exist.

Casey Luskin, intelligent design expert and apparent head writer over at Evolution News & Views, is naturally no exception, and he recently answered an objection to the claim that over 50 peer-reviewed articles support ID: namely, that the majority of the articles cited by the Discovery Institute in this list do not mention ID at all.

His answer?

The short answer is that all of the articles endorse ID arguments, in one way or another, whether or not they use the term “intelligent design.”

Now, this post is not about to dissect all 50+ citations, that’s for someone else (or me, if I ever get some free time) to do at another time, but I would like to look at exactly how Casey describes the way these papers, even if they don’t mention it by name, “endorse” ID.

I believe there’s a distinction here that isn’t being adequately recognised – one between articles that provide positive evidence for ID and articles that provide positive evidence for ideas of ID proponents. This distinction is apparent, but not noted, within Casey’s post:

For example, there are papers by biochemist Michael Behe, who is clearly pro-ID, that don’t use the term ID. But those papers argue that the complexity of biological systems is too much for Darwinian mechanisms to produce. That’s an ID argument.

But what does he mean by an “ID argument”? Does ID really predict that naturalistic evolutionary mechanisms are unable to produce the complexity of biological systems, such as bacterial flagella? I don’t think it does. Whilst Behe and friends like to claim that such an inability demonstrates that intelligent intervention was required in the production of said systems (which is a false dichotomy), ID, if true, does not necessitate that evolutionary mechanisms are powerless to produce complexity, at least not under the extremely vague definition of ID put forward by proponents. So what is the “ID argument” here? It’s not actually an argument from ID that Behe is making: it’s an argument that evolution is unable to produce complexity, which is a personal belief of Behe (and of other proponents too).

Other examples can be found in the work of protein biochemist Douglas Axe, whose anti-evolution papers are glowingly cited in the DI’s list. His paper “The Case Against a Darwinian Origin of Protein Folds” (published in the semi-in-house journal BIO-Complexity) is all about demonstrating that functional protein folds cannot evolve by Darwinian mechanisms, and it is cited as pro-ID because ID proponents claim that ID is required to explain the origin of protein folds. But again, ID could be true and protein folds could be accessible by Darwinian mechanisms. It’s not a positive argument for ID that Axe is making.

These examples reflect that the majority of the papers cited in the DI’s list support not ID itself but the notions of the ID movement, many of which are technically unrelated to ID as a scientific hypothesis – and by using ambiguous phrases like “pro-ID”, “endorses basic ID arguments”, “the ID paradigm” and “ID-friendly”, Casey is helping blur the line.

What would be a proper positive argument for ID? Physical evidence that beings with the capability to produce life visited our planet in the past would be one. Perhaps a message left by these beings. Perhaps a message left in the genomes of all living things. These are just examples, it’s really up to the ID community to do the hard yards and generate testable predictions and find good evidence.

So what does this all mean for the legitimacy of the 50+ citations? Well, a lot of them are simply irrelevant when you draw the distinction between papers that support ID with positive evidence and papers that merely affirm the related beliefs of ID proponents. Out go the majority of the papers by Michael Behe, Douglas Axe, William Dembski and others! However, some survive this culling. Is ID therefore a legitimate scientific enterprise, fruitfully producing publishable results and making intellectual progress? Not necessarily.

It’s ultimately the job of the biological community at large to judge whether or not these papers are any good. Peer-review is not the only hurdle to a successfully published idea – it must also survive out in the wild. Will these papers make an impact? Will they be cited numerously and, more importantly, favourably? Will they inspire other researchers to follow the exciting new ideas and concepts present in intelligent design? Many of the non-culled “pro-ID” papers have been published in small journals with low impact factors, and are therefore unlikely to be taken seriously by many biologists – but if the hypotheses contained within are strongly supported, people will eventually notice.

The onus is on the ID community to produce good papers supporting the core ideas inherent to intelligent design. If they find unambiguously positive evidence for ID, the support of the academic community will start to swing their way. The current lack of such support is a clear indication that, despite much posturing, ID research still has a long way to go.

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