Monday, September 12, 2005
A desert mirage giving the illusion of water, such as in the photo above, is a phenomenon of refraction caused by variations in air density. It is an example of how our sense perceptions can be fooled. The idea put forward by Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe that we can easily recognize the effects of intelligent design in nature fails to account for well-known problems with the way we perceive the world around us.
Fourth in the series, "If it quacks like a duck... " (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3)
Michael Behe, the Lehigh University biochemist, Discovery Institute fellow, and intelligent design activist wrote a Feb. 7, Op-Ed (read it for free, here, courtesy of our friends at the Discovery Institute) in the New York Times titled, "Design for Living" asserting:
"The strong appearance of design [in nature] allows a disarmingly simple argument: if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it's a duck. Design should not be overlooked simply because it's so obvious."
Over the past week, in a series of posts, Red State Rabble examined a number of examples of apparent design -- Mars canals, star patterns, cloud shapes, and the Mars face -- that led some to infer intelligent design, either by god or extraterrestrials, when, in fact, they were simply a product of well-understood and widely accepted natural phenomena.
What these examples illustrate is that we human beings sometimes see just what we want or expect to see. There is an additional problem standing in the way of accepting at face value Behe's assertion that design is obvious -- actually there are several, but we'll deal with them one at a time.
Key among these problems is the fact that many of the findings of science are counterintuitive, in that they seem to violate common sense.
Most of us would guess, if we did not know, that heavy objects fall faster than light objects -- that, for example an anvil would fall faster than a pencil -- but, because of Galileo's experiments with falling objects -- we now know that gravity pulls all objects downward at the same speed, regardless of their weight. Wind resistance may affect results, but all objects fall at the same speed in the vacuum of space.
If you were to sit quietly in a chair on the equator, your senses would tell you that you're not moving, when, in fact, due the speed of the earth's rotation you're spinning along at a little more than 1,000 miles an hour.
Our senses tell us the ground under our feet is still and unmoving. That's why the idea that the sun rotates around the earth was so hard to dislodge. Galileo's defense of the heliocentric solar system first proposed by Copernicus got him in trouble with the religious authorities. That's why we can think of him as the Darwin of his day.
The idea that the earth isn't flat is goes against common sense, as well. Each of us feel instinctively that anyone on the other side of the globe -- it's always the people on the other side -- will fall off the surface of the planet.
In addition, there are a number of well-known problems with bias that must be accounted for in conducting any kind of scientific research. There is selection, also known as sampling bias; measurement bias, and investigator bias – among many others.
How does Behe rule out selection bias, we might ask, when he asserts that some objects, such as the Rocky Mountains, are not a product of intelligent design? What evidence does he offer?
Scientists who have an investment in their own research, or a strong expectation of the outcome, and a belief that the hand of god is at work guiding natural processes may just be one of the strongest of expectations, may suffer from investigator bias. Behe's belief – a form of bias -- that design is obvious may lead him to infer design even when there is no evidence for it.
The failure of Behe, and other ID proponents, to describe the characteristics of intelligent design is really political in nature. They need to circumvent the courts, who have ruled against teaching creation science in public school science classrooms, but they also need the political support of biblical literalists -- who beleive the world is less than 10,000 years old, that man and the dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time, that the biblical flood was an actual event in earth history -- if they are to succeed.
This puts them in the odd position of supporting a "theory" that is incapable of doing the heavy lifting required of a scientific theory, a theory that does not even rise to the level of hypothesis.
The ID activists refuse to put forward any real, testable hypotheses because to do so would reveal their agenda not only to scientific opponents, but to their fundamentalist followers, and to do either is fatal to intelligent design.
Perhaps, as others have already pointed out, the real problem with the Behe method is that it puts assumptions ahead of evidence. ID takes the position that the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. Real scientists, in this sense, are from Missouri -- they won't take Behe's word for it. He's going to have to show them the evidence.