Friday, September 09, 2005


Duck Soup

Human beings often see the hand of god in the diverse patterns of nature.

Third in the series, "If it quacks like a duck... " (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 4)

Let's recap.

Last February 7, Michael Behe, the Lehigh University biochemist and intelligent design activist wrote an Op-Ed (read it for free, here, coutesy of our friends at the Discovery Institute) in the New York Times titled “Design for Living” in which he asserted:

"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... we can often recognize the effects of design in nature."

Over the past couple of days, Red State Rabble has argued -- and provided evidence to support -- that Behe failed to describe any characteristics by which we might identify the appearance of intelligent design in nature. He has also failed to supply an example of it.

We have also pointed out that in order to recognize something -- such as the effects of intelligent design in nature -- we must have previous experience or knowledge of it. Behe's failure to provide an example of the effects of intelligent design means that we have no point of reference to examine when we are trying to decide whether an object is a product of natural, human, or supernatural (intelligent) design.

We also raised the possibility that when intelligent design "theorists" such as Behe talk about the appearance of design, they are really talking about the patterns that are found in nature. Today we will look at how human beings perceive patterns in nature and the inferences they draw from them.

Human beings are so adept at discerning patterns that they sometimes see patterns where none exist. The pattern of stars, above left, in the constellation of Orion, the hunter, figures prominently in Greek mythology -- and that of many other cultures, as well. According to myth, Orion was stung to death by a scorpion sent by a jealous Hera. Zeus felt sorry for Orion and put him onto the sky.

Before we allow ourselves to feel too superior to the ancients and their primitive anthropomorphic myths based on the pattern of stars in the night sky, we should remember that Guillermo Gonzalez, an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Iowa State University, and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture writes in his book The Privileged Planet that the position of our planet in the universe, and the conditions that allow for intelligent life on Earth are no coincidence. The Earth, says Gonzalez, was practically designed for discovery.

Red State Rabble grew up in the days before Game Boys and Xbox. In those far off days, we whiled away our idle hours -- and there were many -- by finding shapes in the clouds.

The center photo, above, is posted on the Animals and the Afterlife website. Here's how they interpret the pattern made by a visible collection of very fine water droplets suspended in the sky: A "beautiful white dog named Timber was struck and killed by a speeding motorist while out on her morning walk... An amazing cloud formation appeared... in the evening sky directly above the spot where Timber was killed...
"Here is a copy of the original digital photograph of our little Timber jumping into the arms of a floating angel. Timber passed on about 8:00 the morning... and this anomaly appeared in the evening sky... that same evening. As supernatural as it sounds, we know it was her way of letting us know she was all right... and where she was going."
A 1976 news release by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration accompanying the photo, above right, reads,

"This picture is one of many taken in the northern latitudes of Mars by the Viking 1 Orbiter in search of a landing site for Viking 2. The picture shows eroded mesa-like landforms. The huge rock formation in the center, which resembles a human head, is formed by shadows giving the illusion of eyes, nose and mouth."
After the release of the photo some people insisted that the face seen in the NASA photo was built by intelligent beings. Subsequent flyovers and scientific analysis failed to convince these believers that the pattern of light and shadow was an artifact of naturally occurring geological features and the angle of the sun.

Meta Research Inc. -- the Discovery Institute of astronomy -- maintains a website that says, "Many widely held beliefs fly in the face of observational evidence. Theories go through such contortions to resolve inconsistencies that the ideas can no longer be explained in simple language. Alternative ideas are often rejected out of hand simply because they challenge the status quo."

Sound familiar? Students of pseudoscience can look here for "proof that the Cydonia face on Mars is artificial."

From this small number of examples -- among the many that might have been cited -- it is easy to see that we humans often see the hand of god in the designs we find in nature. It is also easy to see that we are often wrong.

Beyond our tendency to see patterns that don't exist and to infer the presence of some intelligence -- whether extraterrestrial or supernatural -- from them, there are other well known problems that effect how we process our perceptions of the world.

The subject of bias in research will be the subject of our next post in this series. Look for it Monday. (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 4)


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