Saturday, February 18, 2006


The IDiot's Guide to Design Detection

Intelligent design "theorists" insist we can detect design in nature, and that may be true. The real problem is, we often detect design where none exists. We know Mt. Rushmore,left, was designed, but what about the Mars face, center? Do you see an angel in the cloud, right, some people do.

Over at William Dembski's Uncommon Descent blog, Doug Moran asks, “If an alien found human engineering on Mars, would they be able to detect products of intelligence and deduce that these objects had not evolved from the surrounding materials by chance?”

This, of course, is a refrain we hear commonly from the intelligent design choir. Michael Behe wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times last year in which he said:

... we know who is responsible for Mount Rushmore, but even someone who had never heard of the monument could recognize it as designed. Which leads to the second claim of the intelligent design argument: the physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology.

One might reasonably argue that finding design in a statue, even if its as large as Rushmore, is a less than perfect analogy to finding design in aspects of biology, but then the ID theorists have never been our go-to guys when it comes to making logical arguments.

When William Dembski, the Isaac Newton of information theory, spoke at the University of Kansas recently, he also used -- some cynical types might say abused -- the Mt. Rushmore analogy.

Our purpose is not to argue that detecting design in nature is impossible. Rather, we think it is far too easy. In fact, people have been detecting design where none exists for centuries.

Moran's Mars example, reminds us of a fascinating false positive.

In 1976, a photo taken in the northern latitudes of Mars by the Viking 1 orbiter showed an eroded mesa that resembled a human head. Shadows caused by the angle of the sun gave 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.

To this day, Meta Research Inc. -- the Discovery Institute of astronomy -- maintains a website offering proof that the Mars face is artificial. Their pseudo-science, like Discovery's, is impeccable:
Strictly speaking, science does not prove physical hypotheses; it disproves them. In that sense, all we have done, technically, is rule out the natural origin hypothesis at the cited odds. However, unless we can formulate some other hypothesis competing with artificiality that makes similar a priori predictions, we are compelled to accept artificiality as the most reasonable explanation consistent with the a priori principle of scientific method.

As Michael Behe and his fellow ID theorists argue,"the strong appearance of design 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."

To some, design is just so darn obvious, they seem to find it wherever they look, and ID theorists have a track record of finding evidence for design where none exists.

Phillip Johnson and William Dembski, for example, were taken in by the Bible Code hoax a few years back. Believers -- aka, the gullible -- thought they could detect phrases and clusters of words embedded in coded form in the text of the Bible. They even thought this code could predict the future.

Both Johnson and Dembski wrote favorable reviews of Cracking the Bible Code by Jeffrey Satinover. In a 1998 review written for First Things, Dembski wrote:

At the same time that research in the Bible Code has taken off, research in a seemingly unrelated field has taken off as well, namely, biological design. These two fields are in fact closely related. Indeed, the same highly improbable, independently given patterns that appear as the equidistant letter sequences in the Bible Code appear in biology as functionally integrated ("irreducibly complex") biological systems, of the sort Michael Behe discussed in Darwin’s Black Box.

The relevant statistical methodology is identical for both fields. As a result, the two fields stand to profit from each other.
Our Isaac Newton of information theory says the relevant statistical methodology is identical. We couldn't have said it better ourselves.

The real problem for intelligent design is not detecting design, but proving that they are capable of distinguishing evidence of intelligent design from from the wishful thinking exhibited by those who see objects in the clouds, faces on Mars, and secret codes in the Bible.

Mt. Rushmore is a nice rock carving, but its a lousy argument for intelligent design.


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