The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Design, Agency, Baloney

A review of Unintelligent Design by Mark Perakh, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004. This review appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 11, number 1.

MOST OF THE BILLIONS OF religious people — in one or another of humanity’s religions — have no problem with natural science. They have never heard of it, or they know essentially nothing about it. Either way they don’t much care. They are secure in their perceptions of reality, however mutually contradictory those may be, and however inconsistent with logic and experience. A subset of the faithful, however, is in a different and always troubled state of mind. The members of this group do have some science; a few have actually studied it; and a few of those are practicing scientists. Yet their deepest feelings about reality are due to their religion, which is for some a particular theism, and for others a particular politics. Such belief systems are redemptive. That is, they are convinced that the evil-ridden world (including themselves) can be saved only by that (theistic or political) ideology with which their identity and selfesteem are entangled. In this review of Mark Perakh’s illuminating book, we are concerned with the theistic-religious, rather than with the politicalreligious ill-treatment of science.

Although many of these people are accomplished and may even profess high regard for science, they all share an old epistemic malady: they are closet-fideists. They have steadfast faith in a particular set of non-negotiable explanations — purportedly unique insights into why the world is as it is. There is, they are convinced, a deeper reality beneath the quotidian. They are certain that there are objects and events beyond any ordinary detection, and that nonmaterial entities control those extraordinary objects and events — which therefore control all ordinary ones as well, including ourselves, our history, and our future.

Of course, the natural science these science-abled people have learned lends no support — has never lent any support — to their non-negotiable explanations. They will not, or cannot, give up their convictions. Neither will nor can they scrutinize those convictions by the most searching methods of honest inquiry — because the convictions are non-negotiable. For this dilemma, two possible and obvious resolutions exist. (1) The body of relevant science can be denounced as false, fraudulent, or intentionally blind (even though there is no basis for so doing). Or (2), the form of the relevant science can be exploited, in an effort to prove that, hidden in its subtleties (but extracted by the genius of the author), is complete justification for the original — non-negotiable — explanation of the world.

The immemorial task of skeptics has been to do battle with the promoters of non-negotiable explanations, because by influencing a sizable and credulous public they multiply their own unreason. The task of skeptics is to expose sham inquiry. Today, the job boils down to explaining why the announced “discoveries” — either of shocking failure or fraud within standard science, or of supernatural revelations hidden within the body of standard science — are worthless, assuming they are. There is no more urgent public work for serious science than to reduce the power over the popular mind of religiously-inspired sham inquiry and sham-scientific discourse. Recently, there has been a recrudescence of creationist “science”: more people with respectable science backgrounds, even a few working scientists, are promoting for parochial honor or real profit blatant anti-science and crank science. They do it in aid of some dualism or other, of the supernatural, or to claim discoveries within ordinary science that can be advertised as proving the truth of favorite nonnegotiable beliefs — the inerrancy of the Bible or the mathematical or physical impossibility of Darwinian evolution.

The most recent and politically effective body of sham inquirers are the advocates of “intelligent design,” especially but not exclusively those recruited, mobilized, and financially supported by the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington. This is a Christian-conservative think tank. Its dedicated anti-evolution subunit, dubbed originally the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, now has a new, less threatening handle: Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

Mark Perakh, author of Unintelligent Design, is a physicist, engineer, and teacher-scholar of science. Born and educated in the former Soviet Union, he is today emeritus Professor of Physics of California State University, Fullerton. As a whole the book is a skeptic’s feast of high-class science-piffle, and the patient debunking thereof: it attends to several categories, not just to the CSC’s war against natural science. Part One tackles the frenetic anti-evolutionist, anti-science, pro-“intelligent design” activities of the CSC, especially of three of its leading figures: lawyer Phillip Johnson (the founder), biochemist Michael Behe, and theologian-mathematician William Dembski. This part covers the most newsworthy and politically-urgent issues with the greatest socio-cultural impact. Part Two is devoted to an array of works from putatively scientific thinkers (mostly writers of popular books), who claim to have discovered appalling flaws in standard science, or to have found heretofore overlooked evidence within standard science — in support of the inerrancy of the Bible. Part Three is devoted to unpretentious but mature reflections of the author on good science. And, for an example of how sham science arises and is sustained, it offers a painstaking and in places hilarious exposé of the famous Bible Code craze.

Part One begins with Dembski, proceeds to Behe, and ends with Johnson, although reverse order would have been more historically accurate. Phillip Johnson is the founder of the modern Intelligent Design (ID) movement and the leading spirit of a detailed plan for Christian conquest of the “materialism” or “philosophical naturalism” — as Johnson, qua philosopher, defines those characteristics — of modern science. He is a U.C. Berkeley law professor, a born-again Christian, and a prodigious author. It is obvious from his copious writings that he knows next to nothing about evolutionary or any other biology. But the movement he founded, which he dubbed “The Wedge,” was billed ab initio as a scientific one; his persuasive abilities and organizational skills enabled those with better preparation in science and mathematics, such as Behe and Dembski, to effectively go to war on behalf of the Designer.

Johnson’s own scientific arguments are as antiquated (some go back to Charles Darwin’s first detractors) as they are futile, but they apparently have bolstered the faith of millions of the faithful nevertheless. Perakh’s chapter on Johnson is titled “A Militant Dilettante in Judgment on Science,” and it is one of the plainest and most devastating in the book. Its treatment of Johnson’s thoughts on information theory (a subject in which Perakh is the adept and Johnson is very distinctly not) in relation to biological objects demonstrates that the choice of chapter title is justified.

Michael Behe is a biochemist on the faculty of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. His output of ordinary biochemical research is respectable but modest. A very large part of his working time and effort, however, seems to be devoted to his attacks on Darwinism, to travel in aid of the attacks, to speech-making for the DI and religious-sympathetic groups, and to responding endlessly to the massed (expert) criticism of his original claims made eight years ago in a trade book that called for the rejection of standard evolutionary biology. So far, his effort seems not to have been devoted to any empirical research on the subject, or to publication in any peer-reviewed scientific journal. It was for the discovery of the “irreducible complexity” (IC) of molecular biological reaction pathways and machines operating at the level of cells that Behe was acclaimed by Johnson and other creationists in the run-up to publication of his 1996 book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.

The happy anticipations of creationists were raised as follows: Behe asserted that the IC of subcellular systems could not have been attained by merely “Darwinian” means, that is by the stepwise accumulation of complexity via descent with modification alone. Hence the book title: once the black box of the cell is opened, as biochemistry has opened it, he explained, it becomes clear that such complex interdependency as is observed cannot have been crafted by undirected evolution: it must have been designed from the start by an intelligent agent. Eight years ago, Behe’s “discovery” was the piéce de resistance of ID. But it has been sadly battered. As a dozen critics who knew the literature better than did Behe promptly showed, what he calls IC is achievable by plausible, well-understood mechanisms (formal and actually observed), and a number of real and unequivocal cases have been described in the literature. Aside from its molecular-biological lapses (such as a failure to recognize the central role of gene duplication in permitting the emergence of biochemical complexity), Behe’s argument is full of other holes.

Perakh, who is a physicist, does not deal with the molecular biological and evolutionary biology errors. They are already the subject of print and online articles, and were even the subject of a dedicated web site (“Behe’s Empty Box”). Instead, he examines the logical basics, such as Behe’s use of probabilities. It is remarkable that an entire book on a kind of “complexity,” written by a scientist (Behe), in lay probability language, should be devoid — as this one is — of any attempt to support the argument in the context of the professional language and methods of complexity and probability research. Indeed, it not only eschews such technicalities, but its plain-language arguments about probability and complexity are flat-out wrong, as Perakh shows:

…[C]omplexity itself, however, points not to an intelligent designer but rather to a chain of unguided, largely random events. The probability of a spontaneous emergence of a complex system performing certain functions is much larger than the probability of the spontaneous emergence of a system which performs the same function in a simpler way.

Not surprisingly, rescue of the IC argument, which is just a contemporary restatement of Paley’s (1805) version of the ancient argument from design, was soon taken up by the young theologian- mathematician-philosopher William Dembski, albeit in large part because his original venture, the “Design Inference” — a system of probabilistic inference by which intelligent design can be, and is (he insists), detected in the biological world — has failed. Dembski soon supplanted Behe as the great white hope of the Wedge’s science (but not of its politics, law, and public relations, which are handled by energetic specialists). This is so even though he is a mathematician, not a scientist, and, as is clear from his voluminous writings, has only the sketchiest acquaintance with evolutionary biology, molecular biology, genetics, cell biology, or biological development.

Dembski’s arguments are mathematical- statistical, which means that the enormous lay audience for his output is even less able to judge its soundness than it was able to understand Behe’s biochemical inferences. And, because he is an indefatigable writer, because he shifts his technical claims and positions from one written or spoken output to the next, and because there is nothing else in the ID movement at present that even looks like a positive scientific contribution (as opposed to defamation of Darwinism), he is currently its “scientific”-intellectual principal.

In this book, the most detailed of Perakh’s engagements with ID is therefore the opening chapter, which examines Dembski’s claim to have discovered that new formal-inductive device, the design inference. With it, the claim goes, the alternatives chance (accident) and regularity (natural law) can be eliminated from among the hypothetical origins of an object or an event in the world — if that origin has instead been purposeful and “designed” (i.e., by an intelligent agent). The inference, says Dembski, can be made and has been made, although so far as anyone knows there is not yet any demonstration of it in a real case.

This chapter, which has been online for some time, is one of several long and searching appraisals of Dembski’s design claim. (Others are from philosophers, physicists, and mathematicians who are experts in the several fields whose methods Dembski attempts to deploy. Many are available online.) Neither this analysis by Perakh, nor any of the other major critiques has so far been answered successfully by Dembski or by anyone else. A partial listing of the expert critiques of the design inference, and of Dembski’s protracted attempts to repair Behe’s IC argument for use in the design inference, can be found in Creationism’s Trojan Horse (Barbara Forrest and P.R. Gross, recently issued by Oxford University Press).

One of Perakh’s long-term professional interests has been statistical thermodynamics. Since the pioneer work of Claude Shannon, a founder of information theory, it has been both necessary and appropriate for thermodynamicists, who are interested in the Second Law of Thermodynamics (and entropy), to be interested also in the physics of information. This is because Shannon’s mathematizing of information is formally equivalent to the thermodynamic law that defines entropy. For his predominantly lay audiences, the most impressive part of Dembski’s oeuvre is his announced “fourth law of thermodynamics” — the “Law of Conservation of Information” (LCI). That is also the most obfuscating part for people who know the relevant science. It is for such discoveries as this that one of Dembski’s colleagues, a philosopher, has named him “the Isaac Newton of Information Theory.”

Perakh puts that one to rest. He notes, for example, that there are already four laws of thermodynamics (law number one has been for some time, by convention among physicists, the “zeroth Law”). Dembski may have been unaware of this. By whatever name (or number), Perakh shows at length that far from a new law of thermodynamics, Dembski’s LCI is simply a contradiction of the Second Law. It cannot, therefore, serve the central purpose it is supposed to serve in the argument for intelligent design, namely, that the colossal information content of the living world (or of the universe), cannot have arisen spontaneously (by natural processes), but must either have been added from outside the world in successive events, or have been front-loaded into it at the beginning of time.

The latter is always possible, of course; but neither Dembski nor anyone else has ever given any evidence, or any interesting argument for it. (The strong anthropic principle could be used for such purposes, but it is by now grown old, has nothing necessarily to do with intelligent design, and is something that most scientists pay little attention to.) The effort to deal with Dembski’s “mathematism” (Perakh’s frustrated coinage for unnecessary or over-elaborate mathematical notation) makes for a long chapter and a fatiguing read. But like the rest of the book it is sound and it offers no hope for the seeker of glad tidings on the promised collapse of “Darwinism.” In short: of design in nature there is an abundance; but there is no evidence yet that the source of it is anything other than unguided natural processes, some but not all of which we have been learning about in science during the last 300 years.

As much as possible and as a matter of Wedge strategy, CSC advocates stay away from biblical literalism and old-style “creation science.” Theologians such as Dembski (an evangelical Christian) and Jonathan Wells (a theologian of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church) wear their hearts on their sleeves when addressing fellow believers, but they try to keep their addresses to academe, school boards, and the general public quite clear of the Bible. To invoke it as authority will surely lead to a court dismissal on grounds of church-state separation, which has been the result so far in every effort to get frank creationism into the science classroom.

But there are, after all, writers with training in science who are fervid young-earth creationists, writers fully committed to any one of the Abrahamic religions, for whom the only resolution to the undeniable conflict between scripture and obvious reality is to demonstrate that science does, when carried out properly, confirm the scriptures. Most of the efforts of this genre would be pathetic or funny if they were not scary. They are scary, however, because millions of people, including some of the dangerous varieties of fundamentalist, want to believe them and do. As to the scientific and didactic skills of the apologists featured in the second part of Perakh’s book, the best that can be said is that the failures of their arguments are not significantly different, in magnitude or direction, from those examined in Part One. Perakh inspects, for example, the products of Hugh Ross, a highly productive writer of books with such rousing titles as The Fingerprint of God and Creation and Time. He runs an organization named Reasons to Believe and serves as an evangelical Christian minister. But Ross was trained in astronomy, at no less an institution as Caltech, and published a few papers in astrophysics. So the purpose of his present science-ministry is to show, using highly simplified statements of modern cosmological ideas, that the proper interpretation of those ideas puts God (and thereby the Bible) fully in the scientific picture: the best science now shows that the Bible was right all along!

There is but one small problem, and this Perakh teases out for us: those highly simplified statements, upon which the line of Ross’s argument is built, are often misleading or just plain wrong. The interpretive declarations of Creation and Time, for example, depend critically upon the laws of thermodynamics, and those must be conveyed accurately. But their introduction in this book is seriously in error. Ross misunderstands, astonishingly (given his background), the elementary relationship between energy and work. There is, consequently, no validity in the subsequent book-length elaboration of the basic science position. Yet Ross speaks to the tens of thousands as a physicist-cosmologist who has found God. There are many physicists and cosmologists, many of whom are practicing Christians, who speculate on what might lie beyond the apparent reality recognized by natural science; but they don’t make silly mistakes in basic physics, nor do they engage in logic-chopping. And they don’t claim to have discovered God’s footprint on the universe in recent astrophysical findings.

The irony emerging from the review of Ross returns in nearly every subsequent chapter, errors and distortions being equally critical, and repeated book to book, whether the enterprising reconciler of science with scripture is doing his thing for fundamentalist Christianity or for the Torah of Judaism. These chapters are fascinating and informative, but they are also depressing. Their contents, however, are necessary and practical for anyone who cares about relations between religion and science, and who is prepared to follow Mark Perakh — a disinterested scholar of these apologetical phenomena — in the dissection of what are all too widely believed to be the glad tidings of our time.

This article was published on October 15, 2004.

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