Thursday, 30 April 2009

Melanie Phillips: intelligently designed?

Oh, joy of joys, Mel's back on the Intelligent Design bandwagon in the Spectator, with a stirring missive full of cold, hard assertions she's pulled out of her arse. In Creating an insult to intelligence, Phillips begins by saying how irritated she was to hear Kenneth Miller on the radio being mean about ID. (Critiquing radio is great since no-one, least of all me, is going to bother going through the iPlayer or Listen Again or whatever to check if your account of what was said is in any way fair or if you've been taking things out of context, not that Mel would ever do that).
Anyway, ignoring all the enormous gaping flaws in ID, she takes offence at Miller for saying that the 'theory' of Intelligent Design is...

...nothing more than an attempt to repackage good old-fashioned Creationism and make it more palatable.
This is a fairly widespread and perfectly fair opinion from Miller, one which was given some serious legal basis by the Kitzmiller vs Dover ruling, which agreed that the version of ID the Discovery Institute and its friends were trying to get into the schools was indeed creationism in the most threadbare of cheap suits (more of which later). Phillips gets mad:

But this is totally untrue. Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller.
It was 'simply wrong'? Ooh, this'll be good!

Whatever the ramifications of the specific school textbooks under scrutiny in the Kitzmiller/Dover case, the fact is that Intelligent Design not only does not come out of Creationism but stands against it. This is because Creationism comes out of religion while Intelligent Design comes out of science. Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days. Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.
There's a quite staggering amount of horseshit there, so we'll start at the beginning. The 'textbooks' she's referring to is really only one textbook, 'Of Pandas And People', written by William Dembski and Jonathan Wells, two Christian theologians (by sheer coincidence, of course). It was the book the IDers were trying to get into schools in Dover to be taught as science, and it's essentially a creationist argument against evolution which uses the term 'intelligent design' instead of 'creationism'. That's not my opinion, either. It came to light that they had literally replaced the word 'creationists' with 'design proponents' in the majority of cases, primarily because in the editing process someone fucked up a 'Find and Replace' meaning there was a draft saved showing the 'missing link' between the two terms; 'cdesign proponentsists'. Dembski and Wells are among the leading lights of the ID movement, and while they publicly avoid using the word 'creationism' too often, that nugget of info about the book that turned up during the trial suggests they consider the two terms pretty much interchangeable, as indeed they are in reality despite Phillips' protests. Phillips has dismissed actual evidence regarding a pivotal ID text in favour of a completely evidence-free assertion that ID 'comes out of science'.

One of Phillips' problems (and woah, she's got problems) is that she makes the mistake of defining 'creationism' entirely by the batshit insane Young Earth Creationists, who literally believe everything happened the way it sort of almost says in the Bible and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. This is ridiculous; creationism as a term covers all manner of things, including old-earth creationism, which kinda sorta accepts bits of science and evolution with the caveat that it all happened because God planned it that way. When scientists like Miller talk about ID and creationism being interchangeable, what they mean is that they are both (usually) religiously-derived hypotheses that put a creator at the beginning of the universe, and cast scientifically-unfounded doubt on evolution. IDers replace the word 'creator' with 'designer', but the difference is largely semantic.

The idea that 'Intelligent Design comes out of science' is disingenuous at best. The term was popularised by Phillip E. Johnson, a born-again Christian heavily involved with the Discovery Institute, for which he, famously, co-authored the Wedge strategy, a pretty damning piece of evidence that intelligent design is not a scientific theory, but a bid to "reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions". I urge you to read about it, as it pretty nakedly states what the movement's intentions are, and renders claims that it's merely about scientific truth laughable. William Dembski, who wrote 'Of Pandas And People', contributed to the idiotic ID film 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed' and is also inextricably linked to the Discovery Institute, is perhaps the best-known of the ID proponents and a key writer for the definitive ID blog Uncommon Descent. By happy coincidence, he believes that "The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God". This appears to be an amazingly common theme among cdesign proponentsists; they take offence at the suggestion that ID is just a weak argument for God and claim they're simply talking science, but they almost invariably happen to believe that the designer is God.

ID is the successor to 'creation science'; creationists used to try and get that taught in schools until 1987 when the decision of the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard effectively killed it. There's a clear path you can draw from there to ID, and it's done briefly but quite well by the Wiki entry on creation science.

The claim that ID's "proponents are mainly scientists" holds little water; you'll notice that Phillips completely fails to mention them. So far, Intelligent Design hawkers have conspicuously failed to get any papers in proper peer-reviewed science journals. There are scientists among them, such as Michael Behe, but his theories have been discredited by all major scientific organisations and institutions. There's a difference between something 'coming out of science' and something which is believed by a few scientists. It's a conclusion without a plausible mechanism, without evidence. At best, it's a scientifically lazy critique of evolution. It fails to justify its assertions, merely trying to pick holes in evolutionary theory. Its central theory, irreducible complexity, has failed to generate convincing examples for its argument. That argument boils down to 'shit is way too complicated to have evolved'. That isn't science. (The amusing part is that Darwin himself predicted that people would be droning on about the complexity of the eye in the Origin Of Species. The evolution of the eye has been comprehensively studied since then, and IDers have failed to come up with a compelling challengeto these studies).

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism. But belief in a Creator is common to all people of monotheistic faith – with many scientists amongst them -- the vast majority of whom would regard Creationism as totally ludicrous. In coming to the conclusion that a governing intelligence must have been responsible for the ultimate origin of matter, Intelligent Design proponents are essentially saying there must have been a creator. The difference between them and people of religious faith is that ID proponents do not necessarily believe in a personalised Creator, or God.
Interestingly, one of the scientists who believes in God is, er, Ken Miller, the very person she's arguing with. Phillips omits that inconvenient piece of information. Miller is a Christian who is also a scientist, and he wrote 'Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution'. He has no problem with the idea of a creator because he fucking believes in one himself. The difference is that he understands that the science simply doesn't support it. He's well-versed enough in the history of Intelligent Design to know that it's the discredited creation science by another name, and it offends both his scientific and religious sides to see religious conservatives distorting science to give their ideas legitimacy. It doesn't have any. As Miller points out, it doesn't need any. The only reason the creation science/ID nonsense abounds is because there are creationists who cannot accept evolution, trying to use ID to get their beliefs into schools, which they can't do under the US laws regarding the separation of church and state, hence cases like Dover and the recent battle to get even more watered-down anti-evolution crap into schools in Texas. (That link, by the way, is an excellent piece by Steven Novella which deals with ID crank Michael Egnor making a suspiciously similar pedantic argument about the word 'creationist' to the one Phillips is advancing, so I'd recommend reading it).

Ultimately what Phillips' argument comes down to is a tedious attempt to pass the word 'creationist' onto the wacky Young Earthers no-one agrees with, in order to distance ID from the creationism it's so obviously a part of. It's an entirely pointless argument which completely ignores everything that's wrong with ID, instead focusing on criticising scientists for terminological ignorance which she is just as guilty of. In the end, whatever you call it, ID has failed spectacularly, and Phillips' clich├ęd moaning does nothing to make a case for it.

Ken Miller's point is straightforward; believing in God is fine, just don't use the awful pseudoscience of ID to justify it. And that's unmistakably what's going on; if you're believing in ID but not God, you may well be mental. The science simply doesn't back ID. If Phillips had a fraction of the intellectual honesty that Ken Miller has, she'd feel embarrassed publishing this shit.


  1. Just turn the batshit loon's opinion on her. Ask her for the peer reviewed evidence of intelligent design and then wait and wait and wait and... well you know.

  2. This really was an excellent response. Given the way she writes about other people, it's kind of hard to address Philips' published work without resorting to ad hominem, but I think you managed that here and managed it very well.

  3. I like that even her commenters (not usually the most, er, well-balanced of people) are having a go.

  4. As the saying goes .....

    If you can't think of anything nice to say, chances are your thinking about Melanie Phillips.