May 11, 2005

An "Intelligent Design" Glossary & Phrasebook

["Intelligent design" (ID) advocates have become adept at developing and employing political jargon and reasonable sounding aphorisms with the marketing skill, and deceptive intent, of a Madison Ave. ad agency. Otherwise educated and thoughtful individuals may not be equipped to rhetorically counter motivated and zealous ID proponents since much of the ID argument requires some deconstruction and knowledge of backstory to help illuminate the message underlying the slogan.

In order to, at least partly, address this difficulty I have compiled and maintained here this Glossary. For each word or phrase I offer quick descriptions of common usage by ID advocates, a short logical rebuttal, and perhaps even a few citations to more in-depth analysis. I encourage its use without restriction and welcome any suggestions as to more entries, style, citations etc.]

Glossary of "intelligent design" terms

700 scientists (also over 700 scientists, etc.) – The Discovery Institute has compiled a list, called "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism," of scientists who, according to the DI, see grave inadequacies in “Darwinian evolution” (entry forthcoming).
[Ex: “New Scientific Evidence Convinces Over 400 Scientists That Darwinian Evolution is Deficient.” – Staff, Discovery Institute News]
Unfortunately, the facts in this matter suffer from the DI’s casual relationship with the truth. Most crucial is the content of the phrases to which these scientists lent their assent. This short statement – “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.” – is wholly uncontroversial and could have been signed by the staunchest of evolutionary scientists. The first sentence is trivially true, as few, if any, biologists believe that mutation and selection alone can account for the entirety of evolution. The second is nothing more than a description of the professional attitude any scientist should adopt. Indeed many legitimate scientists have commented that, had they been unaware of the ulterior motives underlying the DI’s usage of this document, they would have been willing to sign it themselves.
Other factors to be aware of are that many of the signatories are not scientists, only about 20% of the 400 or so listed are biologists, and few of those could be considered evolutionary biologists (presumably the group familiar enough with mutation and selection to offer authoritative comment).
Nutshell: The Discovery Institute’s list of [700] scientists who question evolution is a non-controversial document dressed up to look like a repudiation of evolution. It was signed by many who are not scientists. And of those who are, most are not biologists. It is a molehill, bolstered by DI hyperbole, made to appear mountainous.
More info:
NCSE - Project Steve
The list - A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism
Camp, Robert. - That's not a list. THIS is a list! (apologies to Paul Hogan)

Abrupt appearance - see Sudden emergence

Academic freedom - An ID advocate's appeal to the egalitarian impulses we all share. This tactic is used to suggest that not only are the rights of creationist teachers to teach ID and other non-scientific ideas being infringed upon but the rights of students to hear both sides (see teach the controversy, scientific alternatives) are also being callously ignored.
[Ex: "It is as if we have learned nothing from the fight for academic freedom in the 1920's. Teachers are still being denied the ability to teach their students well, and students are still being denied the right to think." - DeHart, Heather D. 2002. Academic Freedom in the Science Classroom. IDURC]
Of course, it is not an abridgement of academic freedom to delimit the content of curricula, it is a pedagogical responsibility. And as such it is the proper activity of any school district to set standards that result in efficient dissemination of useful and truthful information. In some cases those qualities can be subjective (as with the arts and humanities), but in science and math classes they are not. It is the responsibility of science and math teachers to inform students as to the current best knowledge in the field. Restriction of personal philosophical opinions to venues other than science class is not only permissible, it is demanded by our obligation to all children, especially those from households that may not share our philosophies.
Nutshell: Not only is the restriction of those few who wish to teach non-scientific ideas in public science classes *not* an infringement on academic freedom, it is, in fact, an act of protection of the academic freedoms of all teachers and students, not to mention a conformation to the establishment clause.
More info:
The National Committee for Publication Education and Religious Liberty

Alternatives (also, scientific alternatives, alternative scientific theories, etc.) – Part of a strategy meant to suggest that there is legitimate scientific evidence being kept from students. Often used as a part of the Teach the controversy ruse as it proposes there are viable scientific explanations for the pattern of descent and speciation in the biological record other than evolution.
[Ex: "They have also shown overwhelming support for teaching scientific alternatives to Darwinism, including intelligent design." - Mark Hartwig, 2003, Those Annoying Discovery Polls]
There are indeed scientific alternatives to particular evolutionary explanations and mechanisms, however "Intelligent design" is not one of them. ID is demonstrably non-scientific and even if it were, would be disqualified by having produced no research, no data, no predictions and no replication. ID has been roundly rejected by those who, by any account, would qualify as the appropriate group to evaluate the scientific status of a concept, the community of biological scientists. Some scientific alternatives, such as Lamarkism, have been tested and found wanting. Others, like the panspermia hypothesis have not gathered sufficient evidence to be considered.
Nutshell: There are scientific alternatives to Darwinian evolution, but they have either been superceded by the current model or are at present evidentially unsupported. To the degree there is ample class time it would not be inappropriate to discuss these types of ideas. It is inappropriate, however, to discuss "Intelligent design" in science class. ID is not empirically testable and is consequently unscientific.
More info:
Lippard, Jim. 1994. - Critiques of Anti-Evolutionist Phillip Johnson's Views.

Archeology (analogy with...) - see SETI

Balance - see Fairness

Both sides - see Teach the controversy

Controversy - see Teach the controversy

Creationism (also creationists, creation scientists etc.) – From the perspective of the political program that is “intelligent design,” creationism is most importantly understood as “that which we are not!” In order to preserve the guise of non-religiousness that steers their way past the establishment clause, ID advocates steadfastly resist any and all qualification of themselves and/or their movement as falling under the creationist umbrella.
[Ex: “Honest critics of intelligent design acknowledge the difference between intelligent design and creationism.” – CSC Staff, Is intelligent design theory the same as creationism?]
It has not escaped the notice of many critics of ID that, although there are some differences in detail between it and traditional creationism, all creationists earn that designation as much by their behavior as the specifics of their arguments. ID creationism shares most of its motivations and tactics with its more traditional cousin. For instance, advocates of ID and creationists each spend most of their time finding fault with evolutionary biology, as if this supports ex nihilo creation, or an inference to a "designer."
Nutshell: Although ID "theory" does not advance the exact set of arguments as does overt creationism, it has the same goals, uses the same strategies, and makes common cause with traditional creationists. As such they agree much more than they differ, especially in light of the lack of interest in legitimate science both evince. “Intelligent design” is, before all else, a more refined yet unmistakable form of creationism.
More info:
Stenger, Victor J. - The Evolution of Creationism
Pennock, Robert. - Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism
Forrest, Barbara, and Gross, Paul R. - Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design

Critical analysis - see Strengths and weaknesses

Cultural renewal - In some of their more unguarded moments ID proponents offer concrete evidence for that which is already painfully obvious: their movement is not about scientific discovery, it's about opposing the methodologically materialistic foundations of science.
[Ex: “Intelligent design's instrumental good of renewing culture hinges on its intrinsic good of furthering science.” - William Dembski, Becoming a Disciplined Science: Prospects, Pitfalls, and Reality Check for ID, 2002]
When they speak of renewing culture, they mean to begin by brokering a space for inference to God within scientific inquiry and then move on to broader sociological concerns, e.g., disappointment with the Supreme Court’s declaration that Americans have the "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life" (see Richards paper in 'More info' below).
Regardless of whether ID proponents truly believe that science is "furthered" by introduction of non-natural inference the fact remains that they have yet to demonstrate how such an accommodation could work. Science would be stripped of all utility were its methodology to be so altered, and the resulting "cultural renewal" they seek strikes many as the beginnings of theocracy.
Nutshell: Dembski has said - “Thus, in its relation to Christianity, intelligent design should be viewed as a ground-clearing operation that gets rid of the intellectual rubbish that for generations has kept Christianity from receiving serious consideration." Clearer sentiments as to the intent to remake our culture in a more Christian image have seldom been uttered.
More info:
The Wedge document
Richards, Jay. - Intelligent Design Theory: Why it matters

Fairness (also balance, fair and balanced treatment, it’s only fair, a fair hearing, etc.) – Part of the ID strategy to appeal to the egalitarian impulses most people apply to issues under dispute. Closely connected with their academic freedom argument, the fairness supplications are meant to impute conspiratorial motives to evolutionary biologists and biology teachers, and blunt the level of scrutiny normally directed toward questions of science.
[Ex: “The reporters and editors of these papers deserve credit for producing thoughtful stories that treat all sides of the debate with fairness and respect.” – John West, Kansas City Star and Arizona Republic Report, You Decide, 2005]
These slogans play off of the unfamiliarity of the public with the methodology of science, one which is relentlessly brutal in its evaluation of, and competition between, ideas.
Nutshell: The reason science is an effective tool for understanding natural processes is that it demands that its theory meet the rigorous tests of peer-review and replication. Science cannot address issues that are exempt from being testable, and in the interests of insulating their ideas from examination ID advocates recast this methodological resolution as partisan persecution.
More info:
NCSE - President Bush Endorses Intelligent Design?
Dorf, Michael C. - Why It's Unconstitutional to Teach "Intelligent Design" in the Public Schools, as an Alternative to Evolution

Follow the evidence... – Many ID advocates insist that all they ask of scientists is that they are willing to follow the evidence without consideration for where it may lead.
[Ex: "Follow the evidence wherever it leads." - Stephen Meyer, Creation Conflict. The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. 3/28/05].
This truism is meant to suggest that ID advocates are promoting empirical research as a means to establish the existence of "intelligent design." Taken on its face this is merely trite, as science at present proceeds in exactly this way in several disciplines – including, but not limited to: archeology, forensics, and SETI research. However, based upon methodology presented by ID "theorists" (e.g. Dembski, Behe) as well as argumentation offered by nearly all ID proponents what this idea amounts to is that when science encounters a terminus of data (either through use of ID methodology or review of scientific literature) we are justified in inferring "intelligent" agency. What is more, due to the lack of natural data, ID proponents suggest that it is logical and scientific to infer supernatural agency. There is, of course, nothing scientific about using incomplete data to infer causal agency of any type, much less the kind that cannot be observed or tested using scientific methods.
Nutshell: Following the evidence is what scientists do, and it can indeed lead to natural intelligent agency. But a gap in our knowledge leads only to "we don’t know at this time."
More info:
Isaak, Mark. - A Philosophical Premise of 'Naturalism'?
Camp, Robert. - "Follow the evidence..."

Four stages of acceptance - see Haldane's four stages of acceptance

Free inquiry - see Academic freedom

Haldane’s four stages of acceptance (also Schopenhauer’s three stages) – In order to prop up the legitimacy of ID “theory” proponents often cite a quote from J.B.S. Haldane which addresses the progressive acceptance of revolutionary ideas.
[Ex: “...evolutionist J. B. S. Haldane remarked, “Theories pass through four stages of acceptance: 1) this is worthless nonsense; 2) this is an interesting, but perverse, point of view; 3) this is true, but quite unimportant; 4) I always said so.” – William Dembski, The Design Revolution]
Several prominent individuals have reiterated this (likely very old) notion, including Ghandi, and (apocryphally, see Shallit below) Arthur Schopenhauer. Something like this process has surely happened in the case of many new ideas, especially those situations where there is an entrenched view that must be replaced. However, an appeal to this observation as evidence for the validity of an idea ignores completely what must be the vastly greater number of new concepts that suffered ridicule and dismissal because it was warranted. Only a severely twisted use of rhetoric would suggest that an argument greeted with disdain is destined for acceptance.
Nutshell: Carl Sagan once remarked – “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” ID appeals to persecution are wisely regarded in this context.
More info:
AAAS Board Resolution on Intelligent Design Theory
Shallit, Jeffrey. - Dembski's Curious Incompetence With Quotations
Camp, Robert. - It's not easy being ID - "Intelligent design's" persecution complex

Machines (also Mt. Rushmore, turbines etc.) – For “intelligent design” proponents the analogy with human design, judging by it’s ubiquity, must be considered overwhelming evidence in favor of ID. From the very large (Mt. Rushmore) to the very small (“little trucks and busses”), this metaphor finds it’s way into nearly all ID arguments.
[Ex: “There are structures in the cell that don't just resemble humanly built machines-they actually are machines in every sense of the word.” – William Dembski, Five Questions a Darwinist Would Rather Dodge, 2004]
Some scientists refer to certain structures as machines, but they do so in order to elucidate the function of the structure, not to elicit ideas of purposive creation. Use of the analogy to infer transcendent design is illegitimate. There are not enough compared qualities (similarities between human design and purported designed structures), and there are not enough examples for comparison (a range of artifacts which could establish qualities of non-human design). These flaws and more leave the analogy impotent for the ID proponent’s purposes.
Nutshell: Sweeping comparative inductions demand a sweeping set of comparisons. But ID arguments from analogy merely cherry-pick a few similarities in the hope of persuasion based upon human proclivities for pattern identification, as opposed to the presentation of any actual evidence.
More info:
Camp, Robert. Very like a…machine?

Materialism (also materialists, materialist philosophy) – In philosophical usage this is a position, similar to ontological naturalism or metaphysical naturalism, which claims that all that can be said to exist is matter and energy. In scientific usage it is an operational prescription, similar to methodological naturalism. It is a guide which suggests that only that which can be observed and measured, and tested by the tools of empirical inquiry can be relevant to scientific investigation. Usage by ID advocates deliberately blurs the distinction between the philosophical and scientific usages.
[Ex. – “The house of evolution is falling. Its various theorists are increasingly at war with each other over the basic question of how evolution is supposed to work, and its materialistic and naturalistic foundation is becoming increasingly clear.” – Albert Mohler, Intelligent Design—A "Plot" to Kill Evolution?]
The intended inference for the consumer of the “materialist” dodge is that science, especially biology, is prosecuted by atheistic secularists bent on declaring God dead and gone.
Nutshell: ID proponents charge that science is a “materialist” philosophy, missing entirely the fact that most scientists are, in fact, theists. They conflate the philosophical and operational usage of “materialism” in a deceptive effort to promote the image of scientists as elitist atheists.
More info:
Philosophy of Mind - Materialism

Methodological materialsm - see Methodological naturalism

Methodological naturalism (also methodological materialism, materialistic naturalism, atheistic naturalism etc.) – Understood properly, this is the operational model for empirical investigation. Methodological naturalism (MN) prescribes that only phenomena constituted so as to be accessible to observation or measurement can be adduced to be part of a connected chain of cause and effect. Used, however, by advocates of ID, MN is either deliberately conflated with ontological, or metaphysical, naturalism (a philosophical position), or it is assailed as a conspiratorial hedge against ID advocates' proposed "renewal" of science by inclusion of non-material causes.
[Ex: “Methodological naturalism is a regulative principle that purports to keep science on the straight and narrow by limiting science to natural causes. In fact it does nothing of the sort but constitutes a straitjacket that actively impedes the progress of science.” – William Dembski, Is Intelligent Design a form of Natural Theology?]
These complaints are wrong on both counts. Methodological naturalism is not a metaphysical position, it is an operational constraint. It allows for scientific results to be reproducible regardless of the philosophy of the scientist. And the notion that scientific methodology would be improved by admission of non-natural inference would have us ignore hundreds of years of conclusive debate on these issues. Room for accommodation of non-natural causes in scientific methodology will come as a result of sustained and replicated peer-reviewed scholarship, not special pleading and premature dispensation.
Nutshell: Mischaracterizations of methodological naturalism as a philosophical imperative reveal the deceptive intent of ID proponents. Scientists of all philosophies make use of the methodology precisely because it addresses only the relevant, testable evidence, not personal presuppositions.
More info:
Isaak, Mark. - A Philosophical Premise of 'Naturalism'?
Wikipedia - Methodological naturalism

Mt. Rushmore - see Machines

Schopenhaur's three stages - see Haldane's four stages of acceptance

Scientific alternatives - see Alternatives.

Scientific criticisms... - see Teach the Controversy

Scientific Dissent from Darwinism - see 700 scientists

Scientific evidence for and against... - see Strengths and Weaknesses

SETI (analogy with...)(also archeology) – A common ID proponent argument is that the methodology of “intelligent design” is analogous with disciplines such as archeology, forensics, cryptography, and SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). This suggestion is most often made in the context of defending the purported scientific validity of ID.
[Ex: “To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes. Many special sciences have already developed such methods for drawing this distinction—notably forensic science, cryptography, archeology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)” – William Dembski, Intelligent Design]
This argument fails, however, on the basis of a methodological comparison. While “intelligent design” does, to a minimal extent, simulate science by employing familiar tools (e.g. math, observations of biology and astrophysics) it neglects to appropriately constrain the context of their use. ID “theorists” purposely refuse to restrict the subject of their investigations to that which is testable, namely natural phenomena. In fact, they craft argumentation designed either to redefine the word “natural,” or to suggest that science should be amenable to non-natural inferences. Scientific disciplines such as those listed above do not conduct investigations which allow metaphysically open-ended interpretation. They are constrained to operate within the universe of observable and measurable phenomena, and do not resemble ID in any way.
Nutshell: In order to allow inference to non-natural agency ID advocates disregard the methodological constraints that make science what it is. Scientists involved in SETI, archeology, forensics etc. operate professionally within the context of empirically testable phenomena. ID “theorists” ignore this, and other features of science that might prove inconvenient, concentrating instead on marketing strategies, such as the analogy with SETI and other disciplines, that give ID the gloss of legitimacy.
More info:
Shostak, Seth. - SETI and Intelligent Design
Pennock, Robert T. - Intelligent Design and the SETI Analogy
Camp, Robert. - The Search for Scientific Cover – "Intelligent design's" use of the SETI analogy
Camp, Robert. - Can "Intelligent Design" be considered scientific in the same way SETI is?

Strengths and weaknesses (also scientific evidence for and against, critical analysis) – Another prong of the ID movement’s strategy to imply that pedagogical responsibility is not being met in regards to biological science education. The suggestion here is that scientists and educators are glossing over or covering up problems with the facts and hypotheses regarding evolution. Moreover, those who are calling for these "strengths and weaknesses” take pains to be seen as bending over backwards (in accepting the “strengths") while asking for nothing but reason, justice, and academic freedom.
[Ex: “And some of the scientists who testified, like Italian geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti, aren't even design theorists. They're simply calling for students to learn the strengths and weaknesses in Darwin's theory of evolution, rather than the air-brushed presentation they receive now.” Jonathan Witt, Study Strengths, Weaknesses of Evolution]
But the deceptive intent in these claims is revealed by the focus of the attack (biological evolution) and the nature of the details. ID proponents do not ask that we act similarly in the case of other sciences (i.e. the strengths and weaknesses of quantum theory or critical analysis of chemical bonding) because they recognize this would highlight the silliness of asking for something that is already part and parcel of scientific methodology. Since science can accommodate, in fact thrives on, unanswered questions (what most “weaknesses” amount to) it is expected that acknowledging “weaknesses” should be a component of the process, and it is. But this lack of details, these gaps, are the lifeblood of ID as well as other types of creationism. Science educators are happy to discuss true problems with evolution because in doing so they clarify the ongoing nature of scientific investigation. But to teach that these problems suggest a flaw in methodological naturalism would be empirically unwarranted, and pedagocically unethical.
Nutshell: ID advocates wish to be seen as equitable and conscientious, thus the many ploys, including “strengths and weaknesses” that appeal to fairness. The problems are that their assent to “strengths” is self-serving, and sometimes disingenuous, and their concept of “weaknesses” is entirely motivated by their distaste for a methodology which regards non-natural agency as irrelevant.
More info:
NCSE - Textbooks Approved in Texas

Sudden emergence (also sudden emergence theory, abrupt appearance) - In the wake of the Dover decision (Kitzmiller v. Dover 2004-'05) this phrase has gained some cachet, and was seen by some as the latest creationist attempt at rebadging their movement. As "scientific creationism" received a facelift in the wake of the Edwards v. Aguillard decision in Louisiana in 1987 (with references to same in the ID textbook "Of Pandas and People" being expunged in favor of "intelligent design") so it might be expected that after losing in Pennsylvania the ID movement might consider another such label change.
[Ex: "There's a fourth option for explaining the gaps in the fossil record besides imperfection of the record, insufficient search, and punctuated equilibrium. There is also sudden emergence." Of Pandas and People]
Nutshell: Some expect, in the wake of Dover, that ID will fade away. But given the past proclivities of creationists it is more reasonable to predict that while the label may be changed, and perhaps the package refurbished, creationism will remain an obstacle to evolutionary biology as long as religious fundamentalism is extant.

Teach the controversy (also scientific criticisms, both sides)– Perhaps the most popular of ID political slogans. Used to propose pedagogical changes that would accommodate language suggesting there are viable alternative scientific theories to biological evolution.
[Ex: "The clarion call of the intelligent design movement is to "teach the controversy." There is a very real controversy centering on how properly to account for biological complexity (cf. the ongoing events in Kansas), and it is a scientific controversy" - Dembski, William A. 2001. Teaching Intelligent Design – What Happened When? A Response to Eugenie Scott]
As with the above quote, this sentiment is part truth and part falsehood. There is a a broad consensus among biologists as to the overwhelming evidence for evolution as an explanation for biological complexity. While issues of debate as to the mechanisms (all natural) by which evolution proceeds occur, they simply reveal evolutionary biology to be an active research discipline, not one in which fundamental fractures exist. There is, in fact, a political controversy, but this is one that is promoted nearly exclusively by the creationist movement (fundamentalist or ID).
Nutshell: Political controversy notwithstanding, the suggestion that there is a scientific controversy, being false, reveals this injunction to be meaningless in regard to science education.
More info:
NCSE - Project Steve
EvoWiki - Teach the controversy
Camp, Robert. - "Teach the Controversy," An Intelligently Designed Ruse
Camp, Robert - Turn out the lights, the "Teach the controvery" party's over

Weaknesses - see Strengths and weaknesses.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fantastic start on such an important project. Everyday evolution defenders really need a decoder ring like this to respond to the ID canard. Good luck, and I sure hope your ID glossary is made widely available on sites like and Thank you.

7:51 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

You're welcome. And thank you for your thoughtful comments.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Linda C. said...

Thank-you, Thank-you, Thank-you! I am trying to put together a response to a letter to the editor in our local (little) paper, and this glossary helped me to better focus my efforts.
Linda C.

2:10 PM  
Blogger RLC said...

linda c.

You are quite welcome, and thank you for using this resource.

Please let me know if your letter gets published.

2:38 PM  
Blogger kevinwparker said...

Well done. As a matter of self-defense, you might want to update the count on the "Dissent from Darwinism" petition as the DI now claims 700 signatures.

9:08 AM  
Blogger evision said...

5:25 AM  

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