It's not easy being ID - "Intelligent design's" persecution complex
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.” - Mohandas GandhiI love basketball. I enjoy it so much I’ll actually sit down and watch an NBA broadcast in the hope a real basketball game will break out. I love both ends of the game; tough defense and team offense. But you don’t see much of that in the NBA. They’re too hung up on putting on a show, full of crossovers and 360-degree jams. And points, man are they worried about points. Why? Because lately they’re just not scoring enough of them.
This trend emerged as a concern a few years ago and as a result some insiders began promoting a radical, even heretical, idea. “We can increase scoring, and ratings, if we allow teams to opt to play a “zone” defense,” the heretics suggested. I enthusiastically agreed. Of course this idea, anathema to the freewheeling, one-on-one style of the “Association” was met, at first, with raised eyebrows and ridicule. But despite the initial glacial reception the heretics pressed on, explaining that NBA offenses wouldn’t want to play against a zone defense and as a result would fast-break more often. With the running game on the come the points would follow, they asserted.
Well, as luck, and pluck, would have it, they finally put it over. The NBA allowed zone defenses as part of its rules changes for 2001. But something happened on the way to the hoop. The scoring, which did increase in the short term, unfortunately didn’t explode and in fact eventually dipped to its lowest mark since the shot clock was introduced in 1954 (SP Times, 2003).
What happened? The fix didn’t fly. In spite of the fact the bigwigs acted insular and hidebound, it didn’t work. The heretics were ignored, laughed at, and fought back. And they eventually won. But the problem was, they were wrong.
It sometimes happens - the Mahatma’s insight notwithstanding – that those who laughed were right all along.
“…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.” - (Dembski, 2003)William Dembski is fond of characterizing the struggles of “Intelligent Design” by use of the above sentiment. The similarity between this quote from Professor Haldane and that of Gandhi may represent a succession of sorts. There is evidence that Haldane’s observation was in fact a restatement of similar propositions by Karl Ernst Von Baer who was probably passing it along himself (Shallit, 2004). In fact there are also attributions of similar quotes to William James and even Arthur C. Clarke. The earliest version that I have seen is an observation, attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer, that “All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” This quote is also often cited by Dembski. Attribution of the quote to Schopenhauer may, however, be apocryphal (Shallit, 2004).
Dr. Dembski can be forgiven for merely repeating what is in reality a misattribution. Unfortunately the case he tries to present and the political advantage he hopes to accrue, through use of these quotes cannot be conceded so easily. Is this to say that these observations, offered by such illustrious individuals as Mohandas Gandhi, J.B.S. Haldane and others, are flawed or even foolish? I would suggest instead that they are, at best, incomplete, and perhaps intended to convey wit as much as profundity.
Just as not all who are victorious have necessarily suffered abuse in the process, it seems reasonable to suppose that not all theories, or even truths, experience undue tribulation. But we needn’t quibble about this. It is undeniable that many grand victories, both personal and scientific, have been won at the cost of enduring stages very similar to those proposed by Gandhi and Haldane. The difficulties suffered by Alfred Wegener (originator of the idea of continental drift) and Luis Alvarez (who suggested that the demise of dinosaurs may have been due to meteor impact) are examples often proffered when the goal is to indicate that science deals harshly with radical theorists. In fact, although Wegener did suffer professional scorn at first, and it took his ideas about 50 years to become accepted, Alvarez’ meteor collision proposal has become the received wisdom within a relatively short period of time, about 15 years.
While there is evidence that scientific revolutions can in fact occur very quickly, it’s logical to expect that the process would, and should, often be extended and tumultuous. And judging by the frequency with which they cite Kuhn, “Intelligent Design” advocates are apparently counting on this to be the common view.
Thomas Kuhn is a well-known twentieth century scientist and philosopher who’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is something of an icon in the philosophy of science. Kuhn is responsible for popularizing the notion that scientific paradigms do not relinquish primacy easily, and are consequently toppled by violent, “tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” (Kuhn, 1996). Although modern philosophy of science by no means accepts Kuhn’s ideas uncritically it is clear that his model serves the goals of William Dembski and other ID theorists. For example, “Intelligent Design” proponent and author Thomas Woodward, noted hopefully in a book review that,
“Some observers say that the design movement may be embarking upon the first stage of a transitional process in science, which philosophers call a "paradigm shift." - (Woodward, 1997)And Dembski even suggested that his theory is ready to assume the Darwinian mantle. In the preface to his book, No Free Lunch, he wrote,
“Napoleon III remarked that one never destroys a thing until one has replaced it. Similarly, Thomas Kuhn, in the language of paradigms and paradigm shifts, claimed that for a paradigm to shift, there has to be a new paradigm in place ready to be shifted into. Throughout my work, I have not been content merely to critique existing theory but have instead striven to provide a positive more-encompassing framework within which to reconceptualize phenomena inadequately explained by existing theory.” - (Dembski, 2001)Not to be outdone, Phillip Johnson, in a dizzying and somewhat bewildering show of chutzpah has equated the struggles of ID with Galileo’s difficulties overcoming the Ptolemaic paradigm, as well as the Catholic church. In his column in the magazine “Touchstone,” he remarked,
“I have turned to the Galileo episode not to compete with historians in assessing the blame for the tragedy, but because the elements of that conflict are present again in the hot argument between the Intelligent Design movement in biology and Darwinism. Today the scientific profession has firmly grasped the authority once possessed by the Catholic Church and contested by Galileo, the power to judge which claims have the status of knowledge and which do not. Like the Church of Galileo’s day, the Church of Science can tolerate almost any concept if it remains no more than a hypothesis or metaphor, provisionally adopted as an aid to understanding and not advocated as literally true.” (Johnson, 2004)Indeed, the projection employed by a few defenders of ID sometimes reaches proportions for which the word “irony” simply does not suffice.
“They banish certain ideas from certain venues as if by holy writ, and brand heretics too.” - (Klinghoffer, 2005)The obvious inference from all of this is that ID advocates believe their theory has not been accorded the status it deserves (or they at least hope to convince others of this). They would also have us conclude that “Intelligent Design” is on the verge of overturning the current evolutionary paradigm and will emerge from this overbearing scientific scrutiny the clear, empirical victor. After all, they’ve been ignored and laughed at.
Currently, however, few scientists find the theory scientifically interesting, or even pertinent. So, the question, based on the progression of Gandhi’s axiom is, are ID theorists willing to fight?
I suspect Alfred Wegener, Luis Alvarez, and Galileo all felt persecuted. But each of these individuals chose renewed commitment to his goals over, or perhaps in addition to, complaint about mistreatment. Wegener researched and refined his ideas until the scientific community had no choice but to seriously consider, and eventually accept them. Even Galileo needed to reconsider and revise his laws of falling bodies before he was able to remove mistakes that would have undermined their eventual success. And in spite of the fact that he knew it could cause him difficulty (although he was led to suspect it might not be severe) he began writing and eventually published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World - Ptolemaic and Copernican, an act for which he was subsequently convicted of heresy and sentenced to virtual house arrest.
The point here is that none of these pioneers threw up their hands and resorted to a program of political manipulation. Unfortunately, this is what has happened in the case of “Intelligent Design.” Bruce Gordon, one of ID’s leading proponents, worried over this strategy in an article about the theory’s identity struggles. He wrote,
“…design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world.” - (Gordon, 2001)And Dembski, while accentuating the positive, has observed pretty much the same thing,
“We have done amazingly well in creating a cultural movement, but we must not exaggerate ID's successes on the scientific front.” - (Dembski, 2002)It is hardly possible to agree to any ID successes on the scientific front without exaggerating. Most scientists consider “Intelligent Design” to be creationism in disguise, and regard theorists’ claims of legitimate peer review of their work as spurious. If “Intelligent Design” is to legitimately pass through Haldane’s four stages and eventually topple Darwinism, it seems sensible to expect it should do so by way of evidential superiority developed by use of scientific methodology. Whining about persecution won’t get the job done.
“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.” - (Sagan, 1979)Yes, proponents of ID are claiming victory, or even gained ground, prematurely. Yes, it is presumptuous of them to set “Intelligent Design” up as an alternative to Darwinism when they do not even suggest a workable natural methodology. And of course it is worthy of suspicion that a particular camp pleads for respect yet neglects to invest the effort required to develop an appropriate body of work. But I think the most important point to consider is this; although a few beleaguered scientific hypotheses have indeed triumphed, the vast majority have simply withered away for lack of support. Thus, to claim legitimacy on the basis of persecution is obtuse. Most new ideas fail, most of the time on their merits (or lack thereof), regardless of the level of derision they incur. The scientific disciplines are cold and objective, and do not suffer revision in the absence of powerful, and replicable, support.
Most people would not recognize the names of Johann J. Becher and Georg Ernst Stahl. Neither would they know about René Blondlot, or John Gamgee, or even Immanuel Velikovsky. For those who do not know, J.J. Becher and G.E. Stahl were developers of the theory of phlogiston, a hypothetical “substance without color, odor, taste, or weight that is given off in the burning” of all flammable materials. Phlogiston was a scientific failure. Rene Blondlot was the “discoverer” of N-rays, a supposedly previously undetected form of radiation that was eventually proven not to exist. John Gamgee was the inventor of the Zero Motor, a perpetual motion machine. And Immanuel Velikovsky is infamous among skeptics and scientists for having interpreted ancient myths to be empirical indicators of astrophysical reality.
All of these individuals had several things in common. They were ignored, laughed at, and had to battle professional derision. It’s likely that many felt persecuted, and imagined the day the doubters would get their comeuppance. But, unfortunately for them, they all had one more thing in common, they were wrong. Their ideas have all been relegated to the dustbin of history (or the kooky corners of the internet).
It likely takes a very high number of flawed, and discarded, ideas to produce one genuine, revolutionary insight. And it is solely in retrospect that we can know whether a revolutionary idea will gain provisional acceptance. It’s perfectly reasonable, even logical then, to assume that a scientific concept being met with professional incredulity probably deserves it. This is not to suggest the concept should be discarded presumptively, just that it should be viewed with unyielding skepticism. And this is precisely what is happening with “Intelligent Design.”
How the methodology of “Intelligent Design” theory and its advocates has been evaluated by science is well documented elsewhere and is not the subject of this essay. But whether we should view Dembski and his theory more sympathetically, whether it has been accorded appropriate respect is, I believe, a judgment we are well equipped to make. That judgment may be best served by asking this question, “if Haldane’s proposed stages of acceptance accurately reflect reality, at what stage in the process do we currently find ID theory?
The fourth stage can be ruled out categorically, even ID proponents would agree with this. It’s equally clear that scientists have by no means accepted the truth of the theory. There is no swell of support among biologists, so ID clearly does not occupy the third stage. Further, owing to the dearth of legitimate peer reviewed attention and professional citation I believe it fair to say that as of this point in time, most biologists do not even consider ID a scientifically interesting point of view (the second stage), although one might pick up quite a bit of assent regarding the observation of perversity (see the Board Resolution on Intelligent Design Theory)(AAAS, 2002).
In fact, “Intelligent Design” theory is barely a blip on the professional radar of biologists. If ID demands attention at all it is for the political and educational distraction it has wrought. If ID occupies any of Haldane’s stages of acceptance it can only be stage number one. All of this flies in the face of political attempts by advocates to imply, by use of ideas such as those of Haldane and Kuhn, that it has accomplished far more than a look at the scientific literature would support.
Many “Intelligent Design” advocates believe that there are questions regarding the natural universe that scientific methodology is inherently incapable of addressing. And as supernatural questions are irrelevant to methodological naturalism, this approach becomes, to them, a “worldview” or “dogma” that leads us down a hopelessly secular path (Johnson, 2004). The overblown political promotion of ID, which is likely seen by adherents as an attempt to keep society from taking the hand of science and walking that path in vain, may well be rooted in honest compassion. But it is organized with a disdain for real scholarship, and conducted by use of such manipulative strategies as the appeal to persecution outlined here. Regardless of whether the theory of “Intelligent Design” deserves dismissive laughter or interested appraisal, this kind of cynical tactic, employed in the pursuit of political advantage, should certainly be rejected by any who value science.
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