May 2, 2006

Going through the (handwaving) motions - Gonzalez' response to Seth Shostak

At IDthefuture Guillermo Gonzalez has offered a supposed response to Seth Shostak’s recent article about ID and SETI called “We Believe in ET, not ID.” Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI institute who has begun to take personally the repetitious insistence from ID “theorists” that “intelligent design” is scientific in the fashion of disciplines such as archeology and forensics, and SETI.

Shostak appears in the film version of Gonzalez and Jay Richard’s book “The Privileged Planet,” an ID friendly compilation of arguments from cosmological incredulity (e.g. “if the earth wasn't right where it is, and if the solar system had fewer or more planets, and if the laws of physics were slightly different…etc., we wouldn’t be here”) and he isn’t happy with a clip of him describing SETI being used as tacit endorsement for “intelligent design.” Nor is he thrilled with the continued comparisons of his research with ID methodology. In his article he says,
“Appropriating my day job wasn't the end of the insults. Last year, ID adherents released a one-hour film, Privileged Planet, that caused a minor brouhaha when plans were announced to screen it at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, a few blocks from the Capitol. To my chagrin, I appear in the film, though I say nothing about design, intelligent or otherwise; I simply describe my own research - spliced in, presumably, for the modicum of credibility I bring.
Unlike many Europeans, who find this whole debate faintly farcical, I am not amused. Teaching ID in biology class muddles science with metaphysics. In a country that rides high on technical proficiency, that's serious business.”
In ostensibly taking issue with Shostak’s blunt piece, Gonzalez directly addresses few, if any, of Shostak’s comments, and generally meanders about repeating standard ID talking points. His most egregious miscalculation comes right in the first paragraph where he suggests,
“Indeed, ID employs design detection methods employed for decades in other specialized sciences (e.g., cryptography, forensics, archeology), where prior intelligent causes are inferred from observations.”
This is, of course, patently false. Cryptography, forensics, archeology and SETI are scientific in that they operate on the basis of methodological naturalism, presuming that the putative intelligence they seek to study exists in the natural universe and can be observed on that basis. In addition these disciplines follow appropriate methodology wherein they observe, hypothesize, and test. ID inferences to an “intelligent designer” are hypotheses left untested. As such their conclusion is assumed and their methodology is utterly unlike legitimate science. More about this here.

Gonzalez makes another rather half-hearted attempt at relevance later when he writes,
“Shostak writes that SETI researchers look for narrow band transmissions as evidence for extraterrestrials (unlike design theorists who look for complex information). But there’s more to the story. His friends Frank Drake and Carl Sagan were thinking of something else when they transmitted a radio picture message toward the globular star cluster M13 in 1974. Clearly, they expected their transmission to be interpreted as coming from an intelligence, not so much because it was narrow band, but because it carried a message. Today, if we received a narrow band transmission from outside the Solar System, most scientists would probably remain skeptical, at least until it could be shown that it contained an encoded message.”
Now there are two problems with this argument. One – his supposed “more to the story” has nothing to do with Shostak’s point about SETI methodology differing substantially and significantly from that of ID. And two – he’s quite wrong in what he asserts regarding Sagan and Drake.

To begin with, no one expected anything as to the end-line interpretation of the 1974 Arecibo message. The message will take about 20,000 years to reach the M13 cluster, and the cluster itself will have long departed from that position once the message arrives. Drake and Sagan (who actually had very little to do with the event, but the ID guys do love to bash him, don’t they?) sent the message as a demonstration of current technology and a celebration of the reopening of the Arecibo transmitter. Consider Sagan’s comments about this,
“The Arecibo message was clearly not intended as a serious attempt at interstellar communication, but rather as an indication of the remarkable advances in terrestrial radio technology."
But Gonzalez is right in his last statement at least. Most scientists, including Shostak and his colleagues, would be skeptical of a received narrow band transmission at first. What remains to be established is that this is in any way a counter to anything put forth by Shostak. Gonzalez is merely waving his hands and trying to sound responsive while saying little of consequence.

He goes on to say,
“Design inferences stand or fall apart from any decisions about who the designer may be.”
This is misleading. To say that design inferences stand apart from decisions as to the identity of the designer is significantly different from the usual ID line that such inferences can be legitimate in the absence of any information whatsoever about the designer. I don’t know whether Gonzalez is hedging his bets here or has awkwardly phrased standard ID boilerplate, but even his softened statement flies in the face of the analogy he wishes to make with legitimate sciences such as archeology. Decision regarding the designer are the salient part of naturalistic investigations of intelligent activity and cannot be so blithely dismissed. For ID to be scientific, it must test its hypothesis, it must establish the nature and identity of its designer. Without this, no inference of design can be considered empirically supported.

Gonzalez finishes up this barely engaged piece with a slightly strange expression of appreciation for Shostak’s (apparently unwilling) participation in his film and a summing up of his book in this one sentence,
“Our place in the cosmos is fine-tuned not only for life but also for making a range of scientific discoveries, and the best explanation for this is intelligent design.”
Thus is one long argument from incredulity neatly encapsulated. And the argument is as vapid as Gonzalez’ “response” to Seth Shostak.


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