Meyer and Ward debate - Less than meets the eye
After hearing all the crowing coming from the ID camp over Stephen Meyer’s victory in Seattle I thought I’d go to the tape. Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and Peter Ward, a paleontologist and author at the University of Washington got together for a lively, lightly moderated back and forth on evolution and “intelligent design” on local Seattle TV.
The discussion was generally cordial, though certainly unreserved. There was plenty of sparring and some biting humor, but as Ward noted at one point the two are friends so they were not going to come to blows.
Meyer delivered his usual polished performance while Ward was very much less effective from the point of view of presentation. He often resorted to incredulity that someone might say such a thing as had just been said, repeated himself, and several times appealed to scientists and friends in the audience for confirmation and commiseration. Meyer won on style, but then Meyer always wins on style.
The thing was, all of this didn’t really kick in until I sat down in front of the last third or so of the debate. Previous to that I’d been listening while working and kept wondering how anyone could have thought Meyer won so handily. Ward’s comments were brief, but substantial. Meyer went on at length but said very little. It really speaks volumes for the nature of this kind of event when one listens to what is said and avoids the personal presentation. One learns quickly why those who’ve been through this many times insist that the truly efficacious debate takes place in written form.
But it is true that Ward appeared to run out of spirit, and steam, as the debate wore on. He became more and more impatient. In the end, I’d have to admit that Meyer came off as more coherent and responsive, if not better informed.
There were some interesting moments, and I did manage to note a few comments.
There was this from Meyer,
“When we argue for design, we’re not arguing based on a negative assessment of the powers of various naturalistic mechanisms, natural selection for example. It’s not just a critique of natural selection – “this is so complex natural selection couldn’t produce it, therefore it was designed” – that’s not our argument.This bit came when Meyer was trying to defend the notion that ID is more than merely a gaps argument, that they go beyond simply arguing about what evolution cannot do. Long time observers of the “intelligent design” movement will nearly gag at the audacious dishonesty of the first couple of sentences. And most will notice that the next bit, meant as a contrast, allows us to reduce Meyer’s point to – “ID is not based on an argument against a naturalistic explanation, it is based on an argument against a naturalistic explanation.”
We do critique the relevant naturalistic hypotheses, as to their explanatory power with respect to, for example, these exquisite machines or circuits in cells, or I think even more importantly the digital code in cells.”
“But we’re also making a positive case for design based upon our knowledge, not our ignorance, our knowledge of the cause and effect structure of the world. It is part of our knowledge that there is a cause that is sufficient to produce digital code. We know that that cause is intelligence.”Taken on its merits this means logically that Meyer is arguing that humans or some human-like intelligence created the digital code. Of course this is not what Meyer intends as he indulges in the now time-worn and very disingenuous ID tactic of deliberately conflating “intelligence” and non-natural causal agency such that an inference to the supernatural sounds altogether uncontroversial. Meyer knows that his is not a scientific argument, and we can assert that he knows this because he has argued forcefully elsewhere that scientific methodology is unfairly restrictive of ID methodology. Yet he offers his metaphysical speculation as proof of a positive case for design.
He resumes this misdirection later on when he says,
“The test is - what theory best explains the information embedded in DNA, where best is determined by what we know of the cause and effect structure of the world”Critics of ID have been asking for an example of how the "theory" could be tested for quite some time now. Ward repeated this question and the above bit of fantasy is Meyer's answer.
Notice how any possible explanation here is restricted by Meyer to that which we already know. Meyer would have us consider an example of an unexplained phenomenon, disqualify the condition that current knowledge is incomplete (“We don’t know”), and still require that we come up with an answer. This, of course, leaves us in the epistemologically unfruitful position of accepting either that science explains the phenomenon or that we must draw an explanation from non-scientific methodology. Boiled down then, Meyer's answer amounts to "we know that humans design digital code, so in the absence of a complete empirical explanation we must conclude that the genetic code was "intelligently designed."
How convenient for Meyer and his ID cronies that for those cases where we may lack some detailed biological data, he has a supernatural inference all ready for us to adopt. How inconvenient for Meyer that this is not how science works.
All in all I’d have to say that if one is interested in substance this is not a particularly useful debate. This has nothing to do with the fact that Meyer is better here than Ward, I’ve watched and enjoyed many debates wherein the science side is outperformed stylistically. However, if you want to see just how little it takes for ID proponents to jump out of their seats and yell “slaaaaaam-dunk” have a look, just don’t expect to be edified.