Science, Just Science

3 April 2007

ID 101: Arguments From Language

Filed under: Creationism & Intelligent Design,SJS Comment — Kyuuketsuki @ 11:07 am

*** Originally posted by Chris Hyland of SJS ***

One of the weaker arguments used by creationists is that the use of ‘teleological’ language by scientists somehow gives ID some scientific merit. This includes words that could be applied to manmade systems such as ‘design’, ‘reverse-engineer’, ‘system’ and ‘program’ no matter what context they are used in.

On the Discovery Institute blog, Michael Egnor responds to a challenge to show how the ‘design inference’ has been used in biological research. The design inference is the idea of William Dembski that we can infer that a system was created by an intelligence, and Egnor chooses one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 20th century:

The natural place to start showing examples of the inference to design in medical research is the seminal biological discovery of the 20th Century-Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.

To untangle the structure of DNA, they inferred design, not chance. They reversed-engineered DNA. They collected physical data about the structure of DNA (X-ray diffraction studies, Chargaff’s rules, the physical chemistry of nucleotides, etc), and then they designed a model of the molecule to understand its structure and function.

What exactly is reverse engineering? From Wikipedia:

Reverse engineering… is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through analysis of its structure, function and operation…Reverse engineering is essentially science, using the scientific method. Sciences such as biology and physics can be seen as reverse engineering of biological ‘machines’ and the physical world respectively.

Watson’s and Crick’s work of course had nothing to do with Darwinism (except perhaps their laboratory politics, which is another matter).

The basic problem with this argument is that just because a system can be ‘reverse-engineered’ it does not mean it was intelligently designed, in fact the definition Egnor posted does not mention intelligence at all, although it does contain the word ‘machine’, which is another word that they will say automatically means the system is designed. Unfortunately science is not that easy. Scientific language can sometimes be very confusing, but that is no excuse when you are claiming to speak from authority as Egnor does.

Additionally, Egnor appears to conflate two different versions of the design inference, the definition used by William Dembski is:

A form of inference in which design or intelligent agency is attributed to an event on the basis of its complexity (small probability) and specification.

Design is defined as:

A four-part process by which a designer forms a designed object

So in this definition it is clear that ‘design inference’ implies a intelligent designer.

However, what was actually done was an investigation into the structure and function of the system, not an investigation into the origin of the system. Egnor still considers this is a design inference because:

Some scientists infer design explicitly. Some use the design inference implicitly, even if they disagree with its philosophical implications.

This is a common ID tactic … when the vast majority of scientists disagree with you, say that they do so for philosophical reasons. This is of course untrue … the vast majority of scientists do not reach the same conclusions because they realise that just because we use terms such as reverse-engineer and machine to describe systems that does not mean they were designed.

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