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Intelligent Design as a Hoax

Via Boing Boing, a brilliant opinion piece by philosopher Daniel Dennett (available on Edge here or at The New York Times here) on "intelligent design" as, essentially, a hoax.

One highlight is Dennett's destruction of the creationists' use of the eye as a structure that must have been designed because it's too complex to have evolved:

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
Then he goes on to show the clever forensic trick that creationists use to demonstrate why they should be taken seriously:
To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced... experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

But my favorite part of the piece is when he challenges creationists to, in effect, put up or shut up:

[N]o intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:

About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued...

[T]here is not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it.

I had never thought of it this way. Intelligent design isn't a competing hypothesis, it's just inflated naysaying by people with an agenda driven by their faith. (How many atheist intelligent design advocates can you think of?)

The saddest thing about this ongoing debacle is that it is drawing attention and resources away from our schools when they are so critically in need of every bit of help they can get. Every dollar spent on creationist curriculum, every hour spent by a school board debating intelligent design, is a dollar and an hour that could have been spent on actually improving our schools. Meanwhile, in 2003, our 12th graders scored 19th out of 21 surveyed nations in science and math proficiency.


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It IS really sad. Even sadder is the fact that so many people believe in this stuff:

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