Friday, October 06, 2006

How to Waste Four Million Bucks

The Discovery Institute seems to be getting overly defensive about accusations that they haven't produced any research. First there was Bruce Chapman's totally unbelievable claim that the research is all being conducted in secret for fear of persecution. Now they've got a press release out in which they brag about having spent 4 million dollars on "scientific and scholarly research". The artful wording they use allows them to include just about everything they've ever spent money on, most of which would qualify as propaganda. There are, unsurprisingly, no research projects mentioned. Ed Brayton does the take-down on this latest bit of nonsense, and he pretty much covers all the bases.

There is, however, one thing I should have mentioned in my last post that I'll mention here. It's not even all that important for the DI or for any group of ID supporters to actually get their hands wet performing bench research. What really matters in this game is that you've got ideas for research, that your so-called theory serves as a conduit for building a research program and leading to new knowledge. Scientists have to look at your claims and be able to think of ways to test them using novel experiments, and then hopefully use their preliminary results to guide further research. That's the first necessary step to fomenting a scientific revolution. It takes a lot more than that of course, but this is the bare minimum requirement for even doing science.

The most telling thing, therefore, isn't that the DI has failed to set-up labs or churn out papers (assuming we're not dumb enough to believe that it's all being done in secret and will come pouring forth any day now). The most telling thing is that they can't even tell us what an ID research program is supposed to look like. It is not the least bit clear what kind of research one would even do under an "intelligent design" paradigm. Heck, if they would just tell me, I'd do the experiments for them. What they really need are research proposals, the kinds of things expected of grad students before they start their dissertation work. This makes things even easier on the Discovery Institute, because proposals don't cost any money beyond paying someone's salary. And there's also no need to worry about "persecution", as if that were a rational concern to begin with.

But we're not seeing proposals either. The Templeton Foundation, a group that funds research directed at the intersection of science and religion, and which might be expected to have some degree of sympathy towards ID, has in the past solicited research proposals from the ID movement. This would have been a golden opportunity for the IDists -- lots of money, a prestigious funding organization, and no need for wild-eyed fears of some "dogmatic darwinist" yanking the funds out from under them. But they didn't bite:

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

Part of the problem is that every supposed idea for ID research I've ever seen consists of testing (usually badly) some aspect of evolution. But researchers don't need ID advocates coming up with ways to test evolution; they already do this all the time with no input from the ID movement. And if for some reason these tests started to show that evolution was looking unlikely, then it still wouldn't support ID. To the best of my knowledge, the ID movement has never come up with an idea to test ID independently, which is a necessary prerequisite for making it a legitimate alternative to evolution. And as irritating as it is, most ID advocates don't even seem to think it matters. They pretend as if attacking evolution itself somehow constitutes evidence for ID, even going to far as to create labels for anti-evolution arguments (e.g. irreducible complexity, specified complexity) which are then held up as "positive evidence" for ID. But this doesn't fool anyone. The notion that criticisms of evolution automatically count as evidence for ID-creationism is what the courts have called contrived dualism, and it has been dismissed as having no "scientific factual basis or legitimate educational purpose".

Even still, there are IDists who have tried to come up with ideas for positive research. Some of them are probably sincere in wanting to create a research program, while others are perhaps just interested in putting on a show to make ID look scientific. But either way, these attempts haven't had success either. One such repository for these great research ideas was supposed to be Brainstorms, an online forum with open participation. Feel free to check it out and see how many ideas for ID research you can find. Since its inception in 2002, the forum has badly withered; it now has few participants and has become a playground for cranks like John A. Davison and others who post on things like the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which is bottom-of-the-barrel, old-school creationist stuff. Another repository for research was supposed to be the ID movement's in-house journal Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design (PCID). Originally conceived as a quarterly publication, the editors were not receiving enough submissions to fill out full issues. Then it became something closer to a yearly journal. The last issue was Nov. 2005, and it contains all of five articles. Feel free to peruse the back issues and see for yourself if what they're publishing is actual ID research, or just various attacks on evolution.

It's not just that the ID movement as a whole is uninterested in scientific research or has chosen to prioritize its socio-political mission. These things are true, but the more fundamental problem is that ID, as currently conceived, is just not possible to test. The basic "theory" of ID comes down to this: "Some unknown 'intelligence' (we'll leave it to you to figure out what that is) at some undetermined point in the past, using unknown but presumably supernatural methods, designed some (but not necessarily all) aspects of living things and/or the universe as a whole". Not only is that untestable, it lacks simple coherence. There are so many basic details missing that there's no way even to make sense of it. The ID movement is thus left with the vague claim that they are "detecting design" without specifying what, when, how, or by whom the designing took place. And it's not that they just haven't yet answered these burning questions, the trend in ID thinking is to move away from addressing them. Even the most basic issues like the age of the Earth have been avoided for fear of upsetting their big tent.

So the problem here goes well beyond the fact that the Discovery Institute's 4 million bucks was spent on things other than scientific research, or Bruce Chapman's laughable claim to be conducting the research in a secret hidden fortress away from the prying eyes of scientists. They are suffering from a conceptual problem. Even without conducting research of their own, it would seem that by now ID should have been well-developed enough so that other interested parties could find plenty of research to pursue. If you come up with something worthwhile, there will be people who will go after it. But that's not happening. And no, it's not because there's this huge conspiracy squashing anyone who tries to do it, it's because there's nothing there. The IDists have had many chances to show us what they can come up with, and they have failed. They need to go back to the drawing board and rework their whole "theory" from the ground up. If they can't or won't do this, then perhaps it's because they're too invested in their current viewpoint, or too consumed with their cultural renewal project. And if that's the case, then they deserve whatever scorn they get.