Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Well, there he goes again...

Surely you have run across, on occasion, someone who is indisputably moderately clever, yet who thinks of himself as an intellectual giant among men; a person who makes at most a marginal effort to hide his sneering contempt for those whom he considers his inferiors, a group which includes, in his mind, nearly everyone.

Such a person is difficult to stomach.

The National Review's John Derbyshire is such a person.

Now, I have met a few bona fide intellectual giants. Some were arrogant, some were not. (Hans Bethe was one of the humblest men I have ever met.) Arrogance among geniuses is (a) not universal and (b) tolerable (though barely) when encountered. Arrogance among the ordinary—such as John Derbyshire's arrogance, is repulsive.

Derbyshire has penned an essay on the teaching controversy swirling about the (biological) intelligent design (ID) movement.

Here are four things you can safely say about Derbyshire's essay:
  1. It is not very good.
  2. It has all been said before, and more eloquently.
  3. It is wrong.
  4. It is bizarrely narcissistic.
Derbyshire’s argument against ID, parroted from countless others, goes like this:
Why stop with Intelligent Design (the theory that life on earth has developed by a series of supernatural miracles performed by the God of the Christian Bible, for which it is pointless to seek any naturalistic explanation)? Why not teach the little ones astrology? Lysenkoism? Orgonomy? Dianetics? Reflexology? Dowsing and radiesthesia? Forteanism? Velikovskianism? Lawsonomy? Secrets of the Great Pyramid? ESP and psychokinesis? Atlantis and Lemuria? The hollow-earth theory?
Leaving aside the fact that it is also the God of Judaism to whom many in the ID movement attribute the I in ID, we see that Derbyshire has nothing more to offer than a rehashed (actually reproduced) argument ad absurdum.

ID is nothing like any of the crackpot beliefs that Derbyshire lists. None of those can make a statement of equal footing with this one:
Some scientists believe that the fundamental building blocks of life are too complex to have arisen from purely naturalistic processes. Some models indicate a lack of sufficient time (between the cooling of the earth and the appearance of single celled organisms) to accommodate a naturalistic explanation. Furthermore, this situation is exacerbated by an ever increasing awareness of the complex biochemistry of cells and new fossilized evidence pushing the onset of life to earlier dates. Presently the theory of evolution has no testable model for the development of certain complex micro bio-machines; at best it offers plausibility arguments. This deficiency in evolution and the related field of abiogenesis has led some scientists to postulate that the building blocks for life on earth are the result of design—the handiwork of an unspecified intelligence. In the same sense that evolution circumvents the problem of the origin of life by abdicating responsibility to another field (abiogenesis), ID circumvents it by assigning it to an unspecified intelligence. In that sense the origin of life is moot (in this debate.) The question at hand is whether there has been sufficient time for life's micro complexity to evolve from the spark of life (which both camps assume rather than explain), or whether it, as far as we know at the moment, is inexplicable.
Such a statement is the essence of biological ID. And while it may not be science per se, until such time as evolution can answer questions, on firm scientific footing, about the development of early life forms, it is a perfectly reasonable topic of conversation in a biology class.

Derbyshire, alas, cannot see the truth through his own smugness, and his obvious desire and pleasure for the role of National Review's shrew. (One gets the impression he sits about wondering which new way he should disagree with the majority of his colleagues.) Though not a scientist, he wants you to think he is almost one, and that's good enough. Nay, he is actually better than a scientist, for he understands all the big picture issues while bringing to bear the journalist's sharp pen and British wit. He tells us:
I never have formally studied quantum mechanics, though I flatter myself I understand it well enough.
We can agree that Derbyshire does flatter himself.

Derbyshire also spews the dogma of the misnamed National Center for Science Education by telling us, with a straight face (or, more likely, a face oozing condescension) that:

And Darwinism ought to be taught conservatively, without skepticism or equivocation, which will only confuse young minds. Darwinism is the essential foundation for all of modern biology and genomics, and offers a convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences.

The statement speaks for itself, in many ways. Never in my years of teaching physics, much more of a science than evolution, was I advised to teach it without skepticism or equivocation—the mere thought makes the mind reel. (The fact that evolution accepts no dissent or criticism is a sure sign of its inferiority complex.) Furthermore, Derbyshire misses the boat (or he outright fabricates) with the assertion that evolution offers a "convincing explanation for all the phenomena we can observe in the life sciences." Far from it. In the infamous case of the bacterial flagellum, evolution may yet provide a convincing argument. But the state of the art at the present is that it does no better than a "might-have, could-have" unlikely chain of events.

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