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The Darwinist Misinformation Train

A good friend of mine getting his teaching credential to teach public high school called me this weekend to converse about his professor’s response to a paper he wrote supporting the teaching of ID. Apparently his professor disapproved of teaching ID because he felt that ID was untestable science. The professor’s criticism went something like this:

“My main problem with ID is that it purports to not identify the designer when everyone knows it’s really just God. Intelligent design thus shouldn’t be taught because it is essentially creation science repackaged. Thus, it’s just an untestable appeal to the supernatural. However, if I had to choose, I would actually prefer creation science to ID because at least creation scientists are up-front about who they think the designer is.”

This view was also echoed recently in the Seattle Weekly, where a commentator threw in a not-so-subtle, below-the-belt criticism about ID:

“[ID is] the notion … that an unspecified creator (who sounds an awful lot like the Christian notion of God) is responsible for the creation and development of everything, including human beings.”

Without nitpicking over the many inaccurate details of this description, here again we see the same implicit criticism of ID: “ID proponents say it doesn’t identify the designer, but everybody knows the designer is “God” [at this point, Eugenie Scott adds in her famous “wink wink, nudge nudge” line], therefore it isn’t science.”

I found this criticism interesting, because a different article on the same day made the exact opposite criticism against intelligent design: ID isn’t science because it supposedly DOES identify the designer as a supernatural deity. This very point was argued recently by University of Utah bioengineering professor Gregory Clark before the Utah State Board of Education:

“Intelligent design fails as science because it does exactly that – it posits that life is too complex to have arisen from natural causes, and instead requires the intervention of an intelligent designer who is beyond natural explanation. Invoking the supernatural can explain anything, and hence explains nothing.”

These misconstruals are not mere trivialities. In fact, they form the basis for the ACLU’s lawsuit against teaching intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District). As read in their complaint:

“Intelligent design is a non-scientific argument or assertion, made in opposition to the scientific theory of evolution, that an intelligent, supernatural actor has intervened in the history of life…”

So on the one hand, intelligent design fails as science because it does identify the designer as supernatural. On the other hand, intelligent design fails because it doesn’t identify the designer. Both positions can’t be right. But what does intelligent design really say, and can it overcome these criticisms?

The truth about ID

Had my friend’s professor, or Dr. Clark, bothered to actually read (and / or choose to accurately represent) the writings of ID proponents, they would have found this matter of the designer’s identity to be crystal clear:

“Intelligent design is modest in what it attributes to the designing intelligence responsible for the specified complexity in nature. For instance, design theorists recognize that the nature, moral character and purposes of this intelligence lie beyond the competence of science and must be left to religion and philosophy.” (William Dembski, The Design Revolution, pg. 42)

“Although intelligent design fits comfortably with a belief in God, it doesn’t require it, because the scientific theory doesn’t tell you who the designer is. While most people – including myself – will think the designer is God, some people might think that the designer was a space alien or something odd like that.” (Michael Behe, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 02/08/01).

“[T]the place of intelligent design in science has been troubling for more than a century. That is because on the whole, scientists from within Western culture failed to distinguish between intelligence, which can be recognized by uniform sensory experience, and the supernatural, which cannot. Today we recognize that appeals to intelligent design may be considered in science, as illustrated by current NASA search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Archaeology has pioneered the development of methods for distinguishing the effects of natural and intelligent causes. We should recognize, however, that if we go further, and conclude that the intelligence responsible for biological origins is outside the universe (supernatural) or within it, we do so without the help of science.” (Of Pandas and People, a pro-ID textbook, pg. 126-127, emphasis added)

Reading these quotes from leading ID theorists makes it completely clear that ID theory does not identify the designer, and cannot even really get very far into elaborating upon the nature of the designer. The reason for this is also clear: there are natural empirical limitations to what science can study. If we can’t study the identity of the designer, that’s not ID’s fault, that’s just the nature of the limits of science.

Why then do so many Darwinists publicly criticize ID as if it has the very weakness (i.e. advocating for an explicitly supernatural creator) which it goes out of its way to clearly avoid? The answer is simple: mischaracterizing ID as an appeal to the supernatural places it both outside the scope of science, and also outside legal rules laid down in Edwards v. Aguillard for legitimate origins ideas. But the whole notion that ID does identify the designer as supernatural is false.

The Darwinist Misinformation Train

I have a 3 step theory for how it comes to pass that many people come to believe that intelligent design is an appeal to the supernatural:

  1. Type I Darwinists critics: It starts with these Darwinist critics who correctly understand ID and realize that it respects the limits of science and doesn’t try to identify the designer. Yet, Type I Critics then purposefully misrepresent ID to the public (and particularly to scientists) as an untestable and unscientific appeal to the supernatural. This is despite the fact that ID proponents understand the nature of scientific inquiry and have formulated their theory to respect its boundaries. The dubious tactics of Type I critics are effective because it results in many people thinking that ID cannot be science because it makes claims about the supernatural — beyond the scope of what can be studied using the scientific method.
  2. Type II Darwinist critics: These are the people created by the activities of Type I critics. Type II critics misunderstand ID because they have been told by Type I critics that ID is an untestable appeal to the supernatural. This causes them to think it is makes exclusively religious claims, is not scientific, not empirically based, and not appropriate for the laboratory or the classroom. Type II Critics aren’t necessarily to blame for their misapprehensions because they have been misled. Nonetheless, it would behoove them to pick up some of the scholarship of ID proponents they are criticizing before they speak about it publicly. If they did so, they would realize their misunderstandings.
  3. The Public: The Public consists of the people out there who are trying to figure out ID. Some of them may have read books or other literature by ID proponents and know the truth. But, for the most part, the public has been misled by Type I and Type II critics who are telling them that ID is an unscientific appeal to the supernatural, and shouldn’t be studied in labs or taught in science classes.

Though Type II critics are more honest and genuine than Type I critics, both have a common goal: make sure that ID gets construed such that the designer turns out to be a supernatural deity, because then it’s very easy to argue that it isn’t science (and isn’t constitutional to teach). This results in momentum for the Darwinist misinformation train:

Figure 1: The Darwinist misinformation train

Some Darwinists critics want to get the ID train from Point A (reality) to Point B (fiction).

Point A represents the actual nature of intelligent design theory, where ID respects the limits of scientific inquiry and cannot identify the designer. At point A, ID relies upon the scientific method and makes no faith-based appeals to God. Here, it is pure science.

Point B represents where Darwinists would like to take ID theory: where it is an explicit appeal to the supernatural, and thus does not respect the inherent limitations of the scientific method. At point B, ID would have a clearly religious component as it identifies the designer as God. This would make it both unscientific and unconstitutional. Point B is fiction, because, of course, ID respects science and is ultra clear that the theory cannot identify the designer and avoids such religious claims.

Type I critics provide momentum for the train by misinforming the other scientists about intelligent design theory. Having spawned many genuinely believing (but ultimately wrong) Type II critics, both Type I and Type II critics go out to the public to press the case that ID shouldn’t be taught because it is an unscientific appeal to the supernatural.

Another way this can be diagrammed is the trickle-down theory of Darwinist misinformation:

Figure 2: The Trickle Down Theory of Darwinist Misinformation: The Misinformation Pyramid Scheme

This is another way of representing the misinformation about intelligent design theory: The Misinformation Pyramid Scheme which makes use of the “Trickle Down Theory” of misinformation. Under their model, Type I Critics at the top purposefully misinform scientists and others about the nature of ID theory. Type I critics and their followers (Type II critics) then, relying upon a false understanding of intelligent design (some realizing that falsity, some not), go out and tell the public that ID is supposedly not science and should not be taught in schools, because they wrongly state is an unscientific appeal to the supernatural. In the end, the public is the real loser because they miss out on an accurate understanding of a new and potent scientific theory: ID.

Being Honest
But there are many honest Darwinists out there, like my friend’s professor, who acknowledges that ID does not identify the designer. However, my friend’s professor still misunderstands ID because he then turned this strength of ID into a criticism by saying that it doesn’t matter what ID theory says, because we know the designer must be God, therefore ID isn’t science. This argument makes no sense: if ID doesn’t identify the designer, then how can one claim that ID theory says designer is God? It requires a misconstrual of ID theory which probably stems from critics mistaking some religious beliefs of ID proponents for the conclusions of ID theory.

For example, William Dembski, who in the above quote makes it ultra-clear that ID theory can’t identify the designer, is also clear elsewhere that he believes the designer is indeed God. In fact, when Dembski talks about the identity of the designer, he is often misquoted (the “Logos quote” comes to mind) by reporters and Darwinists who try to twist Dembski’s words into saying that it is ID theory which says the designer is God. This is unfortunate because Dembski makes it clear that he does not derive his beliefs about the identity of the designer from ID theory. Rather, when he identifies the designer, he does so not from ID theory, but from out of his own Christian religious faith.

Darwinists who think that they can misconstrue ID as if it identifies the designer as God simply because they can point to the beliefs of some ID proponents, are using a specious argument. To be accurate and truthful, one has to accept the way ID has been formulated by its proponents. And given the above quotes, there is little doubt as to how ID theory actually works: it can’t identify the designer.

(Besides, if the critics are right and ID theory mandates that the designer is God, then what about those ID sympathizers who aren’t religious—like the agnostic philosopher Antony Flew?)

The moral of this story is that you can’t go from Point A to Point B by going in opposite directions. Darwinists can’t criticize ID on the one-hand because it does identify the designer as supernatural, and then on the other-hand because it doesn’t, and then both claim that ID isn’t science. For those interested, the truth is that ID theory does not identify the designer, doesn’t even focus on studying the designer. While ID proponents may have beliefs about the designer, those beliefs are not derived from ID theory.

Of course, in the end, for all the Type I Critics out there, it doesn’t really matter what I write or whether or not I show clear documentation about how ID theory cannot identify the designer. But for those who are interested in taking ID seriously, I hope they will echo my desire that this Misinformation Train gets stuck at the reality station.

Thanks for reading.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.