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How Discover Magazine Carefully Keeps Readers in the Dark About Intelligent Design

Casey Luskin

Discover Magazine has a penchant for misleading its readers about intelligent design (ID). Last year it touted Ken Miller’s response to me on Michael Behe’s arguments for irreducible complexity in blood clotting as an “intelligent design fail,” even though Ken Miller had blatantly misrepresented Behe’s arguments. (Miller still hasn’t replied to my refutation of his arguments.) Now, in its October 2010 issue, Discover Magazine was able to combine multiple errors about the nature of ID science and law in one single paragraph. Quite an accomplishment! Here’s the statement:

Not satisfied with the biblical God who created the world in six days, creationists developed a “science” that aims to explain the supernatural force behind the whole shebang: intelligent design. Because we cannot reverse-engineer things like the human eye, they say, it follows that all must be designed by a higher being. (The human knee presumably came together during a moment of distraction.) This tactic had some success easing intelligent design/creationism into American public-school science lessons. But in 2005 a jury prohibited its teaching in the schools of Dover, Pennsylvania, delivering a stinging rebuke.

(Discover Magazine, October 2010 issue, “Who Asked for That?“)

So many errors–where to begin?

A Jury at the Dover Trial?
Much like Nature Immunology, which printed inaccurate information about the Dover trial earlier this year, Discover Magazine is wrong to say that the Dover ruling came from a jury. Anyone who follows the ID debate with any measure of interest would know that it was the infamous Judge Jones who banned ID from Dover science classrooms. While this error of course is minor, it shows that the person writing about ID for Discover Magazine is grossly uninformed about the topic.

Confusing ID with Alcoholics Anonymous
Let me first say that I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the work of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Some of my closest friends–people near and dear to my heart–have been helped by AA (and similar groups) to successfully overcome addiction to drugs or alcohol. That said, we all know that one of AA’s 12 steps is to turn to a “higher power” for help. Perhaps Discover Magazine‘s writer had Step #2 in mind when claiming that ID refers to a “higher being,” or a “supernatural force.” Stephen Meyer explains that ID infers intelligent causation, not a supernatural causation in Signature in the Cell:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pg. 428-429 (HarperOne, 2009).)

“Higher beings” may work great for folks in AA. But ID tries to respect the limits of science and does not infer more than we can learn through the data.

Ignoring the Positive Case for Design
Meyer’s quote noted that ID infers an intelligent cause “because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information.” Thus, the next error in Discover Magazine‘s blurb is that it ignores the positive case for design, stating, “Because we cannot reverse-engineer things like the human eye, they say, it follows that all must be designed by a higher being.”

Whatever the writer intended to mean by “reverse-engineering,” this appears to be a bungled attempt to frame ID as merely a negative argument against evolution. In actuality, ID is a positive argument which seeks to find in nature the types of complexity which we know, from experience, come from intelligence. Again, Stephen Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell is instructive:

Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source–from a mind or personal agent. … So the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source.

(Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 341, 347 (HarperOne, 2009).)

In its short paragraph, Discover Magazine managed to make at least three revealing errors, carefully keeping its readers in the dark about the actual nature of ID.


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.



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