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Yawn: Atheist YouTuber “Professor Dave” Rants about Intelligent Design

Günter Bechly
Image source: Professor Dave YouTube channel (screen shot, fair use).

Dave Farina is an atheist American YouTuber who runs a channel called Professor Dave Explains with almost two million subscribers. According to his channel he has “a knack for explaining stuff and … want[s] to share some knowledge.” Although he calls himself “Professor Dave,” Farina is not a college professor nor does he have a PhD. He has a Master’s in Science Education. He says he chose “Professor Dave” as his persona “without much thought. It was kind of tongue-in-cheek to be honest.”

Farina mainly produces science videos addressing high school and undergraduate students. Some of his stuff might even be decent edutainment. Unfortunately, he undermines his credibility by ranting about and misrepresenting various people he disagrees with. His latest target for abuse? Proponents of intelligent design associated with Discovery Institute. 

Pardon me while I stifle a yawn. The clichés and misrepresentations Farina recycles about intelligent design are beyond tired. Still, those new to the debate might find it helpful to see Farina’s false claims debunked.

The Scientist Who Made Farina Blink

First, some background: Farina previously targeted Professor James Tour, who ranks among the ten most cited chemists in the world (Berger 2010). Tour does not advocate the theory of intelligent design, but he is a scientific skeptic of unguided chemical and biological evolution. And he has dared to publicly share his expert critique of the hapless field of origin of life research. 

Farina produced three YouTube videos (12, and 3) attacking Tour, which he boasted presented “a demolition of… Tour and his anti-science antics in the realm of origin of life research.” Decide for yourself who was really engaging in “anti-science” antics by watching Professor Tour’s exhaustive 13-part response to Farina and others. Tour cordially invited Farina to participate in a one-on-one public discussion about the issues Farina raised. Farina did not accept. Maybe he feared his claims against Tour couldn’t withstand critical scrutiny?

Instead of manning up to defend his critique of Professor Tour, Farina moved on in search of new targets to denounce. And what could be better than those eeevil intelligent design proponents from the super-villainous Discovery Institute? Accordingly, Farina has begun to produce a series titled Exposing the Discovery Institute, which promises to go after intelligent design proponents “one clown at a time.” Part 1 of the series attacks intelligent design, Discovery Institute, and Dr. Casey Luskin and his appearance in the Science Uprising episode on human evolution.

The ad hominem flavor of Farina’s video series can be seen from its official description on YouTube, which accuses Discovery Institute of “propaganda,” “dishonesty,” “slander,” and “fraudulent activity.” Serious intellectual discussion is not Farina’s forte. Neither is accuracy.

Farina starts his introductory video by calling Discovery Institute “an evangelical propaganda mill.” Of course, he presents no evidence for this assertion. Farina next claims that Discovery Institute is nothing but an “effort to push for creation science or intelligent design to be taught in schools alongside evolutionary biology.” You could hardly pack more falsehoods into a single sentence.

A False Stereotype

First of all, it is an absolutely false stereotype to equate intelligent design theory with creation science. This equation has been refuted so often that nobody can plausibly claim to be ignorant about it. Google is your friend. Here are two classic articles by John West (2002) and by Stephen C. Meyer (2006) explaining why intelligent design is not creationism. I can add a very personal reason: I became an intelligent design proponent when I was still committed to Whiteheadian process metaphysics, long before I became a theist or a Christian. I had no religious reasons at all for supporting ID and still don’t have them. I reject literalist readings of Scripture as some kind of science textbook. Like most ID proponents I accept an old Earth, and like many prominent ID proponents (e.g., Michael Behe, Michael Denton, Richard Sternberg), I also accept common descent. But in the fanciful imagination of someone like Farina, we must still be Bible-thumping creationists. 

Farina seems more interested in caricaturing those he disagrees with than understanding them. That’s too bad. If he were more open-minded, he would learn that intelligent design, in the sense of infusions of information from outside the system, does not necessarily imply any commitment to miraculous divine interventions. After all, the simulation hypothesis, which is now so popular among some physicists and IT engineers (e.g., John Barrow, Nick Bostrom, Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky, Elon Musk, Martin Rees, and Neil deGrasse Tyson), is nothing but an intelligent design argument. My own preferred hypothesis of teleological evolution as quantum computation (Raatz & Bechly 2019, also see my website) is another example that has no “God diddit” or “Here a miracle occurs” in the equation.

What about Farina’s second point, that Discovery Institute allegedly pushes the teaching of intelligent design in schools? This is yet another demonstrably false claim. Discovery Institute’s Science Education Policy could hardly be clearer: “As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education” (Discovery Institute 2002; also see here). Which part of “Discovery Institute opposes” did Farina not understand? Even before the famous Dover trial, Discovery Institute had strongly advised the Dover school board not to push ID into the curriculum, but they unfortunately did not listen (West 2005). All these facts can be googled in a few minutes. Seemingly, that was too much of an effort for Farina.

Three Major Problems 

Farina also thinks that intelligent design theory “cannot be validated as real science because it does not explain or predict anything.” Here are three major problems with this statement:

  1. Who defines what qualifies as “real science”? It is certainly not Dave Farina. It is not judges in court rooms. And it is not even the scientists themselves who define “science.” Reasonably, it is philosophers of science who address this question. But Farina seems to be totally ignorant of the fact that there is no consensus among philosophers of science about a demarcation criterion that could reliably distinguish science from non-science. Any criterion yet suggested, including Karl Popper’s criterion of falsifiability, either excludes too much (e.g., scientific fields like string theory or evolutionary biology) or includes too much (e.g., homeopathy or parapsychology).
  2. Of course, intelligent design has explanatory power. Otherwise, we could not even explain the existence of Romeo and Juliet by the intelligent agency of William Shakespeare. There is no doubt that the designing activity of an intelligent agent is a perfectly valid explanation for complex specified patterns. The only question under debate is whether such patterns are confined to the realm of human cultural artifacts or if they are also found in nature. But this question should not be decided by dogmatic a priori restrictions of certain worldviews that do not allow for design explanations whatever the evidence might be, but should rather follow the evidence wherever it leads. It is an empirical question to be decided by the data.
  3. It is simply false that intelligent design does not predict anything. Indeed, this is yet another common stereotype that has been refuted so many times by ID proponents that any further use of this argument can be based only on a total ignorance of the facts (or perhaps deliberate lying, but I prefer not to apply that interpretation). Stephen Meyer (2009) included in his book Signature in the Cell a whole chapter with a dozen predictions inspired by intelligent design theory. These are often very precise and easily falsifiable, for example: “No undirected process will demonstrate the capacity to generate 500 bits of new [specified] information starting from a nonbiological source.” Just write a computer simulation that achieves this, without smuggling the information in through a backdoor, and you can claim victory over a core prediction of intelligent design.

Oh No — Theocracy!!!

Toward the end of his dreadful video, Farina raises the hackneyed threat of intelligent design leading to a totalitarian theocracy comparable to the Ayatollah regime in Iran or the dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. No, I’m not kidding. 

We’re supposed to believe that prominent Discovery Institute Fellows like the Jewish agnostic David Berlinski or the deist Michael Denton have nothing else in mind than establishing a theocracy to burn some witches. And these non-believing Fellows apparently agree with their Catholic (DI co-founder Bruce Chapman, Michael Behe, Ann Gauger, Jay Richards, and myself, even though I joined the ID movement when I was still neither a Christian nor even a theist), Jewish (David Klinghoffer), Orthodox (Richard Sternberg), and Protestant (Douglas Axe, William Dembski, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson) colleagues on the kind of theocracy they want to impose. 

Didn’t Farina bother to do any genuine research before making such ridiculous claims? And he has the chutzpah to accuse others of slander? Where is his evidence for such an agenda, apart from wild and unsubstantiated assertions? 

Discovery Institute does indeed have an agenda, and it is no secret at all (Crowther 2005Discovery Institute 2019): it is an agenda directed against the hijacking of modern science by the nihilistic worldview of materialism and atheism. I am proud to contribute to this noble task, because science should be free to “follow the evidence wherever it leads,” which has become the unofficial motto of Discovery Institute and the ID movement. The agenda is not about pushing religion onto society but about freedom of thought and freedom of research. That sounds evil and dangerous, doesn’t it?

Farina’s Metaphysics Is Showing

Farina’s next blunder is another howler. He says that “science is inherently materialistic” and that “science IS materialism.” He then boldly claims that “anyone who says otherwise does not know what science is.” Well, it’s clearly he who doesn’t understand what science is, because science is neither inherently nor actually materialism. Materialism is a metaphysical and not a scientific position. It is the view that all that exists is matter, energy, space, and time. Science can only study this spatiotemporal realm but it cannot say if it is all that exists. Science is just a methodology. Science is silent about metaphysics, which is why the latter is called METAphysics and not physics. Science is perfectly compatible with many different metaphysical positions, from materialism to Platonism, idealism, and theism. 

Many modern scientists are explicitly not materialists. I am not just speaking about the many Christian scientists and Nobel laureates, but, for example, cosmologist Max Tegmark (20082014), who suggests that all that exists is mathematics and that matter does not even exist, or Nobel laureate Roger Penrose (Murphy 2020), who is one of the many Platonists who think that there is a separate realm of math and forms additional to the material universe, or eminent quantum physicists like Anton Zeilinger (NZZ 2008) who reject materialism and endorse some version of idealism instead. Actually, the growing consensus in modern physics (endorsed by world class physicists like Sean Carroll, Brian Greene, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Leonard Susskind, Max Tegmark, and Erik Verlinde) — that spacetime (and thus also matter and energy) is not fundamental but emergent from an immaterial and atemporal realm of entangled quantum information — has thoroughly debunked materialism as an obsolete 19th-century paradigm. New results from modern experimental physics inspire headlines like “Quantum physics says goodbye to reality” (Physics World 2007), “Reality doesn’t exist until we measure it, quantum experiment confirms” (MacDonald 2015), and “A quantum experiment suggests there’s no such thing as objective reality” (MIT 2019). Many more findings that refute naïve materialism — such as the experimental violations of the inequalities of Bell, Leggett, and Leggett & Garg, as well as the experimental confirmation of the Kochen-Specker theorem — are cited in my article on quantum idealism, for those who are interested and can read German (Raatz & Bechly 2019). Even if some may still disagree with certain interpretations of these results, they at least prove that modern science by no means entails materialism. Quite the contrary! 

“Prediction Prior to Investigation”

Farina further claims that evolution is science but intelligent design is not, because only the former follows the rule of “prediction prior to investigation.” That again is nonsense on many levels. The theory of evolution and its predictions did not precede investigation but is a consequence of investigation. Charles Darwin explicitly made a cumulative empirical case and derived his theory by interpreting data which pre-existed the development of his theory. Of course, the theory then makes predictions that can be empirically tested. For example, it predicts a gradualistic pattern where small changes slowly accumulated into big differences over long periods of time. When this prediction was contradicted by the fossil evidence, numerous ad hoc explanations were forged to explain away the conflicting evidence, such as the artifact hypothesis or punctuated equilibria, etc. The same happened with the vast amount of conflicting evidence (homoplasy) in phylogenetic studies, likewise explained away with ad hoc hypotheses like ghost lineages and incomplete lineage sorting, etc. This is not per se a bad thing. No good theory is given up only because of minor anomalies. However, it is a problem when the anomalies become so massive that a paradigm shift is warranted, which is what ID proponents aim to demonstrate. 

What about intelligent design theory and its predictions? Intelligent design predicts, for example, that changes in the history of life came about abruptly by pulses or infusions of new information from outside the system. That is strongly corroborated by paleontological research and the ubiquitous discontinuities in the fossil record that can no longer be explained away by reference to incompleteness or undersampling (Bechly & Meyer 2017Bechly 2021). Here is another successful prediction that was made prior to investigation: ID proponent Richard Sternberg predicted in 2005 (Shapiro & Sternberg 2005) that junk DNA would turn out not be junk after all. That was later confirmed by the findings of the ENCODE project (Axe 2012). Above, I mentioned the 12 predictions listed by Meyer (2009). Thus, intelligent design theory does make testable predictions just like evolutionary theory does, which is why even atheist thinkers like philosopher Thomas Nagel (Nagel 2012) and physicist Bradley Monton (Monton 2009) have acknowledged the scientific status of ID theory. It is comical when anti ID-activists claim that intelligent design is not science because it is not falsifiable, and a sentence later say that it has been debunked (i.e., falsified), without recognizing the deep inconsistency of such claims.

Missing the Target

In the end, Farina’s potshots against intelligent design and Discovery Institute completely miss their targets. “Professor Dave” needs to do more than recycle past discredited claims if he wants to be taken seriously by anyone genuinely interested in pursuing the truth. 

Farina makes additional false or misleading statements in his video, and I will be reviewing them in the future. Next up will be his claim that the term “Darwinism” is obsolete and only used by “creationists.” After that, I will address his specific charges about Casey Luskin and the fossil evidence for human evolution.