Suckered by Intelligent Design

Where was Saint Dogbert when Scott Adams Really Needed Him?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, put out a blog about the Intelligent Design movement on November 13, 2005 that drew intense fire from scientists.

Adams’ fundamental fallacy is what I call the Myth of Moral Symmetry. It’s the idea that if two parties do something roughly analogous, they’re morally on the same plane. Criminals have guns, but so do cops, so they’re really no different from each other. Someone kills an innocent person in cold blood, and we execute him, so we're on the same level as the murderer. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor but we bombed Hiroshima, so there’s no difference. Communism was bad, but we supported nasty right-wing dictators, so there was really no difference between us and them. Intelligent Design and evolution can both pick flaws in the other side’s arguments, so they must be on the same level.

I also call this fallacy "Counselor's Disease." If you’ve ever been in the same room with a complete weasel and a mediator or counselor, it’s a sure lose situation unless you’re an even bigger weasel. The mediator will approach things from the unshakable paradigm that the truth is somewhere between the two extremes. The weasel wins big – he makes you look far worse than you are and he ends up looking far better than he is. You end up being pushed down to the same level as the weasel.

Actually, I can't think of very many disputes where the truth lies roughly halfway in between. In just about every controversy I can think of, major or minor, the truth lies far closer to one side than the other. The truth was not somewhere in between the Nazis and the Jews, or Communism and the West, or the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, or the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. Even when both sides have legitimate complaints, one side often ends up overreacting so extremely that they end up in the wrong. Whatever legitimate complaints someone may have over poverty and being abused as a child, when he decides to take out his pain on an innocent person, his legitimate complaints count for nothing. In the rare cases where both sides have roughly equal legitimacy, the issues are usually so entangled that an outsider can't usefully get involved.

Considering that Adams got into this when his Weasel Poll picked Intelligent Design advocates as the Top Weasels (a decision I am proud to say I helped sway), you might think he’d wonder if they really were weasels when he read their stuff. But he didn’t. He put their claims on an equal footing with those of science and that’s exactly what the Intelligent Design advocates want. They are hoping that naive readers, confronted with the conflicting claims of Intelligent Design and science, will do one of the following:

So Adams walked right into the trap. Now the Intelligent Design movement has a secular celebrity trophy to hang on the wall. It's not so important that we have just another case of someone confusing success in entertainment with having real-world expertise; it almost seems like being dumb is a prerequisite for fame. What makes this case so interesting is that it is a textbook illustration of what the Intelligent Design movement is trying to accomplish, and how they succeeded at it by hoodwinking a gullible non-specialist who is overconfident about his reasoning skills.

James Randi, the magician turned psychic debunker, has often stated that scientists are the worst people in the world at detecting fraud because they expect experiments to be honestly set up, run, and reported. Adams, who lampoons corporate stupidity in his comic strip and writes frequently about bad reasoning in his books, turned out to be similarly incapable of spotting intellectual fraud when he was its target.

With any luck, this will be what the medical folks call a self-limiting condition, or perhaps better, a self-punishing sin. After the umpteenth cease-and-desist letter to some creationist group telling them to stop using his blog in support of their cause, Adams might begin to figure out what’s really going on. Even better, the lunatic fringe of Christianity might end up putting him on its internet Urban Legends circuit, along with the FCC plotting to ban all religious programming, or the Procter and Gamble logo being a Satanic symbol. Maybe we’ll hear that he’s really a closet Christian but doesn’t dare come out for fear of losing his strip (although that hasn’t kept the once-funny B.C. from lingering on life support long after brain death). Or maybe we’ll hear he’s been marked for death by the Illuminati. Maybe the conspiracy theorists will start finding all kinds of secret code symbols in Dilbert to ferret out hidden messages. The wages of sin are death, but in this case they might end up being even more fitting.

Adams begins (his blog quotes are indented):

To me, the most fascinating aspect of the debate over Darwinism versus Intelligent Design is that neither side understands the other side’s argument. Better yet, no one seems to understand their own side’s argument. But that doesn’t stop anyone from having a passionate opinion.

He’s off to a great start here. Most everything the Religious Right says about intellectuals is marked by stereotyping and gross ignorance. However, almost everything intellectuals say about religion is equally marked by stereotyping and gross ignorance. Interestingly enough, most of the angry responses I’ve gotten to my essays on those subjects have come from nonbelievers angry at being accused of stereotyping and ignorance. I suspect the religious types who would get offended don’t read sites that challenge their assumptions.

Also, too many scientists say stupid things that reinforce the idea that science is inherently anti-religious, or that science is essentially a social construct devoid of external reality, or that science arbitrarily excludes miracles. Remarks of that sort make you sound very sophisticated at a grad student bull session or when trying to get a date with a philosophy major, but they do immense damage when they get widely quoted. These careless statements become ammunition for anti-intellectuals of all species who want excuses to ignore science.

So when I read this promising opening paragraph, I was all set to see an intelligent commentary. That's not what I got.

I’ve been doing lots of reading on the subject, trying to gather comic fodder. I fully expected to validate my preconceived notion that the Darwinists had a mountain of credible evidence and the Intelligent Design folks were creationist kooks disguising themselves as scientists. That’s the way the media paints it. I had no reason to believe otherwise. The truth is a lot more interesting. Allow me to set you straight. (Note: I’m not a believer in Intelligent Design, Creationism, Darwinism, free will, non-monetary compensation, or anything else I can’t eat if I try hard enough.)

By way of establishing my own qualifications here, this strikes me as perfectly clear. In his followup essay, Adams remarked on the number of people, including supposedly scientifically trained people, who attacked him for supporting Intelligent Design. Not only does he say no such thing in his blog, it should be evident to any person with marginal literacy who actually reads Dilbert for more than a couple of days. Adams’ philosophy is simply not that of the Religious Right. From other things he has said I suspect he’s in the naive skepticism – Fritjof Capra – What the Bleep Do We Know? camp.

On the other hand, I didn't see anybody claiming that Adams did support Intelligent Design. I saw lots of comments calling him stupid and gullible for accepting Intelligent Design arguments at face value, or for making remarks that might mislead the public into thinking that Intelligent Design had credibility, but those are not the same thing. Especially not when you yourself later try to save face by drawing hair-splitting distinctions between what you actually said and what your opponents responded to.

Adams referred to people falling into the irony trap. My irony sensor works just fine, honed by a lifetime of Stan Freberg, Tom Lehrer, Monty Python, Dave Barry, Mad (until Bill Gaines died and they sank to pubescent potty humor), The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, Doonesbury, Dilbert, and Pearls Before Swine. Also I’m perfectly aware that lots of people don’t understand irony – in fact, I’m convinced that most people don’t. I get my share of mail from people who devote enormous effort to finding some hair-splitting exception to something I said, or missing the point of a page completely.

Well, irony piles on irony. Adams cited a Web page that he called “the best and funniest case” of someone misinterpreting his blog (by P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota – Morris campus). “And he uses quotes from my writing to make it seem impossible that he’s misinterpreting me,” Adams adds. So I checked Myers' Web page. It nails every logical fallacy Adams committed with pinpoint precision. In comparing Myers’ response to Adams’ followup blog, it’s Adams who misrepresents Myers more often than the other way around.

Even more irony: while this drama was unfolding Dilbert concerned Dogbert selling subscriptions to a magazine called Gullible World.

First of all, you’d be hard pressed to find a useful debate about Darwinism and Intelligent Design, of the sort that you could use to form your own opinion. I can’t find one, and I’ve looked. What you have instead is each side misrepresenting the other’s position and then making a good argument for why the misrepresentation is wrong. (If you don’t believe me, just watch the comments I get to this post.)

I find this part extremely hard to believe. Did Adams check out the National Center for Science Education, or No Answers in Genesis? Furthermore, as Adams notes below, he doesn’t have the technical background to sort out the scientific evidence, so how can he tell who’s misrepresenting whom? If one side is telling the truth and the other side doing all the misrepresenting, how could Adams tell?

To make things more complicated, both sides have good and bad arguments lumped into them. If you make a good argument on your side, I respond by attacking your bad argument instead. If it were a debate contest, both sides would lose.

Again, if Adams doesn’t have the requisite technical knowledge, how can he tell whether arguments are good or bad? The final sentence gets to the heart of the public perception problem created by anti-evolutionist tactics. Science is not a debate contest. Attacking bad arguments isn’t a mere “debating tactic.” It’s exactly how you show that something is wrong. It doesn’t matter how sound a tire is overall – it’s the one small hole that makes it go flat. Adams' complaint here is like saying that critics of Microsoft focus only on the bugs in Windows and ignore all the code that runs correctly. That little bullet hole doesn't matter because the rest of your body is intact.

For example, Darwinists often argue that Intelligent Design can’t be true because we know the earth is over 10,000 years old. That would be a great argument, supported by every relevant branch of science, except that it has nothing to do with Intelligent Design.

Technically this is correct, sort of. It's true that an old earth doesn't necessarily prove evolution, but a young earth certainly would make evolution impossible. So while Intelligent Design may accept an old earth - for now - rest assured the age of the earth is very much on the agenda.

The problem here is that Adams has no understanding of the historical background of Intelligent Design, or the political landscape. As the character said in The Music Man, "ya gotta know the territory." And Adams doesn't know the territory.

Intelligent Design accepts an old earth and even accepts the fact that species probably evolved. They only question the “how.” Creationists have jumped on that bandwagon as a way to poke holes in Darwinism. The Creationists and the Intelligent Design folks have the same target (Darwin), but they don’t have the same argument. The average person who has a strong opinion on this topic doesn’t understand that distinction because the political agenda of the creationists makes things murky.

Total ignorance of the lay of the land here. Creationists didn’t “jump on the bandwagon,” they built the bandwagon as a subterfuge for advancing an agenda that had failed when advanced more openly. Intelligent Design is merely a front for creationism.

Intelligent Design is the third iteration of anti-evolutionism. The first was outright bans on the teaching of evolution. When that approach was struck down by the courts, anti-evolutionists attempted to push Scientific Creationism, presenting a young earth, Deluge, and special creation as scientific theories. That approach was demolished by scientists, torpedoed in court as well and shown to be a subterfuge for advancing a religious doctrine, so the next approach has been to present Intelligent Design. Some of the more blatant evidence:

You’d expect someone who’s done “lots of reading” on this subject to be aware of things like this, but Adams doesn’t have a clue.

On the other side, Intelligent Design advocates point out a number of flaws in the textbooks that teach Darwinism. Apparently both sides of the debate acknowledge that the evidence for evolution is sometimes overstated or distorted in the service of making it simpler to teach. If you add to that the outright errors (acknowledged by both sides), the history of fossil frauds, the subjectivity of classifying fossils, and the fact that all of the human-like fossils ever found can fit inside a small box, you have lots of easy targets for the opponents. (Relax. I’m not saying Darwinism is wrong. I’m saying both sides have lots of easy targets.)

The other problem for people like me is that the “good” arguments on both sides are too complicated for me to understand. My fallback position in situations like this has always been to trust the experts – the scientists – of which more than 90%+ are sure that Darwin got it right.

There’s a cure for this problem: get informed. You have no right to an uninformed opinion. If you don't have technical expertise, how can you be sure a claimed flaw really is a flaw?

While "both sides" may agree there are flaws in textbooks, scientists complain the textbooks don't contain enough detail and Intelligent Design people complain that the textbooks don't give credence to their non-existent arguments against evolution. Those are not quite the same issues. Fossil frauds? Piltdown Man was almost a century ago. Got anything more recent? Well, there was an attempt by a fossil dealer in China a few years ago to piece together bird and reptile fossils into a composite, but that was quickly spotted - by evolutionists. As for the remark about the paucity of human fossils, Myers blasted Adams into tiny scraps on that one. Adams lamely countered that specimens of each species could be fit into a small box, since he regarded remains of individuals of the same species as really only equivalent to a single specimen. In so doing he revealed the breathtaking sweep of his scientific illiteracy. Two somewhat different skeletons might or might not be different species. A hundred skeletons tells us the range of variability. If there's a broad gradation we have a single species with a lot of individual variability. If there are two or three sharply different types, we have separate species.

So issues should only be decided by an educated elite? Issues should be decided only by the informed. But here’s the good part. In our society, just about anybody can get informed. With the bucks Adams is pulling down for doing Dilbert, he can surely afford to go audit some science courses at a nearby university. Then the arguments won’t be “too complicated to understand.”

Myers made much the same point in his response to Adams, and a reader objected that Adams is reflecting the views of the common man, people who don't have the time to do the necessary reading to get the technical background. And my response is: find the time. There's a widespread sentiment in our society that if something is difficult or painful, people should be excused from doing it. I couldn't care less if you're tired after a hard day's work and you find science boring or intimidating or damaging to your self-esteem or just plain hard. If you want to have an opinion about evolution, get over it and get informed. Cancel your cable service and spend your evenings reading.

The Intelligent Design people have a not-so-kooky argument against the idea of trusting 90%+ of scientists. They point out that evolution is supported by different branches of science (paleontologists, microbiologists, etc.) and those folks are specialists who only understand their own field. That’s no problem, you think, because each scientist validates Darwinism from his or her own specialty, then they all compare notes, and everything fits. Right?

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Intelligent Design people allege that some experts within each narrow field are NOT convinced that the evidence within their specialty is a slam-dunk support of Darwin. Each branch of science, they say, has pro-Darwinists who acknowledge that while they assume the other branches of science have more solid evidence for Darwinism, their own branch is lacking in that high level of certainty. In other words, the scientists are in a weird peer pressure, herd mentality loop where they think that the other guy must have the “good stuff.”

Although Adams doesn’t support Intelligent Design, he’s swallowed their argument hook, line and sinker. He's accepted the premise that Intelligent Design and scientific claims are of equal credibility. And that's exactly what Intelligent Design advocates want.

To Myers' analysis, Adams responded “I said it’s POSSIBLE for scientists to have herd mentality. PZ interprets that as if I’m saying scientists DO. Then he attacks the misrepresentation.”

What PZ actually did was to quote the paragraphs above, then add:

No. This is just bullshit. What we have is a lot of well-educated scientists who are aware of how their "narrow field" fits within the broader spectrum of biology and who are aware of the broadly based foundation of evolution, against a few crackpots…and yes, there are crackpots in every discipline.

He also has it all backwards. I'm a developmental biologist, remember; I think my field has absolutely razzle-dazzle incontrovertible support for evolution, even better than, for example, those population geneticists. And the population geneticists are sitting over there blown away by how strongly their field supports evolution. And the geneticists and molecular biologists and paleontologists are all saying, "Wow. We've got the best evidence ever."

It's pretty hard to look at this and see how Myers is accusing Adams of anything but gullibility. Myers' reply is all about the substance of the Intelligent Design claims. And since Adams describes those claims as "not-so-kooky" and "interesting," drawing a distinction between Adams describing those ideas and supporting them is about as nit-picky as you can get. When you quote something in approving terms, you cross the line from non-committal reporting to advocacy, whether that's your specific intention or not.

Is that possible? I have no way of knowing.

Then he has no way of saying anything on the subject worth reading.

But let me give you a little analogy. One time in my corporate career I was assigned to lead a project to build a 10 million dollar technology laboratory. The project was based on the fact that “hundreds of our customers” wanted a place to test our technology before buying our products. I interviewed several managers who told me the same thing. Months into the project, I discovered that there was in fact only one customer who had once asked for that service, and he had been satisfied with another solution. The story of that one customer had been told and retold until everyone believed that someone else had direct knowledge of the hundreds of customers in need. If you guessed that we immediately stopped the project, you’ve never worked in a big company. We just changed our “reasons” and continued until funding got cut for unrelated budget reasons.

This is sometimes called the “Abilene Syndrome,” after an anecdote about a farm family sitting around one evening when someone said “Let’s go to Abilene.” Everyone agreed, they went, and had a miserable time. After talking about it, they discovered that nobody really wanted to go to Abilene, even the person who first brought it up. Each person had gone along with the plan in the belief that it was what everyone else wanted. So it’s good sometimes to ask the blunt question, although my experience is that even when I do, few people have the nerve to avail themselves of the escape hatch.

But this isn't an issue in science, for the simple reason that while scientists may assume people in other areas know their stuff, they are very sensitive to things that impinge on their own specialties. So a molecular biologist might not care much about radioactive decay, but he'd care an awful lot if research on radioactive decay redefined the geologic time scale enough to bring it into conflict with his own research on molecular clocks.

PZ nails Adams’ basic fallacy with laser precision:

Adams is babbling about a body of falsely held subjective evidence in his example. A better one would be if he were told to build a multi-million dollar technology laboratory that used electronics…and a small group of nay-sayers who claimed that electrons didn't exist, that Ohm's Law was a fabrication, and that transistors contained tiny little demons who controlled gates, caught his attention. He listened to their arguments, and then because he didn't actually understand what the engineers were doing, and had never personally studied semiconductor technology, decided to call everything his staff was doing into question, and started making inane suggestions. It would be a terrific way to blow a few million dollars and get a some highly trained personnel to quit in exasperation, wouldn't it?

I’d be surprised if 90%+ of scientists are wrong about the evidence for Darwinism. But if you think it’s impossible, you’ve lived a sheltered life.

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Created 16 November, 2005;  Last Update 30 August, 2011

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