15 March 2006

Plantinga, Intelligent Design, and Uninformed Opinions

One of the better posts mentioned in yesterday's Tangled Bank can be found over at Adventures in Science and Ethics. In that article, Janet provides a clear and detailed explanation of the limits of scientific expertise. As she reminds us, scientists are not near-omniscient beings, endowed with some sort of infailable ability to assess ideas across all the fields of scientific research. Scientists are primarily qualified to comment on matters within their own field. If a scientist is not an expert in an area of science, he or she should give the scientists within the other field the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they have a better understanding of their own area. As Janet points out, scientists (and other adademics) should be responsible enough to know their own limitations.

This sense of responsibility seems to be somewhat lacking among some of the more prominant proponents of Intelligent Design. It's shown up in any number of places, including a recent article by well-known philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga pontificates at length on Judge Jones' ruling in the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design lawsuit, but his rant seems to be entirely disconnected from the actual facts of the case - or, for that matter, any real understanding of what the ID proponents actually advocate.

The monumental depth of Plantinga's ignorance becomes clear fairly early on in the paper, when he discusses the Intelligent Design view of evolution:
Consider, for example, the claim that ID is just creation science in drag, as it were. That ruling is relevant in that previous court decisions have gone against creation science. But the kind of creation science those decisions had gone against is characterized by the claim that the world is a mere 6,000 to 100,000 years old, rather than the currently favored age of 4 billion or so years old.

Second, those creationists reject evolution in favor of the idea that the major kinds of plants and animals were created in pretty much their present form. ID, as such, doesn’t involve either of these two things
It is possible that Plantinga is correct here, since it is notoriously difficult to determine what ID, "as such," actually involves for any particular aspect of science. (That's the inevitable side effect of having a "theory" that entails no positively testable hypotheses.)

The problem for Plantinga's argument comes when one moves from the undefined principles of an idealized "Intelligent Design as such" to those of Intelligent Design, as outlined in the various "resources" provided to the Dover High School students. A quick look at the "textbook" at the center of the case is all it takes to see that Plantinga's position does not hold up well when evaluated using reality-based criteria:
"Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features already intact. Fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings..."
(Of Pandas and People, quoted in Forrest trial testimony)
That may not reflect Plantinga's view of Intelligent Design, but it clearly involves the idea that the major kinds of animal were created in more or less their current forms, and it clearly links that concept with the definition of Intelligent Design. It's also a view that the Discovery Institute doesn't seem to have too much of a problem with - they've called the book that it appears in "an excellent educational resource."

It seems clear to me that Plantinga is talking about some form of Intelligent Design that exists only in the realm of the ideal. Here, on Earth, we are dealing with a different form of Intelligent Design. The form of Intelligent Design that we are coping with doesn't have much to do with working on developing new scientific knowledge in the future. Instead, it is about what some people want to teach in the secondary school classroom right now.

Plantinga might have been able to see this if he had taken the time to look at what ID proponents do, rather than just what they say.

Tangled Bank #49

Tangled Bank #49 is now available over at Living the Scientific Life. Tangled Bank is almost always very good, and this one is better than most. It's laid out better than most, and there are a number of extrordinarily good submissions.

14 March 2006

For the love of God, stand up for something

Yet again, the Democrats in congress are doing their best to dodge an issue. What a bloody shock. This time, the issue is Senator Russell Feingold's recent motion to censure the president for operating an illegal wiretapping program.

The Republicans, secure in their knowledge that their majority is sufficient (at the moment) to defeat any such motion, called for an immediate vote on the motion. The Democratic Leadership, proving yet again that they are incapable of demonstrating the leadership or moral courage needed to do light a match in a dark cave without first conducting extensive polling on the issue, are acting to postpone any vote for the moment. Essentially, they're filabustering Feingold's motion. The excuse for this inaction, as provided by Harry Reid, is that the motion deserves more thought and consideration.

Yeah, right. There are lots of things out there that deserve more thought and consideration. This really isn't one of them. What the president did is somewhat, but not entirely, known. Congress has attempted, somewhat pathetically, to extract more information. The administration semi-politely told them where they could stick their request. No further action has been taken, and no further action appears to be forthcoming.

Legal scholars have weighed in all over the place on the president's justification ("I'm a wartime leader.") for the program. Either you buy his argument or you don't. If you do, you don't think he did anything illegal. If you don't, you think he did soemthing illegal. If he did something illegal, he should be censured. If he didn't, he shouldn't. If you haven't figured out where you stand on this one by now, you haven't been paying attention.

What the Democratic delay tactics are all about is not taking a stand. They don't want to risk pissing off their base by going on record against censure, and they don't want to risk pissing anyone else off by (heaven forbid) going on record for censure. So, yet again, we find the Democratic leadership standing around trying to figure out which way the train's going - presumably so that they can jump in front and get run over again.

For crying out loud, why can't they take a stand. At this point, I'd settle for almost any kind of stand. OK, it's nice that they aren't the Republicans, but it would be even nicer if they were something more than the "not-Republican Party". The country is in deaparate need for leadership, and right now it doesn't look like anyone's willing to step up.