Ingo Brigandt’s Straw Man Arguments Against Intelligent Design

While I am agnostic about of the bold intelligent design hypothesis, I believe that using straw man arguments and being fanatical is not just a non-scientific way of opposing it but instead reinforces it in the minds of laymen because such efforts often demonstrate insecurity about the fate of evolution theory.

A recent paper against intelligent design uses straw man arguments to distort and misrepresent an opponent’s position. In  Intelligent Design and the Nature of Science, deposited in PhilSci-archive, Ingo Brigandt starts with a statement that is not compatible with unbiased unscientific inquiry: 

“In the United States, creationists and evangelical Christians have threatened high school instruction in evolutionary biology for decades, even in public schools (where religious views may not be taught due to the constitutional separation of state and church). Similar worrisome trends have more recently started in other Western countries, exacerbated by the promotion of the label ‘intelligent design theory’ (Numbers 2009).”

What are “worrisome trends”? Why does intelligent design cause some to worry? I, for example, do not worry about it. Neither the majority of people who, based on common sense, believe that man was created. Common sense is not always correct but at the same time an emotive appeal against intelligent design is just an informal fallacy.

Then, Brigandt writes: 

“One of the most prominent intelligent design proponents, the mathematically trained theologian William Dembski…”

Probably Brigandt thinks that calling someone a mathematically trained theologician takes aways from his authority. I guess he also thinks that although there exist mathematicians, those who also studied theology should be rather labeled mathematically trained theologians.

Well, I think I should have stopped right there and not read the rest but I continued, only to find out that Brigandt takes an extreme fanatic position and wants to resolve the issue by asking teachers to refrain from using machine and information metaphors when describing organismal features in order to prevent students from thinking that they were maybe designed. This reminds me of medieval years when one was not supposed to talk about things that raised questions about anything else but of the prevailing religious dogma(scholasticism):

“The main lesson for biology education to be derived from this section’s critique of Behe’s irreducible complexity claims is that teachers should, wherever possible, avoid describing organismal features using machine and information metaphors, as they prime the false inference that organisms were designed by an intelligent agent, and prevent a proper understanding of how organismal development works and why flexibility and robustness in development make morphological evolution possible.”

Up to this point in the paper, however, Brigandt has only demonstrated his emotive approach to the intelligent design hypothesis, i.e. his fanatic stand, but then he attempts to justify that by talking about probabilities and he resorts to straw man arguments. Below is his main straw man argument, when he distorts the position of intelligent design proponents into some type of a deductive inference he latter plans to attack:

“(1) The evolution of complex biological features (be it anatomical structures, be it genetic information) solely by means of Darwinian processes is extremely improbable.
(2) Therefore, Darwinian evolutionary theory is probably false (given that there are complex biological features).
(3) Therefore, intelligent design is probably true.”

To start with, the proponents of intelligent design assume their hypothesis to be true. They do not conclude the hypothesis is true from a naive syllogism like the above. What proponents of intelligent design claim is that the fact that certain features of living things could not exit at all without design. Although evolution theory may be true in some cases, it does not apply to certain features of living organisms. This is very different from the naive syllogism Brigandt uses to set up a straw man. But let us see why the straw man is false. He writes:

“In mathematical terms:
(1) P(complex structures|Darwinian evolution) ≈ 0
However, what intelligent design proponents want to conclude, and must argue, is
that the truth of evolutionary theory is very unlikely given that we have evidence
about the presence of complex biological structures. That is:
(2) P(Darwinian evolution|complex structures) ≈ 0″

Brigandt then goes ahead to claim that by using Bayes’s formula he can show that (1)does not entail (2):

“Yet the conditional probabilities P(O|H) and P(H|O) are very different probabilities.
Moreover, they can have completely different values. According to Bayes’s
formula, P(H|O) = P(O|H)·P(H) / P(O). Thus, even if, as asserted by premise (1),
P(O|H) is extremely small and close to 0, P(H|O) can be close to 1, depending on
P(H) and P(O). As a result, (1) does not entail (2), and the small probability argument
is fallacious based on the confusion of two conditional probabilities.”

I think the only confused is the one(s) who came up with the above statement in a deliberate attempt of setting up a straw man. Actually,  intelligent design proponents claim that P(O), the probability of getting complex (living) structures, through inert particle mutations is approximately zero. [Edit: please note that particle mutations is a probability experiment like the tossing of a coin and NOT an event of a probability experiment. This can be confusing especially to first year students of probability who tend to confuse experiments, events and their probabilities] It takes the effort of a designer to come up with complex structures they claim. Thus, only the event O is involved here and its probability, which was estimated based on the number of particles in the universe. In other words, intelligent design proponents claim that if an experiment is set up that involves random mutations of inert particles, the probability of getting complex organic structures is near zero. The above Bayesian inference would make sense if the prior involved was about evolution theory, or P(H). In that case, some new evidence P(O), i.e. the complex structure argument, would affect the posterior probability P(H|O). But this is not what is involved here and what was attempted was not related to Intelligent design proponents’ arguments, which do not make claims about the probability of evolution theory but instead make claims about the probability of complex structures. These are two completely different probabilities and the Bayesian inference setup was about the former, not the latter. As a matter of fact, for intelligent design proponents evolution theory may apply in many cases but not in all. Or even, it can be part of the design process.

It is amazing to me how some, who are otherwise are regarded authorities in some fields, either misunderstand Bayesian inference or use it intentionally to set up a strawman. In both vases, it shows the degree of fanaticism in science.

 Therefore, I have shown how the straw man argument set up by Brigandt does not pass a sanity check. But then Brigandt strikes back in an attempt to reinforce his straw man and he writes:

“Very small probabilities mean little, as such events can be easily generated. Assume that a given coin is fair, and that our hypothesis H is that the coin is fair.”

He then asserts that for a given sequence of 500 tosses the probability of a random sequence is 1 in 2500, which is smaller than Dembski’s universal probability bound of 1 in 10150.

But then Brigandt sets up another fallacy when he writes:

“Inferring the falsity of the hypothesis ‘coin is fair’ because of this extremely small probability would be fallacious; we cannot even infer that the hypothesis is probably false, as by assumption it is true.”

Why would anyone use a small probability of a random sequence of coin tosses to infer that the hypothesis that the coin is not fair is false? And how is that related to complexity argument? Brigandt attempts to make the analogy as follows:

“Both a true hypothesis (coin is fair) and a false hypothesis (coin is biased with P(h)=¾) can assign a very small probability to one and the same event (500 tosses of the coin), which makes plain that nothing can be inferred about the probable truth or probable falsity of the hypothesis asserting the small probability.”

Obviously, the above example is a false analogy. The low probability of complex living organisms is not used to decide whether a certain experiment has a bias towards a certain event in the limit of the law of large numbers, as in the case of a biased coin that favors a certain side, but to rule out one of two mutually exclusive events, those of evolution and design. Thus, another fallacious argument was involved here.

Conclusion

It seems that papers about intelligent design cannot get published in peer-reviewed journals but those journals are often eager to publish naive straw man arguments against intelligent design. This is because, in my opinion, being anti-intelligent design nowadays is a declaration of conformity to some rules of educational establishment the same way that being against empirical science showed conformity to a theocratic state in medieval years.

Nevertheless, intelligent design is just a bold non-falsifiable hypothesis at this point but it is evolution theory which has the problem because it is falsifiable. If this theory is falsified for some reason one day, the only viable alternative would be intelligent design or even creationism. Knowing that much at least, fanatical proponents of evolution theory are playing their last card by trying to even ban the terms used by proponents of intelligent design.

I am agnostic about intelligent design [edit: but I maintain a sympathetic position towards it because I believe in the wisdom of crowds]. In my opinion evolution theory describes a process but offers no explanatory context about the origins of human life. Evolution may as well be an epiphenomenon. But I will not get fanatic neither set up straw man arguments to prove a point and more importantly, I will not write another paper against intelligent design just to be accepted in the “club” and get published. I prefer to have my papers get rejected by main stream journals. As Arthur Schopenhauer said once:

“Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed; in the second it is opposed; in the third it is regarded as self-evident” –

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