Vanity thought #1397. Bad karma for science

Continuing yesterday’s topic about irreducible complexity, let me try and organize it into a narrative.

In 1996 Michael Behe writes a book advocating intelligent design but what he really argues is irreducible complexity. If irreducible complexity exists then intelligent design is the most obvious answer but there could be others, no one has thought it through yet. Intelligent design brings into picture theological questions which modern science is not prepared to discuss as it would go against everything they’ve believed in so far.

Maybe that jump to intelligent design and, therefore, the creator, is not fully justified and maybe it’s even unscientific in one way or another – the accepted rules of science might very well exclude this possibility, but this really isn’t the question, the question is whether irreducible complexity is a real thing or not. Irreducible complexity doesn’t require any theological and non-scientific explanations, just a straightforward answer – can these apparently irreducible systems evolve through random mutations or not?

This challenge is obvious to everyone and nearly everyone tried to answer it but human nature took over the scientists and screwed it up very badly. Reviewers of the book spent inordinate amount of time and space arguing against theological implications of intelligent design using highly emotive language like “ignorant” and “silly” while delegating the answer to the only question they really needed to answer to one weak paragraph somewhere at the end.

No one in the scientific community had guts to admit that the answers weren’t there, they just pretended that they were, obscuring their failure to find them with misleading demagoguery. Irreducible complexity immediately became a hot topic but no one was able to publish a proper scientific paper in peer reviewed journals refuting it, they just resolved to arguing about mousetraps on personal blogs.

Some of the criticism was on topic, sure, but it was weak and Behe dealt with it swiftly and decisively, AND submitted his rebuttals to scientific journals. I’m not a scientist, of course, but Behe’s arguments were very very simple. The most prominent scientist on blog clotting, for example, simply misread the abstract of the paper he quoted in his support because the wording was not very clear. Another wrote a ten page article but dedicated only one paragraph to the problem itself and simply painted it over by saying “gene duplication” several times as if inability of gene duplication to produce irreducibly complex systems wasn’t Behe’s main objection but a solution. A third produced a working theory but it required three neutral evolutionary steps to occur and spread before mice would get an advantage at the fourth, and it doesn’t compute mathematically, as each such step would occur only once in ten billion generations, never mind all three in a row, none of them favoring the mutated mice in any way.

The editors were enthusiastic at first and proposed formats and acceptable topics for the submission only to sheepishly retreat several months later on directives by unnamed senior advisors. In their explanations they cited incompatibility of intelligent design, which naturally follows from irreducible complexity, with their unequivocal Darwinian stance, actual science be damned.

Then came the Dover trial which was about teaching intelligent design in schools. Behe was asked to testify and prove that his was a proper scientific theory. In the end the judge, who had no scientific background and was promoted from a liquor board, read the judgment that repeated paper written by evolution lawyers practically word for word. The judge was then given all kinds of honors and lionized by all the right people. Why would anyone trust lawyers to decide on what is and what isn’t science is incomprehensible and the whole thing smacks of medieval inquisition protecting church’s turf from uncomfortable questions by people like Galileo.

Then came a TV documentary about the trial and I think it sealed the image of intelligent design in public consciousness for good. Documentary used a reenactment of the Dover trial with actors reading transcripts and there were interviews with relevant people explaining various aspects of the narrative. Was that documentary faithful to the truth?

It gave Behe a chance to explain what irreducible complexity in the design of bacterial flagellum is, it then showed one of the scientists quoted by Behe in the original book denying he had any support for intelligent design and explaining how poison injecting flagellum could be the missing evolutionary step. In the paper quoted by Behe there was not a word about evolution, though, but rather an observation that “the flagellum resembles a machine designed by a human”. Ten years later he sang a different tune. Then the documentary showed testimony by another scientist about intelligent design and the flagellum but they omitted his impression from reading all the latest papers on the topic that poison pump flagellum is not the pre-cursor of rotor motor flagellum, which would have completely undermined documentary’s narrative.

Then there came a moment during the trial when the plaintiff lawyer dumped a huge stack books on Behe’s desk and asked why Behe wasn’t satisfied with their evidence for evolution. Behe’s inability to answer somehow excites the atheists but the documentary itself immediately cuts to the explanation that it was a purely a lawyers trick, as if Behe would have really started explaining what he thinks of each and every book when he didn’t even get a chance to read their titles. There was no indication that these books even addressed the issue as claimed by the lawyer.

I understand the list was compiled by Behe’s nemesis, the same person who wrote a ten page essay on nothing of relevance, and during the trial they both argued against each other. This time the scientist exploited the differences between Behe’s original work and a textbook on intelligent design in question. By refuting broad arguments in the textbook he apparently refuted Behe’s too, but actually he did not as Behe explicitly excluded cases brought up by his critic, and this was explained in the courtroom but no one listened or no one understood the nuances of extrinsic and intrinsic pathways in land and sea based vertebrae, it was a case of smoke and mirrors on the part of science. Given this history one can seriously doubt that the alleged list of “evidence” was even on topic.

With courtroom win the fate of intelligent design was sealed, and with it all questions about irreducible complexity, which to this day remain unanswered. There’s no shortage of outspoken critics, however, but they all repeat the same bullet points and refer to the same old arguments that have no basis in reality.

Ironically, it looks almost exactly like atheists frustrations with arguing against Christians – a lot of words, a lot of books, but no empirical evidence for God’s existence, and all atheists can do is to catch Christians committing one logical fallacy after another. We have it all here, too. Personal attacks, misdirection, empty promises, rhetoric and demagoguery, anything but actual scientific research, plus the outdated peer review system that acts as Catholic inquisition but for the other side.

Personally, I’m not even sure intelligent design and irreducible complexity are “real” from out POV. We don’t know how Lord Brahmā went about creation and whether he was really sitting down and putting all those proteins together by hand. It could be argued that he wasn’t an independent actor/creator and the material nature could have assembled all those wonderful things with or without Lord Brahmā’s participation. Perhaps it was all encoded in the sound of Oṁ that started the universe and it wasn’t Lord Brahmā who imparted “intelligence” into the creation. As a founder of our sampradāya we appreciate the spiritual knowledge he passed down to us better than his material work anyway.

Regardless of our position on the intelligent design, science here collected plenty of bad karma by going against its proclaimed and prescribed duties and sooner or later there will be a payback, it will lose the authority, and the whole thing would crumble down.

Vanity thought #1396. Oh, science, go home, you’re drunk

Here’s a topic I have apparently never addressed before, which is surprising because I thought I did – Irreducible Complexity. The term was introduced by a biochemist Michael Behe in his book on Intelligent Design in 1996. The concept was known before, of course, but it didn’t stir much of a debate until Behe’s book.

Behe is a Christian but evolutionist nevertheless and what he found was some systems that in his opinion couldn’t be produced by random chance. The best example of this concept is a bacterial flagellum which has an amazing rotary motor capable of spinning at 100,000 rpm, which is the upper limit of existing electric motors. Here’s a picture with an insert of a photograph of the actual thing at best available zoom for electronic microscopes:

It has about forty moving parts, which are actually various proteins, or somewhat large molecules, in everyday speak. They tightly fit together and form a system, and this means that even one missing or misconstrued part would render the motor dysfunctional.

That is the general idea of irreducible complexity – it’s a working motor or nothing, it can’t be a half motor, and so it’s irreducible. To Behe it means that the motor was designed, hence “intelligent design” theory.

It’s been almost two decades and no one in the scientific world takes it seriously anymore. Why? That’s a good question, and the answer to it makes science look bad, very bad.

When the book came out no one knew what to make of it and it generated a lot of interest in all quarters. Evolutionists were not going to concede, of course, and Behe’s book was widely criticized. Then, ten years later, came the Dover trial where Behe was called to testify on the side of the creationists and the ruling was that his theory was not science. Then came the TV documentary re-enacting the trial from transcripts and debunking his arguments. Wikipedia calls Intelligent Design “pseudoscience” and that’s the end of it.

Not it looks conclusive and toxic and no mainstream scientist would touch it with a flagpole. Is any of it justified, though?

Not in any scientific sense, it’s all just politics and science has no place in that debate anymore.

Take wikipedia article, for example. The very first two references for “pseudoscience” use words like “incoherent”, “equivocations”, “rhetorical”, and “nonsense”. These are emotive words that convey no information and no substance but create an impression that actual scientific work supports these conclusions. Clicking around that page takes one here and there but no matter where one lands, it’s the same rhetoric implying actual counterarguments exist.

I don’t even see the reason in trying to unravel their train of thought. They might be onto something when they apply scientific criteria to some ideas from the book but I don’t think even Behe himself cares that much anymore. At one time he simply pointed out that while some critics claim his theory is unscientific because it’s unfalsifiable, others declare victory in falsifying it and proving it wrong. It’s just word jugglery that is meant to look impressive but is actually meaningless.

What about scientific arguments against irreducible complexity itself. The concept is straightforward and it doesn’t carry any deep philosophical meanings about it. One could simply demonstrate how flagellum motor could have come out in a series of steps, or similarly disprove irreducible complexity for any other Behe’s examples. Interestingly enough, that was scientists’ first reaction, before wikipedia folks got their hands on the issue.

The initial response wasn’t kind to Behe and in one article where he responds to his critics I counted four times the word “ignorant” was used to describe him but, besides abuse, there was also a genuine attempt to prove him wrong. At that time there was no empirical proof of any kind, no detailed studies, just first things that popped into people’s minds.

One “reviewer” defeated several arguments for intelligent design but none of them was made by Behe, like seriously, not a single example from the book, only his own invented strawmen.

Another got fixated on a mousetrap, arguing how it could have come out by random chances and how each element added to a wooden base, for example, would serve some useful purpose. Mousetraps are dead matter, of course, and they are designed, not evolved by themselves, and so the whole argument is silly. Behe used it as an everyday example of irreducibly complex system, he could have picked up a car or a computer instead, would his critics argued how building up a car by adding one part after another would produce anything evolutionary useful at each step?

A decade later the mousetrap example was used in the documentary I mentioned earlier. There it was used as a tie clip. In other cases “evolutionary” mousetrap is used as a paperweight. Everything that has a mass can be used a paperweight, it does nothing to demonstrate how it could have evolved into something particularly useful with addition of each element of a particular size.

As far as flagellum is concerned, right away scientists picked up a case of a flagellum that is used for pumping poison by a bacteria carrying Bubonic plague, for example. What does it prove, though? They meant to say that it’s an intermediate evolutionary step between no flagellum and flagellum with motor but there’s no proof of that whatsoever. These poison pumps could be repurposed motors, for all we know. Even if they are somewhere in between, as they claim, it’s just ONE step out of millions required to produce a working motor, and it turns out these flagella need their own irreducible complexity systems acting as pumps, too – the fact that evolutionists didn’t know before and so surprised even Behe himself.

Each evolutionary step must be useful, natural selection won’t wait until bacteria tries a million permutations and kills itself in the process until it gets something working. A designer could invest time and energy and wait for results, but not evolution. Whatever change it produces, it must have an evolutionary purpose and help the organism survive until the next mutation comes along. Half finished projects do not survive and become a drag, sapping materials and energy.

Behe responded to these objections right away and they failed to convince him that irreducibly complex systems can be created through natural selection. Have they come up with anything better in two decades that passed since? Nope, nothing. It’s still the same poison ejecting pump all the way. The only thing that has been added is unbelievable amount of rhetoric.

Other examples from Behe’s book suffer from the same fate – half arsed knee jerk reactions repeated over and over again, each time with greater conviction but with the same lack of actual substance. In one case, something about blood clotting in mice, they’ve been able to demonstrate how the mechanism could have been produced in 20,000 steps while Behe points out that laboratory results show that these intermediate mice are evolutionary cripples who don’t survive. (Edit: 20,000 steps refers to evolution of E. coli bacteria, it has nothing to do with mice, my bad. Mice still die, though). Yes, they have necessary steps which could lead to eventual blood clotting, but the mice die because because they are defenseless against even minor cuts.

I was too lazy to read up on these mice in detail so this summary might be wrong in some way, but the main point stands – there’s no
evolutionary evidence for irreducibly complex system appearing through random mutations, there’s only wishful thinking.

So now it has become a case of “everybody knows” but without any actual evidence to back it up. Anti-IR arguments is the naked emperor where no one is allowed to point out that he has no clothes, and I think I’ll write more on it tomorrow. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to explain how science is like a drunk today but being intoxicated by its own boasting has already been demonstrated, I hope.