Saturday, May 28, 2005

Dembski raises the bar, drops the ball, and mangles a metaphor

Billy D. responds to Allen Orr in the New Yorker. Most of it is just dumb (of the form: He already made this critique before, therefore it's invalid). But this little argument is fascinating:
Equally misleading is Orr’s point about trying to reconstruct the “complex historical process” by which “a bustling urban street” might have come about. Granted, one may not be able to tell the exact order in which the shops appeared. But one could at least tell a plausible detailed story about how it could have happened (first that greasy spoon restaurant, then the drug store to supply meds for the indigestion caused by the greasy spoon, then a Starbucks to wash away the bad taste, etc.). To reiterate, Orr does not appreciate that ID theorists are not asking for actual historical narratives. They are asking for detailed Darwinian pathways that could have produced the complex biological structure in question (should these also serve as historical narratives, fine, but that’s not and never was the issue).

Now Orr's point is that the particular shops on a street will come together into a functional neighborhood, and a neighborhood may even develop in a broadly predictable way, without an observer being able to tell which came first.

Dembski says that that's true, but you can still make up a story. So what? Science isn't about story telling. Maybe the Starbucks came last, but maybe the deli owner saw that the Starbucks was the only food in the area, and decided people might want real food and coffee that didn't cost the down payment on a house. Or maybe the deli and the Starbucks were built simultaneously. Maybe they have nothing to do with one another.

His obsession with the flagellum is a classic example of the bizarre obsession with hypothetical historical narratives. No one knows where the flagellum came from. Saying that Jesus designed it doesn't really move us forward. Saying that it evolved gives us a testable theory. Saying "I don't believe you. La La La." is hardly a test of the theory. Here's what he says about the flagellum:

Note that ID theorists are not, as Orr intimates, asking for the actual history of the flagellum. That history might have taken any number of paths. Rather, we are asking for even one path — one detailed enough to assess whether the Darwinian mechanism could in fact produce the flagellum and systems of comparable complexity.

When presented with the outline of a plausible history, the DI folk insist that it has too little detail to describe what actually happened. But they aren't really interested in the real history. But if it isn't the real history, who cares?

Why do I read this crap?

Also, D. fails to reject the possibility that Orr's best sentence is exactly right:

Orr attributes the enthusiasm with which my arguments have been met to “an innumerate public that is easily impressed by a bit of mathematics.” That’s one possibility. Another is that my mathematics is giving theoretical support to intuitions that most people have for a long time harbored.

No one knows what the hell Dembski is talking about. Most people don't care. People who do care, and actually work it through are even less satisfied with IDC after reading Dembski closely than they were before. That's pretty bad.