Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sat Oct 17 2009 - 22:01:24 EDT

Mr. Blinne:

First of all, I did not say that *all* of the engineers who supported ID and/or doubted Darwinian mechanisms were young; I said that some of them were. I also know many who are in the 50s and 60s. And they have resumes in computer and electronics and engineering fields as impressive as yours or Randy's.

Second, I stated clearly that peer review has value when the questions are straightforward technical ones. My attack on peer review was an attack on the misuse of peer review to settle more controversial questions, which go beyond the type of questions dealt with by people who review patents for the computer chips used in electric blenders. The question whether nature exhibits design, for example, or the question of what constitutes "scientific" method. These are questions which, for their proper handling, require intellectual delicacy, philosophical subtlety, historical perspective, and an openness of the mind. That is why you could never get an objective peer review of any paper relating to intelligent design from Richard Dawkins, Ken Miller, Eugenie Scott, Jerry Coyne, etc. They all have dogmatic commitments about science, nature, methods, etc. which they will take with them to their graves. As one perceptive philosopher of science has observed, scientific paradigms don't change because scientists are always fair and objective human beings who recognize that their long-held views can no longer be sustained. They change when old scientists die and young scientists take their places. And that's true not just in science but in every academic endeavour. Those with their professional egos tied to a view tend to resist criticism and tend to resist new ideas. Thus, peer review is a great device for keeping technically incompetent rubbish out of the journals, but it is a very easily abused tool for discerning the value of new material which is technically competent and whose only "offense" lies in its radically new perspective.

Your area of expertise is narrow and highly technical and it is clear to me -- I say this without any personal animus -- that the sort of deep philosophical questions about the nature of science and "the nature of nature" raised by the ID movement are not questions which you have had to ask either in your academic training (which I gather is in electrical engineering or something of the sort) or in your professional work. And without being in the habit of asking such questions, it is very unlikely that you would approach Darwinian theory with a critical eye. Also, you appear to have an inclination to show automatic deference to a scientific majority. I have empirical confirmation of this in your posts on AGW, where it is very clear that you approach the opinion of the majority of experts in climatology with a very uncritical eye, and regard the opinion of the minority of equally-well-trained experts in climatology with contempt or with scorn. Thus, while I am sure that you are a very thorough and competent critic when it comes to your own field, you appear to me as someone who is very uncritical of received opinion in other fields. And this may reflect a difference in training. As someone who has been immersed in philosophy for 30 years, I am by instinct critical of claims in *all* fields. It is in the nature of the philosopher to ask people to justify their claims to knowledge, and not to respect specialist boundaries where there is suspicion of bluff or exaggeration or sloppy thinking.

I have found from long experience of scientists, both in conversation and in their writings, that the scientists who can really justify their theories and their alleged "facts" have no trouble convincing intelligent non-specialists from other sciences and from non-scientific fields of the validity of their knowledge. Their evidence is clear; their arguments do not beg the question; they admit freely what they don't know, and therefore don't over-claim; they don't hide behind jargon or impenetrable bad prose; they don't bristle with defensiveness and wounded pride; they don't impute bad motives to people who question them; they don't appeal to consensus or authority rather than argument; and they don't shout. They simply explain what they know. I have complete confidence in what 95% of working scientists tell me, and I don't challenge their specialist expertise or tread on their turf. But evolutionary biologists are another matter. They have great trouble convincing others of the soundness of many of their conclusions. Why is this? There are several reasons. Their work is highly speculative; the arguments are often based on very sketchy evidence; much of the relevant data is lost beyond recovery; the elasticity of "natural selection" and other factors means that neo-Darwinism is almost impossible to falsify even in principle, let alone in practice; neo-Darwinists are frequently rather obviously motivated by materialism, atheism and secular humanism, and while motivation does not in itself disqualify a position, the motivation of such neo-Darwinists in at least some cases clearly prevents their detached consideration of ideas of design and evidence for design; and their public defense of their position is frequently accompanied by bad-tempered outbursts and ad hominem remarks against those who challenge them, which the public recognizes as inconsistent with the alleged calm, cool, fair-minded objectivity of the scientist.

The above reasons explain in part why much of the general public, and many highly intelligent non-biologists, have doubts about neo-Darwinism. I will add a biographical note to this. Evolutionary biology also touches on a whole range of matters within my areas of study, for example, the actual writings of Darwin, debates over teleology, and the history of the idea of "nature", and I see things that the typical, technically-oriented population geneticist or zoologist does not always see. Further, I have deep experience in my own academic area of the prejudices of people with Ph.D.s, and how the modern university works, and I have seen the destruction of careers of very fine researchers and teachers, merely because they do not kowtow to the reigning orthodoxy. I believe that I have a much more realistic assessment of the behaviour of academics and scientists, on the human side, than you and Randy appear to have. They are frequently not objective, supremely fair and open-minded seekers after the truth, no matter where it leads; they are often egregiously flawed human beings, and their egos affect everything they do, including the hiring of new faculty and, of course, peer review. If you are not aware of that, you cannot have spent very much time on the inside of a modern university.

Your statement about the pictures in the art gallery is ludicrous. The labels under the pictures may be lying or erroneous. And any sane human being is 100% certain, without having to read any label provided by a museum curator, that works of art (perhaps not modern American art, which often appears to be just splotches of paint splashed randomly on a canvas, or fused masses of scrap metal, but real art, such as one finds in the Louvre and other great museums of Europe) are the product of intelligence. The fact that you cannot see this raises in me radical doubts about your powers of judgment in even elementary, common-sense matters, let alone lofty questions regarding teleology and methodology in science.

As for your suggestion that we rely upon the authority of God to tell us that he made nature, and *then* do a design inference, that is entirely illogical. If you have already accepted *on authority* that God made nature, you do not need a design inference. In fact, to try to draw one after being told by God that he made nature would be impious, because it would imply that you think God's word needs further confirmation. Further, if the design inference were truly valid, from a strictly logical point of view, *after* receiving God's information, it would have been just as valid *before*; otherwise it is a bogus design inference, not really derived from the facts of nature, but illicitly (from a methodological point of view) influenced by God's statement. Your remarks here are intellectually sloppy.

As for your comment about the resurrection proving deity and so on, aside from the obvious Humean objections to the validity of testimony, there is the much deeper critique of such "empirical" theology given by Wittgenstein, whom I recommend that you read. Even if the *physical* events were exactly as described in the Gospel, that alone would not establish Jesus's divinity. Indeed, such an empirical argument makes exactly the same "mistake" that you and most of the TEs here attribute to ID theory, i.e., bringing in non-scientific categories to interpret the data and then claiming to have proved something. In fact, it is only from within the perspective of faith that any of the events recorded in the Bible -- even the resurrection -- take on the theological meaning that they do. That a man got up from the dead and walked around no more proves God's existence than the design of the bacterial flagellum does; or, to put it the other way around, if you are going to use the resurrection as an argument for God's existence, then you are no longer in the position to disallow design arguments for God's existence. You can't deny ID theorists the right to "import" design from the "metaphysical" realm, and then accept the "importation" of divinity from the "theological" realm. If you are determined to stick to the narrow conception of science generally held by the TEs on this list, all you can say about the resurrection, or about any Biblical miracle, is that it is an inexplicable event in light of our current knowledge. Full stop!

Your statement that revelation is the only acceptable source of knowledge of design is arbitrary, and reveals a theology that is not only Protestant but tending towards Barthianism. Christian theology is not exhausted by Barthianism, or by revelationist positivism, or even by Protestantism. You are of course entitled to be a Barthian or Protestant if you wish, but neither you nor Barth nor Calvin nor the Westminster Confession, nor any other Protestant variation on the themes of nominalism, voluntarism and revelationist positivism, speaks for Christianity. However, your remark is useful to me, as it adds more confirmation to my thesis that TE objections to intelligent design are as much connected with certain strands of Protestant theology as they are with any biological or methodological argument. (The Catholic presence within contemporary TE is numerically negligible.)

Before you claim that design inferences are all "nonsensicle" [sic], you might try reading, in its entirety, *No Free Lunch* by William Dembski. If, after reading that book, you are still certain of your position, then, since you believe in peer review, by all means publish your scientific refutation of Dembski in a peer-reviewed journal of probability theory or information theory that is regularly consulted by Ph.D.s in the area.

Your final sentence, if I understand it correctly, is preposterous. "All they end up doing is offending the very people who are out there to help them." Who are "they"? ID proponents? And who are these people who are trying to "help" them? Dawkins and Coyne and Co. are trying to "help" ID people by excluding them from academic jobs and publications and research funding? Or perhaps you mean that it is Christian neo-Darwinian biologists who are trying to "help" the ID people by excluding them from academic jobs and publications and research funding? Oh, that makes me feel MUCH better, to know that it is a *Christian* who is setting my misguided ideas straight, by slamming the door on any potential argument for design in nature (and thus repudiating major chunks of historical Christian theology) while slipping his professional knife between the appropriate ribs. "Oh, Lord, if I must be slain for my own good, let it be by the hand of a Christian, like Ken Miller, rather than by the hand of a heathen like Dawkins! But if thou wilt spare my life, I will repent of ID in dust and ashes, and will follow the science of Darwin and the theology of Barth all the days of my life."


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Rich Blinne
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; Randy Isaac
  Cc: asa
  Sent: Saturday, October 17, 2009 12:24 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] Reverse Engineering and ID (was Re: Peer review)

  On Oct 17, 2009, at 12:13 AM, Cameron Wybrow wrote:


    I'm not sure I understand you yet. I mean, I understand your bare words about the construction of a car, but I am not sure what you are driving (no pun intended) at. Or rather, perhaps what is puzzling me is that you specifically addressed me on this thread, when I've really never offered any thoughts on reverse engineering. If you were simply curious to know what I thought, that's fine, but I certainly claim no deep understanding of either engineering or reverse engineering.

    What I do like about engineers and engineering, however, is their very clear understanding that complex integrated systems don't (as far as we know) come into existence without design. Simple systems might -- planets orbiting a sun in accord with basic natural forces -- but complex integrated systems are another matter. Thus, a claim that the first cell came into existence without design may well, from an engineer's point of view, be regarded with suspicion. Perhaps not close-mindedness or hostility, but suspicion. And the same should be true for Darwinian evolution. An engineer might very well regard its claims with great reserve, and his doubts might be all the more heightened by the absence of detailed discussion of steps and of proof that the steps were possible given the known powers of the mechanisms postulated; for in the engineer's own field, such steps have to be spelled out and individually verified.

    I'm not of course saying that there aren't thousands of engineers who accept Darwinian evolution. I don't even deny that there are many who support it enthusiastically. However, we must keep in mind that most scientifically trained people, at least these days, are socially trained to defer to other specialists, and an engineer who hasn't studied biology since 10th grade, and doesn't feel confident in the face of specialist jargon, may well either (1) assume that the biologists have the same level of detailed argument for how a zebra is built that he has for how a television is built, and trust them, or (2) hold back his dissent, or grunt a weak assent, because he doesn't feel that he has enough background to give articulate voice to his reservations. But however that may be, I don't think it's an accident that many of the supporters of intelligent design, especially the non-Christian ones, and those (Christian or not) of the younger generation (many of whom aren't yet in the public limelight), are trained in engineering or related fields like computer programming, where end-directed processes are central to the intellectual work.

  For quite a while Randy and I have been discussing many of the deficiencies of the Intelligent Design Movement. Your last sentence reminds me of a sign on one the H.R. desks at work, "Hire a teenager while they still know everything." It might be good to bring a perspective of some older engineers. Randy was vice president for systems, technology and science research at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. He ran the Blue Gene project that just won the National Medal of Technology. I've also worked in the semiconductor industry for decades. The first chip I worked on is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I have eight issued patents and six pending ones. Patent 5274568 has been used as an example in law schools as one of the earliest software patents. Because of the number of successful patents, I have been on our patent review committee and have been a peer reviewer of patents. This process is very, very similar to the peer review process for scientific papers. In our case, it's double blind. Neither the reviewer nor the reviewee know the identity of the other. (We cannot file every patent idea because it costs over $30,000 to file for a patent and only the most valuable ideas get patented.) I have also been one of the go-to people of our patent attorneys when they are prosecuting infringement. Part of our patent portfolio comes from the former Bell Laboratories.

  It's from this background that drives our collective skepticism that IDM has actually produced a successful design inference and our even stronger belief in the value of peer review. When I review a patent it's on the basis of the following criteria: novelty, non-obviousness, not overly broad (these come from patent law), and (the one that is most important to the company) the ability to detect infringement. It's on the last category that I have bounced many a patent application. In short, can we successfully infer to the satisfaction of lawyers and not scientists -- a much lower standard -- that our competitors may have used one of our patented techniques. This turns out to be extraordinarily difficult. In other words, can we decap a competitor's part and literally "see" the design. We have to make the inference based on only public knowledge because to do otherwise could potentially and often actually violate non-disclosure agreements. If we would receive one the IDM proposals it would quickly be placed in the do not file pile. The so-called inferences are non-sensicle, wrongly reasoned, and way too broad. It has nothing to do with the introduction of the supernatural because in my opinion it's easier to prove deity than design. Just claim to be God, be raised from the dead, and present the evidence to many witnesses.

  I'll close with an example of where it was easy to prove infringement. We had a patent on a CAE tool we had written. But how do you know if another tool used the same technique? The chips look exactly the same. (Part of the innovation was how fast we could do things.) I mentioned this turned out to be easy. How? The lead designer made a presentation at a user conference sponsored by the company in question with the words patent pending on his slides. The company then released a tool that did something very similar WITH THE SAME NAME. When an ID proponent made a presentation at my church, he gave the following example of walking in the art museum and seeing the paintings and asked how do you know that these were painted by intelligent agents? My reply: the names on the plaques below the pictures. The best way you do a design inference is to have the designer tell you. In the realm of ID, you start with Scripture and you infer design because God told you so. The people who oppose IDM do not oppose intelligent design. We just argue from the intelligent designer to the design and not the other way around. People who don't have a long background in design greatly overestimate their ability to make such inferences. They then attack the people who bounce their ideas and insist on peer review from people with experience as having an "agenda". Nothing can be further from the truth. All they end up doing is offending the very people who are out there to help them.

  Rich Blinne
  Member ASA

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Received on Sat Oct 17 22:02:28 2009

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