Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ye Gods!

Gregg Easterbrook's take on Super Bowl XXXX resembles my own: yes, the referees blew some calls, but those calls are not why the Seahawks lost the game. The Seahawks made too many mental errors and bad coaching decisions to win. Those questionable calls may be enormously frustrating to Seahawks fans, but it just wasn't their fault. Take it from a guy who knows losing Super Bowls: as a Buffalo Bills fan, I'm an expert. I've seen close losses, and I've seen blowout losses.

However, in mid-column, Easterbrook feels the need, as he often does, to write about non-football stuff. I usually gloss over this stuff, because it's usually geeky stuff about geek franchises with which I'm unfamiliar, but here Easterbrook expresses his frustration that Intelligent Design has been co-opted by stealth creationists:

Yours truly thinks the "intelligent design" idea is being given the short
shrift by the mainstream media. Yes, some intelligent design advocates
want to use I.D. as a Trojan horse to put religious doctrine into public
schools -- forbidden by the First Amendment, and wisely so in the
opinion of this churchgoer. And some intelligent design advocates
believe young Earth creationism, a nutty idea for which there isn't one
iota of scientific evidence. But as they mock the notion of intelligent
design, the mainstream media are systematically avoiding a substantial
question mark in evolutionary theory: it does not explain the origin of
life. That organisms evolve in response to changes in their environment
is well-established -- anyone who doubts this doesn't know what he or
she is talking about. But why are there living things in the first
place? Darwin said he had no idea, and to this day science has little
beyond wild guesses about the origin of life. Maybe life had a natural
origin that one day will be discovered. Until such time, higher powers
or the divine cannot be ruled out. Exactly because I think intelligent
design is a more important concept than the mainstream media will admit,
I really wish right-wing screwballs would stop advocating I.D. --
they're giving the idea a bad name! First, it's common to hear them say
evolution can be disregarded because it's "just a theory."

This is ill-informed. In everyday usage, "theory" can mean a conjectural
or unlikely claim. ("See, I have this theory why Maria Sharapova would
go out with me.") In science, a theory is an idea that has well-accepted
supporting principles, has been tested successfully and that no one has
falsified; in science the word theory conveys high standing. For
instance, first relativity was an analytical idea, then a hypothesis,
then after many years of testing was acknowledged as a theory. When in
1996 Pope John Paul II called Darwinianism "more than a hypothesis," he
was choosing words precisely. Many on today's anti-science right appear
ignorant of such basic precepts as the definition of the word

The screwball fringe keeps proposing I.D.-related legislation that shows
it doesn't even understand the limits of evolutionary theory. Two years
ago some science illiterates in Cobb County, Ga., got the local Board of
Education to mandate stickers on biology textbooks reading, "Evolution
is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things."
Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of living things. The
core quandary of Darwinian logic is that we can imagine how living
things evolve but cannot imagine how they came into existence in the
first place. Now a know-nothing Utah state representative has proposed this bill that "requires the State Board of Education
to establish curriculum requirements and policies that stress that not
all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life … is
correct." Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on
the origin of life.
A few biologists have made wild guesses
involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered
anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point) Given the presence of life is so
mysterious, a creator God may be why we are here. But please, science
illiterates, stop attempting to enact rules about intelligent design;
you are ruining the idea.

Oh, ugh. This is the worst possible justification for ID, and after reading Easterbrook very correctly deride the incorrect use of the word "theory", it's so disappointing to see him go off on this lame goose chase. If Easterbrook himself has a testable hypothesis on ID, then by all means, let's hear it; but it is simply false to state, as Easterbrook does, that science's current inability to answer a particular question therefore implies a supernatural answer to that question.

And as Easterbrook himself notes, there are hypotheses regarding the origins of life. I'm not sure that his description of these hypotheses as "wild guesses" is at all fair; but how much more of a wild guess would it be for a scientist, faced with a vexing conundrum, to conclude "God did it!"?

Lordy, stick to the football.

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