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Monday, August 22, 2005

[General] Un-telligent Design (finally and slightly unfinished)

In the beginning…

This micro-essay was started after President George spoke of his support for Intelligent Design in schools. I had decided to just let it sit because so many others had weighed in with very valid arguments. And what else can you do after saying: “it’s shit science”? But now it’s personal as the debate has come to New Zealand. On the weekend the Sunday Star Times ran a story about a Christian lobby group called Focus on the Family that sent 500 kits (a DVD and workbook resource) to New Zealand schools. To the Times’ credit they called it “creationism” (which is what Intelligent Design really is) the whole way through the article.

Here are two quotes from the article:

Pakuranga College principal Bali Haque knew nothing of the kit, and said it would be kept in the library if it had arrived. "It has no place in the classroom."

Science Educators association president Bev Cooper said the intent of science and biology curricula was to present information supported by science. "[Intelligent design] is not science and therefore has no place in the compulsory school curriculum."

Way to go Bev Cooper! But Bali Haque what are you saying? If I send you a DVD and workbook about how the government is controlling our thoughts with mind-ray technology would you put it in your library? Which section would you put it under: fiction or non-fiction? Where in your library would you put Focus for the Family’s DVD? Hopefully you would put it in the 213 section of the Dewey Decimal system (or maybe 215 as a negative example).

Let’s get into it then and put some of my Honours degree in science to good use. There is a LARGE body of evidence on the internet just go out and find it (or read all the way to the bottom where I have put some links). I can hopefully ad some of my own perspective to the argument (if you can even call it that). Before I start, let’s hear what, issue-focussed newspaper, the Onion has to say: Scientist Refute Theory of Gravity.

Hee hee hee, but seriously here we go.


“Intelligent Design versus Evolution” implies that Evolution is unintelligent randomness. Which evolution actually is, in a way, but the THEORY of evolution isn’t.

And that’s the other thing about the semantics; Intelligent Design is not a theory. Intelligent Design is a guess. What’s the difference?


  • A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.


  • To predict (a result or an event) without sufficient information.
  • To assume, presume, or assert (a fact) without sufficient information.

Both of these are taken from yourdictionary.com. I have been quite generous with the meanings, especially “guess”. But it basically comes down to this. Theory is based on repeatedly tested facts; Guess is based on insufficient information.

Here is a little something else. Some have attacked the Theory of Evolution as not being a “fact” but “just a theory”. As seen above, theories are not facts; theories are based on facts. Moreover, theories destroy facts, to take the view of Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in The Collapse of Chaos (1994). See, you could have a book filled with millions of entries about exact planetary positions in our solar systems or you could have a nifty little theory of gravitation.

Oh, and one more thing. I refuse to give Intelligent Design the abbreviated name: ID. “ID” was dreamt up by some PR firm someplace (possibly the same people who called public relations: “PR”). Instead, and to save me typing, I will call it UD: Un-telligent Design [sic]. “UD” (said as a word) also sounds nicer to the ear than “ID”, it sounds slow and ponderous and dull.

There is actually a small irony in the abbreviation of Intelligent Design to ID. Again from yourdictionary.com:


  • In Freudian theory, the division of the psyche that is totally unconscious and serves as the source of instinctual impulses and demands for immediate satisfaction of primitive needs.

Yeah, I thought that was funny too.

So at the end of this short section on semantics we have come up with a new phrase: “The theory based on repeatedly tested facts versus the guess about why things are doing what they are doing”.

B-B-B-Bad Science

Everyone from stoned university students to (DNA discoverer) Professor Francis Crick has thought that maybe life on earth is some big cosmic science experiment. It’s right up there with “maybe the universe is just an atom” [in some larger being].

My degree is in mathematics, pure mathematics. As such I understand the lust for finding simple (what are now called beautiful) answers to complex questions. As a species we find simplicity fascinating. This is what I have heard UD described as: “a beautiful theory to answer the fundamental question of life”. As we mentioned previously UD is a guess, but what actually is the guess?

The basics of UD seems to be that stuff (and I am talking broadly here) is way too complicated to be the result of randomness over millennia.

Now, as I said, I’m a pure mathematician. What do we pure maths geeks love? Complexity, Good God do we love complexity. Why? Because complexity just keeps popping up. We maths geeks call that emerging. Emergent complexity from seemingly simple systems is the basis of most of Chaos Theory. Then we had the “recent” phenomenon of emergent simplicity that tends to follow emergent complexity.

Most cases of this complexity, that followers of UD believe denotes design, occur when you look closer at something. Let’s take the example of a rock. It’s just a rock and is fairly simple, look closer and you’ll see an infinitely complex structure. That must have been designed…right?

The only thing that designed the rock was the rock, so to speak. From the rocks frame of reference (or universal context) the rocks had forces acting on it and became the rock we all see today. It’s just plain old laws of physics working on atoms and geology until we get…a rock. The rock understands this, are we dumber than a rock? Quick answer: yes.

I look at π (pi=3.14159265358979323846264338327950288) and I say “wow that is one crazy, complex mother f****r”. An infinite number of decimal places, no repeating pattern and yet it is the ratio of every circles circumference to its diameter. Some would say “look that is so complex it must have been designed”*. But it’s not designed; it is conforming to the rules of this universe. In some other universe the ratio of circumference to diameter might be 3.1415986535828932384864 (trust me, it’s a different number) or 3 or -95.73 or hydrogen (which, I admit, would be a pretty whacked out universe).

*if this was any other argument I would reply “Who, the f**k, would design something to be that difficult?”

The [ahem] beauty of π (or indeed any of the irrational numbers, of which there are an infinite number) does not imply design. It implies an adherence to the rules of physics and space-time relativity. A change in those rules would mean an alteration of all other constants. Basically I believe that complexity suggest no design rather than the other way around.

The Big Guns

Most people when arguing about UD like to bring out the best weapons and wave them around. Like Occum’s Razor, the guy who wrote the Wikipedia entry sure liked this one. Logical arguments and the like rip up UD pretty quickly. Where’s the fun in that?

The idea behind science is you look at what is happening and try to figure out how or why that is happening. UD looks at everything and says: god.

But that is no better than cave men. How does fire work? God. How does the sky stay up? God. Why are we here? God.

Oh I’m sorry, instead of God please read “higher intelligence”. Indeed any higher intelligence; like the Flying Spaghetti Monster (hallowed be his name, arrrrr).

Those who believe in UD must surely, by the same “scientific process”, believe in Yeti, Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster. In fact there is probably more evidence (and less hoaxes) to support these beasts than UD. [Dom has pointed out that there are no bombings by extremist Yeti-believers either].

Akk! I have run out of time! Oh, well I was drifting slowly off topic anyway. Please read some of the links below. Try and guess which ones are pro and which are anti-UD.

References and other places


ben.run said...

I'm going to be one of those readers who pick up on one tiny side point in the article and comment on that.

You comment on Pi, and refer to it as "the ratio of every circles circumference to its diameter", and then you go on to say, " In some other universe the ratio of circumference to diameter might be [something else]

This is far more shocking to hear than, for example, you suggesting that Space Bisons created life through intelligent rock design.

I would have hoped you would have considered Pi to be something more along the lines of "the smallest positive real so that sin(x) = 0.". The fact that there may be some relation to circles to be a truly fascinating, yet almost bewildering, coincidence.

That aside, I did actually read your whole article and found it to be rather good. I also feel inspired to dwell on parts of the Mandlebrot set for a while, now there is complex beauty from the simplest of systems.


Scott said...

Occom's razor does not apply to UD. It is a given that the best theory for something (the one supported by most evidence, or not contradicted by the least evidence) is the best theory for something (obviously). Occom's Razor applies to COMPETING theories, which may both have similar evidence. If it applied to ALL theories, then it is just not a theory we should take seriously.
For example, the simplist theory to explain everything is "it just does." Parents use this all the time on too-curious children. Smart children either reject Occom's Razor outright (by intuition), or realise that in this situation it does not apply.
So why isn't UD a competing theory? Because it isn't a theory at all. It is a rule of thumb that religious people use.
If both A and not A are evidence of the same thing, you are not talking about a scientific theory, but religious belief.
This has a lot of historical precident, and I think we should look at this a psychology rather than science.
Let's go back to Galileo. Long story short: Dude thinks earth goes round sun, pope threatens (bad for christian church), dude recants. Fast forward, people believe Gal was right. Even church. Church no longer sees sun as threat.
Same goes for 7 day creation. Lots of Xtians want to believe it, and gabble on about conspiracies to make themselves feel better, but most will admit 7 days is a dumb theory. It no longer threatens their faith though. Just more dissonance for them to carry round.
UD is just the latest line in the sand. We've already gone so much further than any xtian church would have allowed even 150 years ago. Xtians who travelled through time would be stoned for believing todays truths in the 1600's.
You have to feel sorry for them. Look at Mr Capill. Sentenced to prison for raping young girls, and he writes a letter to fellow Xtians complaining about how far our society is from biblical times. He's right. Our society is so immoral, we wouldn't consider for a moment killing someone for the crime of being raped in a city who is betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24 NAB). I guess these girls were unlikely to be betrothed at 8, so I guess I chose the wrong quote to apply:
"If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her."
Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NAB
So Graham is complaining that he wasn't made to amrry his young victims. You can guess what kind of people think biblical times were cool...
What is my point regards UD? That it is just another spasm from a religion captured by the society it inhabits. We should all do what Jung and Freud would do. Listen to the mad people, and try to figure out what they really want (for their lives to be orderly, and people to listen to them?).

mike said...

Good and interesting comments so far. And good post btw. UDers (and creationists and that cretin Kevin Trudeau, amongst others) piss me off. Anyway just a couple of things...

Re pi - it is completely entwined with circles, so it's not really that big a coincidence!

I mean pi's very definition is that it is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

As for sin(w), where w is in radians or degrees or whatever, it's just the height of a unitary circle above (or below) the x-axis starting at the point (0,1) and moving anti-clockwise. Cos(w) is the distance from the y-axis. (Had to look that up, thank you Mathworld, mathematician-geek heaven.) The unit used for w is pretty arbitrary: pi (as in radians) is used because it simplifies calculations. "The smallest possible real so that sin(x)=0" could be 180 (as in 180 degrees), or 200 (as in 200 gradians), or whatever.

And the interesting thing is that if you put a circle into curved space, you can change the value of pi. There are instances where pi even becomes rational. Couple of links: http://van.hep.uiuc.edu/van/qa/section/New_and_Exciting_Physics/Relativity/20041011125148.htm and http://mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/55198.html.

Mandelbrot sets rock.

And although I agree that UD is just the latest line in the sand from the fundies, while it may be a spasm or fad, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stop its spread. Dressing up fundy beliefs in the guise of science should definitely be discouraged.

(Fundies really get my goat - I always think that if a person is overtly moral, I'm looking at you Graham Capill, then they've got a guilty conscience and something to hide. OK, so that's not a particularly scientific theory, but it is a valid hypothesis to test.)

Back to my main point. One way to show UD for what it is might be to introduce it into the curriculum as an example of what does not constitute science, and why it is bad thing to take something like UD as the truth.

I.e. it's bad because the scientific method is required for pretty much everything that makes our quality of life better, from cures for disease to greener energy to deeper understanding about the universe, and to give in to the belief structures required for something like UD undermines our scientific ability as required. I mean, do you really think the CSI team would solve as many cases as it does by using psychics instead of forensic science? I think not (this thought is based on the empirical evidence: "cases solved by whacked-out psychic freaks (none) versus cases solved by analysis of the evidence (all of them)"). Science is not a belief structure, people! It is not a religion! It requires evidence to make it work, evidence that UD does not supply. Rest assured that the theory of evolution would be dismissed if the scientific evidence stacked up against it, but until that time (which I personally think will never happen!) it's the best damned tool we have for working out where we came from and as a basis for working out where the hell we, and the rest of the life on this planet, are going.

Another good evolution vs creation site is http://www.vuletic.com/hume/cefec/. Plenty of empirical evidence there to boot UD/creationism in the bollocks. (Ah - the interweb, that triumph of scientific thinking, where would we be without you?)

Just my two cents' worth.

ben.run said...

I always find it rather disapointing when maths gets related to real world things. I much prefer totaly abstract idea. I guess a circle could be considered abstract. But geometry just seems a little to "real world" to be taken seriously.

I like prime integers. These are good. I remeber having an argument with someone about whether God had any limits one what he could create do with the universe. I argued that God can not change the prime numbers. The whole concept of integers is a basic one that is a completely abstract thought. It matters not what type of universe you are in, the abstract concept of integers and their primes is outside that and exist evern if there was no universe or anyone to think about them. God would be limited to looking at the primes, there is no ability to rearrange them :-)

Gaussian (complex) integer primes are super cool too.
I never looked into quaternions integer primes. That would be fun. That inspires me to go and look at some.
Primes make pretty pictures. I used one for an Album cover once.

Speaking of quaternions, I always wanted to make a 3D mandlebrot using quartenions (well I would only use the real, i, and j part, and leave k 0 or I would end up with 4 dimensions). But could never think of a good way to actually display it.

I need to look back at some of my books. Its been 5 years.

The mandlebrot is soothing. I like to go and find a nice place in their and explorer, knowing there is an almost certanty that no one else has ever been there before and will never go there again. So I can claim this bit as my own, I think about building a house there.

Well this comemnt has driffted randomly all over the place, it is probably more suitable as an odd entry on my own blog rather than wasting your comment space. Especially as it isn't slightly related to the topic of your post!


mike said...

ha haarrr! I'm an engineer. It's my job to take all your wishy-washy mathematical "abstractions" and turn them into real world applications! :-)

Bejeebers, I had enough trouble with imaginary numbers without getting into quaternions! I've got to stop writing all my sentences ending in !