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Feb 01 2009

AC Grayling’s Not to be Trifled With

First, the setup: AC Grayling, writing brilliantly in New Humanist, took Steve Fuller to the woodshed over his obnoxious little book Dissent over Descent. You know someone’s not impressed with your efforts to give ID a little boost when they entitle their review of your book “Origin of the specious.” Fuller, of course, responded by whining incessantly. Grayling, seeing he had not fully absorbed the lessons of the woodshed, took him out back for a second round, this time employing a prototype Smack-o-Matic 4000 that I desperately want to lay my hands on. Beautiful mayhem ensues.

I want to highlight one paragraph that captures the essence of what science is and ID isn’t. If Intelligent Design were a person, what follows would qualify as a debilitating towel-snap to the nads:

I am, says Fuller, ignorant (sheerly so; this is the glaring deficiency in my case) of “ID’s argument structure”, which is – argument to the best explanation! Oh pul-eese! I ignored this bit in my review out of a kind of residual collegiality, for even among the toxicities that flow when members of the professoriate fall out, embarrassment on others” behalf is a restraint. But he asks for it. Argument to the best explanation! Look: there is a great deal we do not know about this world of ours, but what is beautiful about science is that its practitioners do not panic and say “cripes! we don’t understand this, so we must grab something quick – attribute it to the intelligent designing activity of Fred (or Zeus or the Tooth Fairy or any arbitrary supernatural agency given ad hoc powers suitable to the task) because we can’t at present think of a better explanation.” They do not make a hasty grab for a lousy “best explanation” because they have serious thoughts about the kind of thing that can count as such. Instead of quick ad hoc fixes, they live with the open-ended nature of scientific enquiry, hypothesising and testing, trying to work things out rationally and conservatively on the basis of what is so far well-attested and secure. What looks like having a chance of being both an “explanation” and the “best” in a specific case turns on there being a well-disciplined idea of “best” for that specific case. But an hypothesis has no hope of becoming the best explanation (until a better comes along) unless it survives testing, is specific, and is consistent and conservative with respect to much else that is secure. This is a far cry from the gestural “best explanation” move that ID theorists attempt, which – and note this carefully – does not restrict itself to individual puzzles only, but applies to Life, the Universe and Everything. It has to, at risk of incoherence; and yet by doing so, it collapses into incoherence.

Oh, snap!

I think I’m going to have this paragraph printed on little cards. Why waste my breath with IDiots when I can simply hand them the card, watch them read it, and then grin as they splutter?