An unintelligent Intelligent Design creationism quiz

Larry Moran has been given a quiz to test our comprehension of Intelligent Design creationism. Unfortunately, it was composed by someone who doesn’t understand ID creationism but merely wants everyone to regurgitate their propaganda, so it’s a major mess, and you can also tell that the person writing it was smugly thinking they were laying some real traps to catch us out in our ignorance.

Larry has posted his answers. I’ve put mine below the fold (I sorta subtly disagree with him on #2). If you want to take a stab at it untainted by our answers, here’s the original quiz, untainted by logic or evidence, so you can view them in their pure naked ignorance.

Also, another thing: the person who composed the quiz clearly expected simple yes/no answers, yet wrote questions that demand explanation. Yet again, the idiocy of the IDiots is exposed. I’ve actually troubled to explain my answers.

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Behold! The Legendary Intelligent Design Creationism Research Laboratory!

The Discovery Institute released a video of one of their stars, Ann Gauger, explaining the flaws in “population genetics” (I put it in quotes because it wasn’t a description of the field of population genetics that any competent biologist would recognize). Larry Moran points out the errors.

But then, someone noticed something else: the video was fake. It was Ann Gauger, all right, talking in a “lab”. Again, the quotes are because she was actually talking in front of a green screen, and a stock photo of a lab was spliced in behind her. Oops. It adds comic absurdity on top of the egregious errors in her babbling.

But of course that’s exactly what the DI wants. They can’t answer for the stupidity of her comments, but they can wave their hands and shout, “We do too have a lab! A real lab! And it’s sciencey and everything!” Because, after all, when you’re doing cargo cult science, the props are all important, and the substance doesn’t matter.

So, yeah, the indignant DI released a real photo of their real lab, with Gauger gazing at a petri dish. And here it is:


Errm, are we supposed to be impressed? I could give you an equivalent photo of a few shelves in one of our student labs — it would look similar, just messier. A petri dish, a few orange-top bottles, a small hood in the background—all they needed to make it really sciencey were a few bubbling bottles of colored water. D. James Kennedy did a better job in “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy”.


See? Now that’s a lab!

But seriously, the furniture does not make the lab — the work being done in it does. When you think it matters that you can pose with a petri dish, you really are doing cargo cult science.

With a final pretentious squeak, the attack mouse sinks into the sunset


Aww, what sad news. Casey Luskin is leaving the Discovery Institute. Hilariously, he declares victory as he fades away, and cites two instances that he claims have finally validated intelligent design creationism.

The first is that the ENCODE proved that the genome is nearly entirely functional, exactly as ID predicted and against the expectations of those Darwinists. Unfortunately for him, that is not the case, and the ENCODE propagandists relied entirely on a peculiar and narrow definition of function that did not match any kind of function the creationists might have imagined.

The second is — hang on to your hats — epigenetics. Didn’t I just post something about epigenetics? Why, yes I did. I also posted something somewhat lengthy about it. It seems to be a common misconception among creationists.

Interestingly, these were also two of the obsessions of another creationist, Perry Marshall. He didn’t understand those concepts, either.

I think it’s quite appropriate that Luskin should vanish in a puff of misconceptions and ignorance. It’s been his stock in trade all along, after all.


The Discovery Institute is working hard to prove that the Intelligent Design creationism movement isn’t dead. So, they have a post listing all their great accomplishments since the Dover decision. There have been lawsuits and movies!

The cause of academic freedom has also seen significant victories. In one case, as we reported here, “[T]he University of Kentucky paid $125,000 to settle a lawsuit by astronomer Martin Gaskell who was wrongfully denied employment because he was perceived to be skeptical towards Darwinian evolution.” Two other Darwin skeptics received settlements for discrimination. Applied Mathematics Letters retracted mathematician Granville Sewell’s article critical of neo-Darwinism; a lawsuit followed, leading to a public apology and $10,000 payment to Sewell. After the California Science Center (CSC) cancelled the showing of an intelligent design film, Darwin’s Dilemma, the American Freedom Alliance sued. The CSC paid $110,000 to avoid going to trial over the evidence that they discriminated. And the film Expelled drew over 1.1 million viewers to movie theaters to learn about discrimination against scientific dissenters from Darwinism.

They have lawyers! And people pay money to settle their nuisance suits! What a triumph for Intelligent Design science creationism.

They also have people writing books, and can scrape up a few people to give them positive reviews.

Public outreach on intelligent design is also doing very well post-Dover. In 2009, Stephen Meyer published Signature in the Cell, which received praise from famed atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, who named it “Book of the Year” in the respected Times Literary Supplement of London.

In 2013, Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt which made the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists. That book was endorsed by scientists including Harvard geneticist George Church and Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin. UC Berkeley paleontologist Charles Marshall gave Darwin’s Doubt a serious review in the top journal Science and participated in a radio debate with Meyer.

I’ve read both of Meyer’s books; they are delusional exercises by a long-winded narcissist. It’s lovely for them that Thomas Nagel liked it, but then Nagel’s gone full loopy creationist. McMenamin is a crank. They keep touting the fact that it was reviewed in Science, but they never tell you what the review said. Hint: it’s not a positive review.

Finally and most importantly, science supporting ID continues to move forward. Several areas of research have seen groundbreaking progress, including work by the Evolutionary Informatics Lab (using computer models to test Darwinian evolution) and Biologic Institute (exploring evidence for ID in biology). To date, there are more than eighty peer-reviewed articles supportive of intelligent design, with over fifty of them published post-Dover.

Virtually none of this “work” is getting published in serious science journals; it’s all going into cheesy dumpsters of bad science like the Journal of Cosmology, or their own house organ, Bio-Complexity. Eighty articles is nothing, especially when you are claiming to be founding a whole new discipline and approach to analysis. Eighty articles, when you’ve got a whole propaganda mill dedicated to pushing your ideas, is an abysmal failure.

Also, when you look closely at their list of ID creationism science articles, they are exposed as puff pieces, empty musings, and noise published by hacks.

But the Discovery Institute always looks on the bright side.

Given how quickly ID scholarship is moving forward in so many areas — science, public policy, and culture — we can only anticipate how much stronger ID will be twenty years after Dover.

Have you ever read The Wedge Document? In the late 1990s, the Discovery Institute proposed to get 100 academic articles published in the scientific literature. Now, a decade and a half later, they are bragging about 80…and most of them are transparently garbage.

Nope, sorry guys, “Intelligent Design” is a spent force. The only reason it’s still coasting along is because the evangelical/fundamentalist creationists still like to use it as a pseudo-secular cover when proposing their laws, to get around that pesky separation of church and state thing. But even there, the real blow that the Dover trial dealt to them was in exposing that ID creationism was terrible at providing that excuse. Barbara Forrest smacked ’em hard.

Creationism is still around and still causing trouble, but the success story there is old school young earth creationism, and that’s not a good thing for anyone. Still, it must hurt the fellows at the Discovery Institute when they look at Answers in Genesis and see that all their sneaky dissembling was for nothing.

The Discovery Institute wants my money


I got a begging email from our good friends at the Center for Science & Culture. They’re going to have to work a lot harder to persuade me.

Dear PZ:

Wait. Dear PZ? I’m having a tough time imagining any of those bozos addressing me as dear. But let us continue.

Intelligent design is a common sense idea. Research has shown that children intuitively recognize design in the world around them. You and I make design inferences every day. It has taken a long time for the scientific community to catch up with the kids. But that day is coming.

Intuitive and “common sense” assumptions are often wrong. You might enjoy these misconceptions children have about physics, for instance. I look forward to their new slogan: Intelligent Design: so simple, only a child would believe it. Except that it’s insulting to children.

The rest of the letter is all about the crap science they’ve been dumping on the public this year, and threatening to publish more.

For over 19 years, the Research & Scholarship Initiative of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture (CSC) has worked to build the scientific case for design and to winsomely communicate their research and scholarship to a broad audience.

Heh. This is the first time I’ve every seen the adverb “winsomely” applied to what the creationists do. I had to go to the Evolution News website to see an example of their winsome articles. Here’s one: Rubik’s Cube Is a Hand-Sized Illustration of Intelligent Design.

For those interested in explaining ID to people without a lot of memory work, the Rubik’s Cube can be a useful instructional aid. You don’t have to master the art of solving it. Save your sanity; just buy two cubes, and don’t touch the solved one. Lock it into a plastic case if you have to, so that you won’t have to try all 43 quintillion combinations in front of your audience. Or, rent a kid who can fix it in a few seconds.

Explain that the cube is a search problem. Take the scrambled one, and show how you want to get from that one to the solved one. You need a search algorithm. Which approach is more likely to find the solution — intelligent causes or unguided causes? The answer is obvious, but go ahead; rub it in. A robot randomly moving the colors around could conceivably hit on the solution by chance in short order with sheer dumb luck (1 chance in 43 x 1018), but even if it did, it would most likely keep rotating the colors right back out of order again, not caring a dime. It would take an intelligent agent to recognize the solution and stop the robot when it gets the solution by chance.

More likely, it would take a long, long time. Trying all 43 x 1018 combinations at 1 per second would take 1.3 trillion years. The robot would have a 50-50 chance of getting the solution in half that time, but it would already vastly exceed the time available (about forty times the age of the universe). If a secular materialist counters that there could be trillions of robots with trillions of cubes working simultaneously throughout the cosmos, ask what the chance is of getting any two winners on the same planet at the same place and time. The one concession blocks the other. And what in the materialist’s unguided universe is going to stop any robot when it succeeds? The vast majority will never succeed during the age of the universe.

Now rub it in. It would vastly exceed the age of the known universe for a robot to solve the cube by sheer dumb luck. How fast can an intelligent cause solve it? 4.904 seconds. That’s the power of intelligent causes over unguided causes.

Now really, really rub it in. The Rubik’s cube is simple compared to a protein. Imagine solving a cube with 20 colors and 100 sides. Then imagine solving hundreds of different such cubes, each with its own solution, simultaneously in the same place at the same time. If the audience doesn’t run outside screaming, you didn’t speak slowly enough.

Oh, man. So much wrong.

One problem with ID’s argument is that they are committed to the fallacy of a specified target for an evolutionary search. So the “goal” of evolution is to produce a human being, and given the 3+ billion years of chance and variation, and the multitude of different forms produced, I’ll agree: the likelihood of our specific form arising from a sea of single-celled organisms is extremely unlikely. But evolution doesn’t care; it doesn’t have a goal; it spawns endless different forms, so we get elephants and algae at the same time that we get, in one brief and fleeting moment of geological time, anthropoids.

One problem with their Rubik’s Cube example is that it does have a known goal: you’re supposed to get each side to a different solid color. Their single enshrined cube set to a single specific solution is a good example of the poverty of Intelligent Design creationism.

If I were to use Rubik’s Cube as a demonstration of how evolution works, I’d have to do something very different. We have about 20,000 genes, so I’d have to by 20,000 Rubik’s Cubes (not on a professor’s salary), and I’d set each one to a different arrangement. Much of it would be chance, but for some, I’d make a desultory effort. Can I get this one to display mostly green squares on one side? On this one I want three adjacent squares to be red. Another one has alternating yellow squares on one face. You get the idea — I want diversity, and I don’t have to work as hard or as narrowly to get it. I’d also just stroll through the house, tripping over these stupid Rubik’s Cubes everywhere, and occasionally twisting one.

That’s closer to evolution than the DI’s vision.

They’re always making this mistake of assuming the only correct solution is one pre-specified result. I really want to play poker with them: I’d tell them first that the goal of the game is get a Royal Flush, and they’d fold at every hand and I’d clean up with every feeble deal.

One other problem with their analogy is that they’re comparing the cube to the wrong thing. The more natural comparison is not to evolution, but to protein folding. Here’s this chain of amino acids, and you have to twist it into a specific conformation that will function…why, the numbers say this is nearly impossible! And math doesn’t lie!

Here’s a 1993 paper by Fraenkel, Complexity of Protein Folding, that says this.

It is believed that the native folded three-dimensional conformation of a protein is its lowest free energy state, or one of its lowest. It is shown here that both a two- and three-dimensional mathematical model describing the folding process as a free energy minimization problem is NP-hard. This means that the problem belongs to a large set of computational problems, assumed to be very hard (“conditionally intractable”). Some of the possible ramifications of this result are speculated upon.

All the mathematicians and computer scientists out there will recognize that word, NP-hard. This represents a computationally very difficult problem that isn’t easily solved (a Rubik’s Cube is not NP-hard, I don’t think–there are relatively simple algorithms that can solve it, although getting an optimal, minimum-number-of-moves solution might be harder — I haven’t been following the math.) Fraenkel explains the problem in words that will bring joy to the heart of every IDiot, as long as they don’t read the rest.

Each amino acid in a protein can adopt, on average, eight different conformations (Privalov, 1979). A relatively small protein, consisting of 100 amino acids, can thus potentially assume 8100 conformations.

Whoa — 8100 conformations is a much bigger number than 43 x 1018 combinations of the Rubik’s Cube that so impressed the Discovery Institute. I guess we’re done here. It’s impossible for any of my proteins to fold into a functional shape before the heat death of the universe, therefore there must be trillions of invisible tiny angels flitting about winsomely in my body, lovingly crafting DNA Polymerase II for me, cunningly assembling actin monomers into fibers, shuttling electrons about in my mitochondria with focused attention to every detail. I eagerly await the moment when the Discovery Institute lifts those 2 sentences from Fraenkel in their promotional literature.

I assume they’ll conveniently ignore the existence of the next two sentences.

Yet nature attains the native conformation in about 1 sec. (Note that the claim that nature assumes the global minimum free energy conformation in 1 sec is not equivalent to saying that it explores all the 8100 potential conformations in 1 sec!)

So protein folding is a much more difficult problem than solving a Rubik’s cube. The DI is dazzled by a human solving the cube in under 5 seconds, and thinks this demonstrates the superiority of intelligence over other natural causes. Yet the much more difficult problem is solved by the cell in under a second.

Point to physics, chemistry, and biology. Magic intelligence loses again.

Hey, do you think the writers at the Center for Science & Culture have a joke dictionary that defines “winsomely” as “stupidly”? That would make sense.

Republicans and Creationists are simply wrong


Alex Berezow is annoyed. Slate is picking on poor Republicans and Christians for their anti-science views! How dare they! Don’t they know Democrats and atheists are just as bad?

It’s a complaint that ignores reality. We can look at the voting record of congress: it’s eerie how polarized it is, and how the Republicans line up in lockstep to vote against any policies that might combat climate change, for instance. We can look at the current slate of Republican presidential candidates, and it’s terrifying — Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, etc.? Are you really going to argue that it’s one-sided to point out that the anti-science agenda of the Republican party is blatantly in contrast to that of the Democratic party (not that I’m a big fan of Democrats or Obama or Clinton: they are lukewarm swill against the toxic, corrosive sludge of the Republicans)? Of course he thinks it is.

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Nematodes are not designed, they evolved


The latest fatuous obsession by Paul Nelson, Philosopher of Biology at the Discovery Institute, is a real corker. He has decided that nematodes could not possibly have evolved, because scientists (real ones, not creationist pseudoscientists) have produced an extremely detailed literature documenting their development; because Brenner, Horvitz, and Sulston (no creationists among them) won the Nobel Prize for their work describing the cell lineages to produce the worm; and because he doesn’t understand developmental biology at all. I’ve got palm impressions in my forehead from smacking myself so many times while watching this terrible little video.

This is why Paul Nelson is laughed at by developmental biologists. He cannot be taken seriously. I figured, though, that if you’re not already familiar with concepts and details of development, you might find him credible — he’s so pompously earnest! — so I thought I’d explain all the ways he goes wrong.

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The god of vapor is hardly any kind of god at all

So Greta Christina wrote a piece pointing out that even the vaguest, waffleist, broadest version of God is incompatible with the science, and then my favorite tech and media pundit, Andy Ihnatko, wrote a critique of her article. It’s a decent attempt, but really, it falls into the same trap Greta is talking about.

I was going to tweet out a comment about this Salon article (partner-posted from her AlterNet blog), but yeah, I needed more than 140 characters. I say, with the utmost respect for the author, that Greta Christina’s “The truth about science vs. religion: 4 reasons why intelligent design falls flat” falls into a common trap. She seems to assume that there’s only one acceptable concept of “God.” And, as luck would have it, it happens to be a definition that suits the point that the article wants to make.

I might have misread what is an obviously well-written and well-presented opinion. My difficulty comes right at the top:

You hear this a lot from progressive and moderate religious believers. They believe in some sort of creator god, but they heartily reject the extreme, fundamentalist, science-rejecting versions of their religions (as well they should). They want their beliefs to reflect reality – including the reality of the confirmed fact of evolution. So they try to reconcile the two by saying that that evolution is real, exactly as the scientists describe it — and that God made it happen. They insist that you don’t have to deny evolution to believe in God.

In the narrowest, most literal sense, of course this is true. It’s true that there are people who believe in God, and who also accept science in general and evolution in particular. This is an observably true fact: it would be absurd to deny it, and I don’t. I’m not saying these people don’t exist.

I’m saying that this position is untenable…

I urge you to read the entire piece. It’s good stuff. I just don’t think it adequately defends the argument that belief in God and belief in evolution aren’t compatible. It’s a good argument against the specific kinds of belief that she singles out, but it falls far short of making the larger point.

Ihnatko goes on to say much more, and in particular I’ll say his discussion of Intelligent Design creationism is spot on; ID is particularly vile for its calculated and disingenuous attempt to hide its religious foundations for marketing reasons. But I have to agree with Greta that science and religion are incompatible, and that sending your god off into the distant past and a tenuous and murky relationship with reality is not a good strategy for convincing anyone of its relevance…which is exactly what Greta is saying. This by Ihnatko, in particular, is not a defense of god:

Can I respect a belief that the universe was created by God? Sure, given the broad definitions of “God” and “created.” The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

Let’s dissect that.

First of all, science isn’t in the business of proving anything, ever. It’s a process for developing knowledge about the world, and we don’t talk about proofs, because knowledge is provisional and changes as we learn more. We tend not to say “Prove it!”. Rather, we’re more likely to say, “What’s your evidence for that?” or “How does it fit into this other body of hard-earned knowledge?” We’re also much, much more likely to ask how you know something, what process you followed to arrive at your conclusion, and to ever-so-awkwardly point out errors in your logic or observations.

We don’t consider such questions vulgar. They’re necessities for assessing a claim. I wouldn’t flatter believers by suggesting that they’re “secure enough in themselves” — I’d be more likely to say that they’re arrogant to think that they don’t need to answer simple questions about their process, and that what they’re doing in their obstinate refusal to think about the mechanisms of their beliefs makes them more similar to a dishonest used car salesman trying to pass off a lemon by hiding its repair history.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. It was a Catholic philosopher, Pierre Abélard, who said that “By doubting we are led to enquire, and by enquiry we perceive the truth”. Honest inquiry is what scientists expect. Stonewalling the conversation by pretending inquiry is vulgar makes us very, very suspicious.

The heart of Ihnatko’s argument rests on assuming that there is an exception to Greta’s argument, that she has failed to sufficiently address deism or the Watchmaker God idea — that maybe there is a sufficiently non-dogmatic, non-specific version of the god concept in which it is a being that just started the natural world and stood back and let it play out. You can’t disprove that, he says.

I can respect creationism in its broadest definition, at least. Mostly by citing the data point “an ant is barely aware that it’s walking on a leaf, let alone spinning on a planet that’s spinning around a star that’s spinning in a galaxy that’s shooting through a universe at about a thousand kilometers a second.” There’s nothing wrong with believing that God created everything and there’s no evidence disproving it, either (again, in a broad sense).

I’ll repeat, science isn’t about proofs. You can’t disprove the idea that Superman built a time machine, traveled back 13.7 billion years ago, and used his super-strength to create an exploding singularity, either. But science doesn’t care. We just ask what your evidence is that such a being exists, how do you know that he did that, and when you cite some back issue of Action Comics, we know to dismiss your claim on epistemological grounds.

It’s possible to believe in God (as you choose to define God) and science at the same time. It’ll all work out fine, so long as you believe in science as science defines science. If so, you shouldn’t worry about what other people think about you.

But how you choose to define god is the important question! “God exists, as long as you don’t ask me to say what God is” is not a good answer, but is an evasion. It makes it impossible to evaluate your explanation.

You could argue that religion and science are compatible as long as religion simply accepts whatever science says about the nature of the universe (which was basically Gould’s argument in Rocks of Ages — I thought it was a cop out when an atheist said it, and I still think it’s a cop out when a deist says it). But that should not be a reasonable approach to someone trying to defend religious belief, because it cuts religion off at the knees. It really says that those holy religious texts are nothing more than the imaginative speculations of human beings, which are to be superseded by science. That’s fine by me, but then be consistent, and follow through and discard the religion part.

There’s also an implicit bias in the language: “God” implies a conscious being, an entity that is actively doing something — it may be as generic as triggering the Big Bang, or as persistent as something that constantly tweaks the human genome to shape us. But there’s no reason to think that what created the universe was aware, or human-like in its purposes, or even deserving of personal pronouns. You could argue that nucleosynthesis is god, for instance; that the process that assembled larger atoms from smaller ones is the divine creative purpose. But you’d be silly to call nucleosynthesis a “he” or “she”, or to address it in your prayers, or to think your conglomeration of carbon is a holy act. Yeah, you can go ahead and call it “god” and make a “First Church of Nucleosynthesis”, but it would represent an absurd anthropomorphosis of a natural physical process.

I think there’s a fundamental property of the human mind that tends to do these sorts of silly theological exercises, and here’s how science gets appropriated. This is Jacob Bronowski’s definition of science:

Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.

We are typically successful in finding that unity, and then the human mind tries to call it God, bringing in all the cultural baggage that that word carries. It’s not helpful. It obscures more than it enlightens. We should reject the whole notion of “god” because it fails to clarify.

As Ihnatko says, though, you can make it work by not pretending that it has anything to do with science, or that your church can provide any insight into the nature of reality. Sure, go if it makes you feel better, but put away the pretense that you actually learn anything about reality there. You’re engaging in a social behavior that makes you feel good, which is fine, but not something more.