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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Harvard's origin of life project: Taking intelligent design seriously - but what follows?

Gareth Cook's article on the new Harvard origin of life project in the Boston Globe, reads like a press release (except for the very end where he actually quotes Michael Behe). Bill Dembski blogged on it, wondering how seriously they would take any evidence of intelligent design.

Starting with $1 million a year, we are told, Harvard will
bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

On the whole, this "Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative" is good news for the ID guys, first because the Harvard project seems to acknowledge what everyone who looks into the question soon finds out - that origin of life studies have been at an impasse for decades.
Like intelligent design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in the Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.

Many science textbooks fudge this issue, so don't be surprised if comes as news to you. It might come as news to your old biology teacher too.

Why is origin of life difficult to determine?

To understand the nature of the origin of life researchers' difficulties, we must see what Harvard's precise goal is. Chemist David Liu puts it as follows: "... my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

Or, translating from the theistic idiom, Harvard's proposition is that intelligence is not necessary, that the universe is bottom up, not top down, and that order may be had for free.

Indeed, that has always been the key difficulty in origin of life (OoL) research. Understanding the OoL is not difficult in principle, because our universe appears to be fine tuned for just such a thing to happen.

Put another way, if all the odds were against life, we should indeed wonder that it exists! But the odds are for it. So in principle, the origin is eminently researchable, just as fine-tuning is.

BUT if your project, like Harvard's, is to rule out an intelligence behind the odds, you have a big job ahead, maybe an impossible one.

I don't think Harvard yard will succeed, but here's the difficulty: They will easily persuade themselves that they have succeeded. That is usually the way with such projects.

Taking intelligent design seriously

Why so? Well, in the first place, as reporter Cook's story makes clear, the background to the project is alarm over the idea of intelligent design. Indeed, the story unobtrusively demonstrates how seriously intelligent design has come to be taken. Just as NASA spent billions trying to disconfirm the Big Bang, Harvard will spent at least millions trying to disconfirm ID, where origin of life is concerned. Actually, Harvard has no alternative.

Remember that when some boffo pundit assures you that ID is not taken seriously by scientists.

Why you will be told the project is succeeding even if it isn't

Apart from the taxpayer funding that the Harvard project will inevitably attract, it resembles certain fundamentalist efforts to find Noah's Ark. SETI searches come swiftly to mind as well. That is, the seekers have already determined that what they are looking for is really there - whether it is a bottom up origin of life, the good ship Ark, or intergalactic civilizations. Failure to find the prize cannot - by the very nature of the project - serve as a disconfirmation. It can prompt only the most limited reevaluations.

When a project is framed in this way, one outcome is that some findings must not be made and some conclusions must not be drawn, irrespective of evidence.

In an analogous situation, Larry Summers, a key project backer, lost his own presidency last year for nothing more than pointing out that women are not as well adapted to the hard sciences as men.

That fact is massively overdetermined by evidence, but what does evidence matter in the face of a demand to demonstrate a politically correct proposition rather than a factually based one?

Indeed, one phase of Summers' difficulties over his remarks on women in science provides a sobering lesson as to what to expect from the Harvard OoL project.

Biology prof Nancy Hopkins walked out of Summers' talk, proclaiming that his remarks made her sick. Specifically, she told The Globe ,that if she hadn't left, she "would've either blacked out or thrown up."

Now, ... what if a hard science guy announced that challenges from his colleagues cause him to nearly black out or throw up unless he can just walk out on them? Should he be given a demanding chair? For that matter, which of the ID theorists is having a nervous breakdown because of remarks made by the adult toddlers over at the Thumb? People do not have to be tough in order to survive (it often pays better to be nice, actually), but they do have to be tough in order to survive certain types of positions.

In fact, Hopkins was unintentionally providing good evidence for Summer's observations that the requisite types of personality and mental development are more often found in men than women, as several perceptive women columnists (all of them tough as nails, just like me) have pointed out - but (and this is my point) her behaviour was not generally regarded as evidence. You see it had been agreed in advance that no actual evidence for Summers' original position could ever be admitted. So it will be with intelligence and the origin of life.

However, the article is interesting in several other ways: Yes, it actually does quote Michael Behe. After the intrusive sign-up screen (which means few will see Behe's comment unless they think of asking for the printer-friendly screen instead), Cook quotes Behe as saying,
Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

''If, as I suspect will happen," Behe said, ''they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life," he said.

Fat chance, actually, Mike. As I have noted above, in the atmosphere such a project generates, boosters easily silence questioners, simply by quoting dogma and questioning loyalty. Remember, the boosters know that bottom up order for free is real, and anyone who cannot so convince himself is a failure.

What we can expect is press releases every so often claiming major breakthroughs that turn out to depend on the acceptance of speculative propositions. Such releases justify the current funding and attract more funding - and very few will have an interest in pointing out the problems.

Well, it's an ill wind that blows nobody good. Press releases are bread and butter for me.

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