Saturday, November 12, 2005

Dilbert on Intelligent Design

Interesting post by Dilbert on Intelligent Design, which raises some interesting questions of Knowledge and Trust.

He makes the following points.

1. The arguments for Darwinism (and intellectual defences against the "flaws" identified by the Intelligent Design and Creation folk) are complex.

2. Belief in Darwinism depends on trusting the vast majority of scientists working in the field.

3. However, the scientific field relevant to Darwinism is compartmentalized. Scientists are required to trust evidence from other specialisms and disciplines. We are not just talking about non-scientists trusting scientists, but scientists trusting other scientists.

4. Therefore the entire scientific edifice of Darwinism is based on inter-disciplinary trust.

5. If the institution of science is anything like the organizations that Dilbert has made a fortune analysing and drawing, then we have to take seriously the possibility that they've all got it completely wrong.

Of course, the possibility that science has got things completely wrong has been explored by philosophers of science such as Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend. But Dilbert is pointing to a new angle on this - the institutional mechanisms (familiar in large organizations) that permit lots of small bits of evidence to be accumulated and amplified into false knowledge.

Dilbert is making a profound point about the way knowledge is composed from lots of bits of evidence. If much of this evidence is stronger when seen from a distance, and weaker when examined closely, this seems to call the whole body of knowledge into question. (Dilbert doesn't go into the recursive loops of analysis and interpretation, where the evaluation and interpretation of any piece of evidence depends on lots of prior knowledge from elsewhere - on what Bruno Latour calls Black Boxes. But this would add to his argument.)

What Dilbert is rejecting is the theory of repetition, whereby if you repeat something often enough it becomes true, or if you get enough bits of weak evidence from different sources, it becomes strong evidence. This is a theory that is embedded in the way that lots of organizations behave, and in the way that a lot of computer systems produce so-called "business intelligence". Dilbert is all-too-familiar with the ways in which false knowledge can emerge (or should I say evolve?) in complex social settings.

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  1. Turning the tables on unintelligent designers

    Since christian fundies insist on intruding their religion into science, it's fair game for science to inspect the reasonableness of their religious beliefs.

    High school science class discussion:

    Students, today we consider the Virgin Birth of Jesus hypothesis. If no human sperm was involved, Mary conceived Jesus parthenogeically from her haploid egg, which means that Jesus had only haploid chromosomes in his cells, making him sterile.

    Or perhaps the Spirit created a human sperm from nothing to fertilize Mary? But wait a second... it would have had to be around 10 million sperm to be enough; otherwise the egg wouldn't respond.

    In this case, what determined which Divine Sperm made it into the egg? Were all the other Divine Sperm somehow less perfect? To paraphrase Orwell, perhaps all Divine Sperm were equal, but One Sperm was more equal than the others.

    Which of Mary's genes were dominant, and which genes of the Most Equal Divine Sperm were dominant? When the Spirit created all the Divine Sperm, did it first create normal diploid cells, and then allow the process of meiosis to reduce them to the haploid number? If so, just where did this take place?

    Also, we assume that God lives in perpetual joy. At the time of conception, did the Spirit experience a divine form of orgasm? How about Mary? Was she sexually stimulated by the event? I sure hope so; one doesn't conceive the Son of God every day!

    Now let's examine the Resurrection of Jesus.

    The New Testament says he appeared with wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Isn't this rather ghoulish? After several days, bacteria must have been rampent, and he must have given off quite a distinctive odor.

    How about the ascension of Jesus into heaven?

    The New Testament says he rose into heaven. How did he overcome gravity? Was there some propulsion mechanism? Of course, as he went into outer space his body must have exploded in the vacuum. And just where IS heaven?


    Unlike science, christian doctrines cannot withstand HOW questions.

  2. Imposing religion into a science course is as rediculous as imposing reasoan into religion. However, evolution does have its weaknesses. And, perhaps if nothing else, we ought to reexamine our scientific methodology.

  3. You do not need to go to the soft sciences to find many weaknesses in science - hard science is made up of people too, the same people who are happy to believe in virgin births. A scientist may not believe in this particular mystery, but they often believe things that are just as (choose suitable word - unlikely, impossible, lacking in evidence).

    If we go back to Pythagoras, his mathematics had many mysteries as a way of verifying the believers - the more absurd the mystery, the more sure they were disciples.

    Today's science and mathematics also has mysteries which are just as nonsensical to anyone who approaches them logically. These are the proofs that were created to order, or where other equally plausible hypotheses were discarded because they were boring or not thought of.

    If fifty years of scientific endeavour by many thousands of people has been built on a wrong assumption, an assumption that should have been self-evidently false and requiring an attention span of no more than two minutes, it is virtually impossible for people to meekly accept their whole life's work was misconceived.

    With egregious mistakes in the foundations of science and mathematics, who would not want to constrain the people who base their work on them.