When Tommy Lasorda Is Your Star Witness, Your Case Sucks

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One time I was walking around a grim industrial section of the then-grim industrial city of Bratislava, and I stumbled across a farmer's market. Inside, I bought a leek. I was probably hung over and sad, and so I gazed at the leek, on this winter day, and thought to myself "You know, the leek's beautiful simplicity, it's elegant functionality—this, finally, is proof that God exists!"

I swear to Buddha that that insipid thought was smarter than this Washington Post column suggesting that, um, Intelligent Design might be the best explanation we have for … Joe DiMaggio.

NEXT: Oh, Pardon Me

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  1. How long until Tom Davis holds congressional hearings on the teaching of evolution in baseball?

  2. Damn, how completely disappointing to see Sally Jenkins write this. This seems way out of, um, left field for her.

  3. Tangentally off subject, but I just read a piece linked from Boing Boing that ID supporters are buying up run-down roadside dino-parks and turning them into ID propaganda spots.
    I’m taking a road trip soon. I may have to go torch some of these places.

  4. Among the silly things in this column:

    The most serious ID proponents are complexity theorists, legitimate scientists among them, who believe that strict Darwinism and especially neo-Darwinism (the notion that all of our qualities are the product of random mutation) is inadequate to explain the high level of organization at work in the world.

    The notion that there are actually scientists in the world — complexity theorists, or what have you — doing actual research on ID is one of the great swindles of the ID program. The number of Ph.D.-level scientists who are doing any actual sustained thinking along ID lines is tiny — maybe you could count them on one hand. It is not the case that there are a bunch of biologists, chemists, paleontologists and mathematicians out there doing research along ID lines. If there were, maybe we’d have something to talk about.

  5. Open up a copy of “Molecular Biology of the Cell” by Alberts et. al. and it’s impossible to not think, for a moment “No way did this happen by chance!” The machinery of life is beautiful and subtle.

    But then you calm down and see that there’s a fossil record. And while the record is by no means exhaustive, in its own way it paints a picture just as compelling as the majesty of cellular machinery.

    And then you look at radioactive dating. And, believe it or not, the process is more than just plugging an abundance into an equation and taking a logarithm. If a decay process produces a certain type of element, but a chemical process in nature leads to rapid uptake of that element, it might be hard to find the element you’re looking for.

    So you look at the detective work that the geologists have done to piece it all together. And it’s impressive. A monument to human intelligence.

    And then you look at the physics of radioactive decay. And you think really deeply about the physical implications of variable decay rates and what that would say about physics. And you realize eventually that radioactive dating is supported by fundamental principles and logic just as much as by empirical observations. Either one alone is impressive, but when the two are wedded it’s beautiful to behold.

    The more I contemplate and study nature, the more I am impressed by it. Nature is far more robust, subtle, and ultimately beautiful than the creationists and ID crowd give Her credit for.

    And yes, I just referred to Nature as Her with a capital H. Study enough science and you’ll understand why. (Hint: Has nothing to do with going to too many poetry readings.)

  6. Not just God, but the Catholic God must have designed Joltin’ Joe. Why waste the talent on an infidel?

  7. Has sportswriting always sucked and I’ve finally outgrown it, or has it simply diminished in quality like almost every other pop culture endeavor these days?

  8. But who made Hank Greenberg? And which deity will dare claim credit for Ty Cobb?

  9. What the hell “research” could you possibly do on ID? You would, it seems to me, have to prove that a certain structure could not have been created by evolution, and how can you ever do that? That’s not a provable claim. As angry as the ID proponents make me, there is one bright spot: they’re forced to put their claims in quasi-scientific terms. This means that science has already won the debate, in the larger sense.

  10. I was going to say something about this but I think your sometime colleague Radley Balko pretty much sums it up here.

    …Sally Jenkins — possibly the worst major daily sports columnist writing today

    I’d suggest that Jenkins stick to writing about sports, and only sports. But she tends to embarass herself there, too.

    Always nice to see a sports writer attempt to address a non-sports issue only to end up demonstrating why they’re a sports writer (and why so much sports writing is so bad).

  11. ID proponents just love the abiguity that goes with the word “intelligent.” Does it apply to the designer? The designed? Or maybe, just maybe, to the advocate of the ID hypothesis? Answer: whichever it suits them at the time.

    For example, this Schwartz guy “is a believer in ID, or as he prefers to call it, ‘intrinsic intelligence.’ Schwartz wants to launch a study of NASCAR drivers, to better understand their extraordinary focus.” What does an athlete’s ability to focus, “step outside himself,” or whatever mystical crap you want to call it have to do with whether he was designed by an intelligent entity?

    Ditto for “design.” Of course, our bodies have a design (noun form), in the sense that there is a layout of organs and tissues. But once you’ve accepted that, they switch “design” into its verb form, which immediately implies an active entity to produce the design. It’s infuriatingly unsound logic, yet masterful rhetoric.

  12. Read Daniel Dennent’s argument that ID is a hoax.

    http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge166.html

  13. Nature is far more robust, subtle, and ultimately beautiful than the creationists and ID crowd give Her credit for.

    Nature also makes sense when trying to figure out why I must shave every morning. After all, no omnipotent and kind god would create a world where his creations must drag a blade across their face every goddamned morning.

    Nature, on the other hand, is either a flat-out bitch or just doesn’t care.

  14. In a nutshell, here’s the biggest problem with ID:

    We know for a fact that organisms have parents.

    We know for a fact that sexually reproducing organisms different somewhat from their parents.

    We know that natural selection works at least on short time scales (“microevolution”, as the creationists call it), in such examples as antibiotic resistance, pesticide resistance, those moths that changed color in response to air pollution over the centuries, etc.

    So…

    The existence of parents already cuts out a lot of need for designers. Watches have watchmakers (designers), but living things have parents.

    And the presence of natural selection acting on variation further reduces the role for the designer.

    None of this a priori eliminates the possibility of a designer, but it certainly reduces the wiggle room.

    That is the fundamental problem facing ID: There’s very little room for a designer. Machines have designers, but organisms have parents.

  15. Also, there is no such thing as “complexity theory,” at least in the sense used by IDers. It’s just a bunch of people saying “look, fractals! systems aren’t simple! chaos theory!” like that obnoxious character in Jurassic Park.

    Complexity theory is a branch of theoretical computer science, but has nothing to do with the word “complexity” as meant by laymen.

  16. JD writes:

    What the hell “research” could you possibly do on ID? You would, it seems to me, have to prove that a certain structure could not have been created by evolution, and how can you ever do that? That’s not a provable claim.

    I could imagine that you could propose a methodology for detecting the hand of a designer and test it (for example, by showing that applying the methodology reliably identifies genetically engineered organisms). If someone had actually made some kind of proposal like that and had some success with it, then you could imagine that there might actually be something to an ID research program. But no one has done that. The entirety of ID research to date consists of a couple of books and a few essays, which have been meticulously ripped to shreds by other scientists.

    By way of comparison, there are a number of physicists who are convinced that string theory is BS, because it seems kind of ad hoc and non-testable. Whether that skeptical intuition is right or wrong, it can’t be disputed that there are lots of physicists with Ph.Ds actually doing string theory — writing out equations, proposing experiments, commenting on each other’s work, etc. Accordingly, it makes sense to say string theory is science, regardless of whether string theory ultimately turns out to be true.

    The IDers like to pretend that the same is true of ID — that there are all these scientists working on complexity theory issues and genetics — but it isn’t true. No one is actually doing any ID work. It’s sort of an imaginary field of study at this point, like the “Department of Hitler Studies” in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise.

  17. CJP-I thought that spontaneous order was a common theme in the various feilds of study that fit under complexity or chaos theory. In other words, my admittedly lay understanding of complexity theory is that it tends to support, not undermine, the idea of organisms arising from random mutations.

  18. cjp-

    The “complexity theorists” in the physics community have generated a lot of useful tools and ideas. Those tools and ideas are very fruitful when taken into different specialties and applied to actual physical systems. They’ve formulated concepts like fractal dimensions and Lyapunov exponents that are useful for comparing theory and experiment. They’ve reminded us that the general geometry of phase space can matter at least as much as the details of the underlying forces.

    Of course, those tools and ideas are somewhat less fruitful when put forward as a Grand Theory Of Life, The Universe, And Everything.

  19. Has sportswriting always sucked and I’ve finally outgrown it, or has it simply diminished in quality like almost every other pop culture endeavor these days?

    I think it’s the latter. It didn’t always suck, and not all of it still does. I’d say Frank DeFord is the only one left who still does real writing.

    Even some of the other so-called “greats” like the insufferably sanctimonious Rick Reilly are nothing more than cut and paste hacks, mimicking the screeching anti-TO, anti-Randy Moss, anti-Barry Bonds, anti-Ray Lewis, anti-Rafael Palmeiro, thinly-veiled racism that passes for sports-shriekery these days.

  20. Here’s a quick thumbnail of something I’ve been thinking about:

    Let’s imagine that Joe DiMaggio is the end result of an intelligently designed process, intended to create him.

    Such a statement necessarily eleminates the possibility of free will for any individual who existed prior to his birth–how else could the intelligent designer have been certain that Joe DiMaggio would exist?

    And not only does it seem to disallow free will, such a design would preclude any kind of moral responsibility whatsoever, because it would have been truly impossible for anyone to do anything differently–or else God’s plan would go awry.

    What’s more, intelligent design, to my mind, requires a perfectly determined universe from the moment of its origin. But, empirically, we know that the world is not perfectly determined.

    It would seem to be implied, then, that intelligent design is an impossibility, or, if our empirical knowledge of the indeterminancy of the world proves to be incorrect, then intelligent design implies a lack of culpability for everyone who existed before the moment that the designer was working toward came to pass.

    I don’t think this is the most useful refutation of the ID cult–indeed, modern biology already serves the purpose of refutation–but with the religious people, it helps to point out how some of their own poorly formed ideas undermine others.

  21. By way of comparison, there are a number of physicists who are convinced that string theory is BS, because it seems kind of ad hoc and non-testable. Whether that skeptical intuition is right or wrong, it can’t be disputed that there are lots of physicists with Ph.Ds actually doing string theory — writing out equations, proposing experiments, commenting on each other’s work, etc. Accordingly, it makes sense to say string theory is science, regardless of whether string theory ultimately turns out to be true.

    String theory is not a science yet. But they have a very straight-forward program for making it into a science. They’re analyzing different versions of their theory to see if any of those versions make predictions that we can currently test. They’re trying to make sure their theory doesn’t predict anything that contradicts currently validated measurements. Basically, they’re trying to calculate something. And if the answer they get is something we can test then it will be science.

    If, however, a thorough mathematical analysis concludes that string theory’s features cannot be elucidated except on impossible energy scales (don’t hold your breath for Planck-energy colliders), then they will be tossed aside.

    Basically, they’re playing by the rules of science.

    The ID crowd isn’t. They just say “Look, gaps! And things that we can’t figure out! And things that seem really, really improbable! So there’s a controversy here!”

  22. TJ,
    If you read the article you realize, quickly, that this is not a coherent argument. Presuming to take it somewhat seriously, I think you would have to presume that Joe DiMaggio’s DNA was de nova created there, or that God somehow waited until the right two people mated and then picked the best DNA from them, or that Joe’s development was assisted by God (a clone of him would produce a person without his physical gifts), etc.
    Think of what a cruel God it would be that would create someone for the purpose of playing baseball really well, rather than giving that person a happy life.

  23. How odd. Just this morning I was boggled at finding out that my ICR PHD molecular biologist brother-in-law’s recent project was acting as the business manager for a creationist tour of the Galapagos islands.
    Zippy, I’m sure that jibes pretty well with the overtaking of roadside attractions. The biggest problem with these people seems to be that they truly have nothing better to do than try to figure out new ways to try and undercut the teaching of evolution whereas most scientists would rather spend their time doing something constructive. They will win occasionally just by being so damned tenacious.

  24. I could imagine that you could propose a methodology for detecting the hand of a designer and test it (for example, by showing that applying the methodology reliably identifies genetically engineered organisms).

    I think it is enough to recognize that life by its manifestly poorly designed exemplars indicates that nothing was designed with foresight but rather is an ad hoc assemblage of oftentimes less-than-maximal traits and behaviors that is entirely responsive to the conditions of the past.

    A better challenge for a member of the ID crowd to take up would be, how can I make a prediction based on my theology that helps us understand the behaviors of organisms?

    Take this for an example of an ad hoc system that could function better if it had been designed by some intelligent being: incest avoidance. Incest is bad, in a biological sense. Organisms avoid it, but the method they use is typically crude–many mammals, for example, won’t breed with another mammal that was raised in the same den, because the smell of their denmates has been marked as off-limits for mating. But that selected method of inbreeding avoidance is ineffectual in some circumstances (in “twins separated at birth” sorts of circumstances), and in small populations, where the chance of breeding with your cousin who is also your uncle who is also your half brother become pretty high. Small populations quickly become inbred and suffer as a result.

    If an intelligent designer existed, then why wouldn’t God have designed an intrinsic, rather than learned, method for the avoidance of incest? So that, confronted with such another, highly related organism, one would at least find the organism to mate with that smelled least bad (or triggered whatever sort of response that was least offensive). Certainly it would be more effective if some such system existed–maybe if sleeping with someone who shared 75% of your genes caused a severe burning sensation in ones groin, whereas someone who shared only 10% of your genes caused a far less severe one, then the choice would be clear, and inbreeding (or the most severe inbreeding, anyway) avoided. But, instead, no such situation exists, and close inbreeding wreaks its terrible havoc.

  25. Regarding “complexity theory”: there may be something to it in physics (not my area), but the IDers are latching onto that title to sound intelligent (there’s that word again), while making arguments from “irreducible complexity” and the like.

    Number 6 is probably right that real complexity theory would tend to bolster, rather than undercut, the idea that random mutation + natural selection = very complicated-looking organisms.

  26. the Coach,

    Every argument the ID crowd makes is absurd, but sometimes it helps to drag them out to absurd conclusions to better demonstrate that. And frankly as far as the nature of God goes, if he does exist, he has already demonstrated himself to be capricious and cruel; creating someone solely to play baseball well would only be one among many crimes.

  27. cjp-

    I think you are more or less right about complexity theory: It was fading when I got into research 10 years ago as an undergrad, but they still publish enough popular books that I got a feel for the flavor: “Look, patterns! Complicated stuff! Things that depend sensitively on initial conditions! We’re changing the world!”

    They didn’t really change the world, of course. They provided important tools and idea and Good Things To Keep In Mind. They transformed Classical Mechanics from a beautiful theory of the 19th century into a newly active area of research, by providing geometric insights that rival the variational principles in importance. Their ideas have deepened my understanding of phase transitions (what little understanding I have). Fractal dimensions and Lyapunov exponents are quantities that some theories can predict and some experiments can measure, providing ways to test theories.

    But the “Look! A fractal! How deep!” approach has faded in the last 10 years.

  28. Matt,

    I don’t know whether its revisionism or what, but the AP today reports that there’s a sliver of hope Cobb was not every bit the hateful spike-sharpening prick he was made out to be. If it’s true, he was just a real asshole.

    “I hate Tommy LaSorda.”
    –Chevy Chase, “Fletch”

  29. cjp-

    I think you are more or less right about complexity theory: It was fading when I got into research 10 years ago as an undergrad, but they still publish enough popular books that I got a feel for the flavor: “Look, patterns! Complicated stuff! Things that depend sensitively on initial conditions! We’re changing the world!”

    They didn’t really change the world, of course. They provided important tools and idea and Good Things To Keep In Mind. They transformed Classical Mechanics from a beautiful theory of the 19th century into a newly active area of research, by providing geometric insights that rival the variational principles in importance. Their ideas have deepened my understanding of phase transitions (what little understanding I have). Fractal dimensions and Lyapunov exponents are quantities that some theories can predict and some experiments can measure, providing ways to test theories.

    But the “Look! A fractal! How deep!” approach has faded in the last 10 years

  30. Clearly, the ID crowd is trying to uncover the secret designer who makes the secret designs.
    ———————————————-

    Good sportswriting is another victim of ESPN. Good writers get noticed, then moved to radio, then moved to television where they’re stuck yelling inane tag lines for the rest of their now-well-paying career. These days, being good isn’t required. Being noticed is paramount. To be fair, I like ESPN, but I also like actual analysis of actual sports.
    ———————————————–

    Does anyone know how large the ID crowd really is? On the one hand, I feel like they’re small and just make a lot of noise. On the other hand, they seem to actually get some things accomplished which is scary.

  31. Sorry for the double post.

  32. Stretch-

    I don’t know how large the ID crowd really is, but if powerful people find it useful to pay lip service to them, that has to mean something.

  33. thoreau writes:

    String theory is not a science yet. But they have a very straight-forward program for making it into a science. They’re analyzing different versions of their theory to see if any of those versions make predictions that we can currently test.

    I’m not sure that’s a useful definition of science. Would you object to a public high school physics teacher spending a day talking about string theory because it’s not science yet?

    To step back a bit, I see ID proponents as asking, “If we had a bunch of people doing ID-type scientific research, why couldn’t that be science that gets taught in schools?” That question has an empirical premise (whether there are actually people doing ID-type research) and a philosophical component (could ID be science?). I tend to agree with the philosophical answers to that question (no, ID couldn’t ever be science, and here’s why) but I am more confident that the empirical premise is wrong. There simply aren’t a lot of Ph.Ds or similarly trained scientists out there doing ID-type research. There is not an archive of papers on the web explaining what ID researchers are up to. There are a couple of long-since-demolished books and essays and ten tons of propaganda, the end.

  34. Would you object to a public high school physics teacher spending a day talking about string theory because it’s not science yet?

    Good point.

    I need to think more carefully about how to systematically describe the difference between ID and string theory. In some sense neither one is currently science since neither one has reached a practically testable stage. I guess I would say that string theory is at least testable in theory, if not yet in practice. String theory has made predictions that aren’t testable with current technology, but at least we know there’s a way to do it.

    With ID it’s not really clear how to test it without a time machine. (Some would say the same of evolution, but at least with evolution you can look for convergence in the fossil record as new specimens are unearthed, and see if the fossil record is consistent with genetic comparisons of different organisms.)

    I guess I’d say that speculative extensions of well-supported theories are OK if those speculative extensions are at least making progress toward practical testability. Speculations that don’t derive from any tested theory and don’t have any clear means of testing (even in principle) should not be in science class.

  35. Zippy, you can’t torch the dino where they shot Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure! (“Everybody’s got a big But.”) That would be the true sacrilege.

  36. On the question of how big the “ID crowd” is, I would guess it is quite substantial. Most surveys of the rates of belief in other pseudo scientific nonsense (horoscope reliability, talking with the spirits of dead people, telekinesis, etc.) usually get more than 40% belief rates. I don’t see any reason the ID crowd would be smaller. Even though we have more scientists alive now than ever before, they are still a small percentage of the population. Also, for the most part, they don’t tell stories that are interesting to the majority of people. As long as science has a reputation of being helpful to keeping people alive or making their lives better, any group will use something that sounds close to science to be more readily believed.

  37. ID has already had an adverse impact on American science, and no doubt will do more damage before its run is through.. but to be honest, I am personally delighted to see the fundies pour so much time and energy (and money) into a perfect dead-end. When you strip away the fluff, ID is just a new name for the old “god-of-the-gaps” argument, which periodically recurs, gets shot apart and then disappears for a couple of decades.

  38. The ID crowd isn’t. They just say “Look, gaps! And things that we can’t figure out! And things that seem really, really improbable! So there’s a controversy here!”

    Thoreau,

    Isn’t that the story of superstition and religion in the first place?

  39. You beat me to it, Peachy.

  40. Most surveys of the rates of belief in other pseudo scientific nonsense…usually get more than 40% belief rates.

    Indeed. I’m sometimes not sure that of all the nonsense that is widely believed creationism is not one of the most innocuous.

    However, I got the impression that thoreau was referring to legitimate (for want of a better word) scholars involved in ID “research”. For the most part they appear to be fundamentalist christian types* trying to get Genesis in the back door.

    *One exception is a catholic I heard about. I find this strange since the Pope has given the church’s blessing to Natural Selection, although it is implied that God had some hand in creation. To the extent that I understand catholicism God’s existence and hand in creation is a mystery which requires no proof but is to be accepted on faith alone.

  41. …but is to be accepted on faith alone.

    And therefore can be considered independently of one’s experiences and observations in this world.

    Quakers generally have the same advantage since to extent that they have any connection with God it tends to be a mystical trancendental experience.

  42. All I can ask of the ID crowd is why. Random permutations allows for a series of dice rolls where eventually a twelve comes up. In the ID world begs the question of a reason for the design. In the original intelligent design theory the purpose was because someone didn’t like the answer 42 but that was lost somewhere in the neo-ID theory. Oh wait, where did that back door come from?

  43. Let us read from the fifth book in the trilogy of the Gospel of Adams. Please turn to the story of the “Whole Sort of General Mish Mash.”

    “Very little of this is, however, at all comprehensible to anyone below the level of Advanced God…”

  44. Jobs with high prestige and high pay are sought after by many. Would not a group of successful drivers and elite athletes be examples of “natural selection” and “the survival of the fittest”?
    You need Intelligent Design to explain the existence of us ordinary folks.

  45. Most surveys of the rates of belief in other pseudo scientific nonsense (horoscope reliability, talking with the spirits of dead people, telekinesis, etc.) usually get more than 40% belief rates.

    Hmmm. Maybe we need to combat ID with a little judo. If science classes are forced to teach ID as an “alternative theory” to evolution, then perhaps we should also be teaching astrology, crystals, ley lines, crop circles, UFO abductions, feng shui, and the rest. All are alternatives to empirical science. All can claim to have PhDs involved in “research”. In short, once the door is open for one dodgy idea, the door is open for all dodgy ideas.

    It’s true that real science would lose even more class time to the other pseudosciences, but when Li’l Pat and Li’l Jerry come visit their grandpas, there’s a chance that grandpa will hear all about Uri Gellar’s neat trick with spoons AND Charlie Darwin’s finches AND the 6000-year-old earth. Won’t that be a fine how-do-you-do when Li’l Pat asks grandpa why Jesus never bent spoons?

    Be careful what you wish for, ID proponents. Someday your churches may be designed with feng shui principles. If only Pat and Jerry would live long enough to see that fruit of their labor…

  46. Radioactive dating, fossil record, practical testability, objective scrutiny, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

    You heathens will be singing a different tune when I go all Old Testament on your sorry asses. The gays and the hedonists in the south got a little taste.. I’m getting the next savory dish ready FOR YOU with some extra special sauce.

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