Michael Behe Gets His Ass Handed to Him

Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University, and one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has been on the witness stand in the Dover ID trial. And it looks as though he had his ass handed to him.

The York Daily Record writes:

In his writings supporting intelligent design, Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemistry professor and author of “Darwin’s Black Box,” said that “intelligent design theory focuses exclusively on proposed mechanisms of how complex biological structures arose.”

But during cross examination Tuesday, when plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Rothschild asked Behe to identify those mechanisms, he couldn’t.

I think what this really boils down to is “ID is the answer, but only if you ask the question in a very specific manner”, and the lawyer isn’t playing along and asking the correct questions.


I had actually expected Behe to do better than this. He’s the sanest of the big ID proponents, and the one most likely to convince a jury that ID really is science. Maybe he ate his brain when he got tenure, because from the excerpt above, it really looks to me as if he’s spent so long squinting at gaps in evolution that he’s managed to convince himself that there’s some there, there.

New Scientist is less kind in its description of how Behe tried to redefine “theory”:

Rothschild told the court that the US National Academy of Sciences supplies a definition for what constitutes a scientific theory: “Theory: In science, a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.”

[...]
Behe said he had come up with his own “broader” definition of a theory, claiming that this more accurately describes the way theories are actually used by scientists. “The word is used a lot more loosely than the NAS defined it,” he says.
[...]

Rothschild suggested that Behe’s definition was so loose that astrology would come under this definition as well. He also pointed out that Behe’s definition of theory was almost identical to the NAS’s definition of a hypothesis. Behe agreed with both assertions.

The exchange prompted laughter from the court, which was packed with local members of the public and the school board.

Yes, I know, they laughed at Galileo. But they also laughed at Bozo the clown.

I don’t know what would lead Behe to be made a fool of in public this way. It’s possible that he’s not familiar with courtroom proceedings and was tricked into saying something that looked bad for his side. But I doubt that. From what I’ve read, it looks more as if he’s been soaking in ID for so long that he doesn’t even realize how ridiculous it is if you take a critical look at it.

Finally, Mike Argento at the York Daily Record has some mordant observations:

After a while, he [Behe] set into a pattern.

He’d say critics of his idea always misunderstand him, take things out of context and misrepresent what he means.

And then, to respond to them, he misunderstood what they said, took their words out of context and misrepresented what they said.

He’d expound at great length and then, as he would wind down, he’d say, “Now, here’s the point …”

And whatever his point was would be wrapped in so much verbiage you needed a backhoe to get to it.

In other words, if you can’t dazzle them with science, baffle them with bullshit. After all, if he wears a neat suit and tie, and has letters after his name, and uses all manner of fancy words, he must be right, mustn’t he?

At one point during Rothschild’s cross-examination, the lawyer asked the scientist whether he was co-authoring a book, a follow-up to “Of Pandas and People,” with several other intelligent [design mullahs]. He said he wasn’t.

The lawyer showed him depositions and reports to the court, quoting two of the other authors as saying he was a co-author.

Behe said that he wasn’t a co-author of the book but that the statements by those guys weren’t false. He said one of the authors was “seeing into the future.”

If this is the best the ID side can do, then the question is not whether the creationists will lose in Dover, but how badly. I don’t think they have any other scientists on their side. If Behe can’t convince the jury that ID is science — and after admitting that ID is on a par with astrology, and that it doesn’t even qualify as a theory, how could he? — then I doubt any of the other witnesses will.

It’s still possible that the jury will fall for Behe’s bullshit, or that the creationists’ lawyer will pull a Jedi mind trick. But in the meantime, I can’t help grinning with schadenfreude.

For some reason, it would appear that William Dembski has nothing to say. Odd, that.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2005: apparently this is not a jury trial, so Behe only needs to convince the judge. But from the reports and transcripts I’ve read so far, that doesn’t seem likely.

14 thoughts on “Michael Behe Gets His Ass Handed to Him”

  1. This is the guy who thinks the discovery of Intelligent Design “rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur and Darwin”. Calling him “the sanest of the big ID proponents” is clearly not high praise.

  2. Oh, well then maybe Dembski, the Isaac Newton of Information Science, will do better. And isn’t Charlie Wagner smarter than Richard Feynman?

  3. I recognize that there are challenges to Intelligent Design thinking. However, the distortion in reporting events, such as Behe’s testimony at the Dover PA trial, does nothing but muddy the issues of the debate. I have read much of the court transcripts and court decision for the Dover trial–which are available to read online. To summarize: An attorney asked Behe about a deposition that was previously completed. In the context of the discussion, Behe explained that there have been many, many scientific theories that have now been discarded as incorrect. Some discarded theories mentioned were the ether theory and geocentrism. Behe also said that in the 1500′s that astrology was acceptable to science. From the context it is clear that he considered it as thinking that had been discarded a long time ago. It irritates me to see people twisting what was actually said.

    For those interested in reading the transcripts and the court decision for themselves, go to:
    http://www.toarchive.org/faqs/dover/kitzmiller_v_dover.html

    I have read quite a bit on Creation/Id/Evolution issues. The wide variety of areas studied by science make it difficult to have one definition of science that covers everything. If you read the Dover, PA court decision (Kitzmiller vs. Dover, 2005), there does appear to be certain definitions that the courts have tended to accept and the Dover decision does discuss that to accept certain ideas as scientific, some of the accepted definitions–I assume as far as the court is concerned, I am not an attorney, would need to be broadened. (Again, to read for yourself, see the above mentioned website.)

    The Public Broadcasting System has also done a program documentary, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” that interviews some of the people involved in the Dover trial and does a dramatization of some of the court proceedings. It is an interesting program; even though the program is highly slanted in favor of the evolutionists. To view this program go to: pbs.org/nova and search the archives. If you are interested in additional viewpoints, I would also recommend many of the answersingenesis.org articles.

    Last of all, I would like comment that one time I was “raked over the coals” by a person accused me and people like me of being the reason for Bruno being burned at the stake. As I understand it, Bruno was burned at the stake in the middle ages because of his pantheistic views of God. He was also a mystic and used astrology. Such proponents of evolution that believe Bruno was some kind of scientist, can’t have it both ways. If Bruno was into astrology and astrology is no science–then Bruno was no scientist. Therefore, Behe shouldn’t be kicked in the teeth for saying that astrology might have once been considered a science and only, at best, would consider it a long ago discarded theory.

    (Edited to fix link. — arensb)

  4. Carol H:

    To a certain extent, you’re right: the widely-reported sound bite about Behe saying that ID is as scientific as astrology omits a lot of the qualifiers and hemming and hawing that he added. If you want to argue that ID is currently at the state that astrology was before we knew enough to dismiss it, then fine.

    But bear in mind that this was said at a trial about creationists pushing ID in secondary school. Normally, at this level, students are taught well-established science, not frige hypotheses. Normally, new theories start out as wild ideas in someone’s head; as they are tested, and more evidence piles up in their favor, more and more scientists become convinced by the evidence, until it becomes widely accepted (someone should adapt the song “I’m Just A Bill” for this). When that happens, the new ideas percolate down into college textbooks, then public school textbooks.

    The problem is that creationists have lost in the science arena, and are trying to do an end-run around that and go directly to the schools.

    Another problem is that the term “Intelligent Design” was coined in 1987. ID proponents have had over 20 years to come up with some evidence for their idea, but they’ve got bupkis. Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box came out in 1996, but as far as I can tell, in the 13 years since then he hasn’t built on top of that.

    In the sidebar, I have a link to a list of Frequently Asked But Never Answered Questions about ID. I think they’re all fair, and questions that I’d ask of any scientific hypothesis, especially one that’s been around for decades. Care to take a shot at any of them?

    For that matter, poke around the IDosphere and see how often new results in ID research are reported (as opposed to research results that make it look like evolution isn’t true, or general evolution-bashing, or political activism or the like).

    In short, yes, it’s true that the “ID == astrology” sound bite could have been reported better. But the fact remains that IDC isn’t science, so it shouldn’t be taught in science class.

  5. For some reason when I posted my first comment, the URL address didn’t come through quite right. There should be an underscore after the name kitzmiller, then the letter v, then another underscore, then dover.html Otherwise if you try to go to the transcripts page without that in the address, you will receive a page not found message.
    http://www.toarchive.org/faqs/dover/kitzmiller_v_dover.html

    I agree that there are problems with ID. Even though I consider my beliefs to be in the camp of “young earth creationism,” I think many people in the creationist camp have some of the same concerns about ID that evolutionists do–even if ID somewhat grew out of creationist ideas. ID also accepts some “natural processes” and common ancestry ideas that evolutionists do. So, I see ID as being, in a number of ways, as an attempt to “straddle the fence.” I’m sure that’s why Barbara Forrest named her book, “Creationism’s Trojan Horse.”

    In the Kitzmiller vs. Dover decision in 2005, the judge wrote a massive 139 page opinion that carefully explains past court decisions, some of the rules the court goes by, and a summary of evidence that was presented. If find it shocking and disgraceful that the judge received death threats because of the ruling that he made.

    In this decision, the court found that, “. . .compelling evidence strongly supports Plaintiffs’ assertion that ID is creationism re-labeled (pg. 33, para. 2).” Also, “Further evidence in support of the conclusion . . .that ID is a form of creationism concerns the fact that ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism (end of pg. 33 & para. 1 of pg. 34) .” Then on page 68 of the decision, “. . .defense expert Professor Minnich acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces.”

    A case in the court decision was also presented which stated that “their [defendant's] argument for ID [is] based on the ‘purposeful arrangement of parts” [which] is the same one that Paley made for design (end of pg. 24, top of page 25)”–in other words, a religious argument. The Paley referred to is Dr. William Paley (born in the late 1700′s and lived into the early 1800′s) who wrote a famous book entitled, “Natural Theology,” which used design arguments.

    I see the Evolution vs. Creationist and ID controversies as a clash between major world views. As you seem to be aware, many scientists subscribe to the methodological naturalism or the “scientific method” point of view as stated by Barbara Forrest in the Dover trial. In a nutshell, methodological naturalism demands that all science be explained in natural terms–for example, exclusion of intelligent designers, God, etc. from any scientific explanation. Others have tried to counter this thinking by using examples such as that if we wanted to do a scientific study cars and we had no proof of certain cars coming from a factory, should we then assume that cars evolved over millions of years? Or ones that have said, could we build a case that a unicycle actually evolved into an 18-wheeled truck? (some of these in answersingenesis.org articles).

    Also, there seems to be a battle for the definition of science. The Kitzmiller vs. Dover, 2005 case on page 30 states, “Turning from defense expert witnesses to leading ID proponents, Johnson has concluded that science must be redefined to include the supernatural if religious challenges to evolution are to get a hearing. (11:8-15 (Forrest); P-429). Additionally, Dembski agrees that science is ruled by methodological naturalism and argues that this rule must be overturned if ID is to prosper. (Trial Tr. vol. 5, Pennock Test., 32-34, Sept. 28, 2005).”

    Volumes could be written and have been written on these ideas. ID has not won their case. Yet I do not see evolution as being as clearly established as some of have us believe. In other words, many who use methodological naturalism or the “scientific method” are not as unbiased and objective as some would have us believe. One case in point, out of many that could be given, is regarding “Tiktaalik”–a proposed missing link. Tiktaalik was also shown on the PBS/Nova program “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial” (pbs.org/nova).

    One article I read also states, “In their review article on Tiktaalik, Ahlberg and Clack tell us that “the concept of ‘missing links’ has a powerful grasp on the imagination: the rare transitional fossils that apparently capture the origins of major groups of organisms are uniquely evocative.” The authors concede that the whole concept of “missing links” has been loaded with ‘unfounded notions of evolutionary ‘progress’ and with a mistaken emphasis on the single intermediate fossil as the key to understanding evolutionary transition (http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/aid/v2/n1/tiktaalik-fishy-fish).

    I’m sure you are aware of the errors of the past. Missing links that turned out not to be missing links after they were found to be still living. Extinct animals that were discovered to be alive. A number of years ago, Steven J. Gould even wrote an article entitled, “Bully for Brontosaurus,” which tried to explain how the fossil head of a certain type of animal could accidentally be put on the wrong fossil body by a scientist.

    I researched this quite a bit, but I don’t claim to have all of the answers. What is your opinion regarding these things?

    (Edited to fix link. — arensb)

  6. Carol H:

    I consider my beliefs to be in the camp of “young earth creationism,”

    There’s one of your big problems right there. Young-earth creationism is as wrong as it’s possible to be. Seriously. It’s so wrong, it’s not even funny. There’s no evidence to support it, it contradicts several major fields of science, and it’s even considered by many to be bad theology (in that it makes God into a liar).

    In this decision, the court found that

    I’ve listed some of my favorite bits here and here.

    I see the Evolution vs. Creationist and ID controversies as a clash between major world views. As you seem to be aware, many scientists subscribe to the methodological naturalism or the “scientific method” point of view as stated by Barbara Forrest in the Dover trial. In a nutshell, methodological naturalism demands that all science be explained in natural terms–for example, exclusion of intelligent designers, God, etc. from any scientific explanation.

    The “conflict of worldviews” argument is an old one. It makes it sound as though both evolution and creationism are equally valid, and which one you choose is pretty much a matter of personal preference.

    People like AIG also like to say that both evolutionists and creationists look at all the same evidence, we just interpret it differently. The problem with this claim is that it isn’t true. Creationists don’t look at all the evidence. They pick and choose examples of radiometric dating that can be quote-mined to give absurd results (like claiming that lava from Mt. St. Helens was dated as being millions of years old, omitting the fact that the parts that were so dated were actually inclusions — older, unmelted rocks that were thrown up by the eruption), while ignoring the many cases where they give correct results. Or the fact that chimpanzees and humans are two of only three species of mammal that can’t manufacture their own vitamin C — and that the gene for making vitamin C is broken in exactly the same way in both species. Or the telomere and centromere remnants in human chromosome 2, which provides powerful evidence that it’s a fusion of chimpanzee chromosomes 2a and 2b. Or spectral analysis of supernova SN1987A, which shows that cesium decayed at exactly the same rate 230,000 years ago as it does today. Or… but I could go on all day.

    The fact is that to be a YEC, you have to ignore or dismiss vast amounts of evidence. You have to basically say, “this piece of information contradicts the conclusions that I’ve already come to, therefore I’ll pretend it doesn’t exist.”

    And that’s the other problem with the “conflict of worldviews” argument: when someone says, for instance, that humans and chimpanzees come from the same ancestral population, they’re not expressing a preference, like saying “vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate”; they’re making a statement of fact. It’s either true or it’s false. If one person says humans are related to chimps and the other disagrees, they can’t both be right.

    The scientific way of resolving these sorts of questions is quite simple: go take a look. If one source tells you that water boils at 95°C and another says that water boils at 100°C, the best way to figure out who’s right is to go look: stick a thermometer in a pot of water, put it on the stove, and see what the temperature of boiling water is. If someone tells you that men and women have different numbers of ribs, you can run your finger along your side and count how many you have. (Of course, with a lot of things, especially in the historical science, it’s not so easy to just go and take a look. But if you watch CSI, then you know that it’s possible to figure out what went on in the past by looking at clues in the present.)

    Which brings me to why the scientific method excludes supernatural explanations: they don’t work. This is not an a priori presupposition, it’s a conclusion from hundreds of years of research. Time after time, supernatural explanations have been found to not work as well as natural explanations. It was once thought that angels pushed the planets around in their orbits; we’ve sent probes to other planets, and not a single angel has been found. Oh, and those probes that successfully got to other planets? They were designed and piloted using a 100% angel-free idea of how gravity works. It was once thought that extinction was impossible, because God wouldn’t allow any of his creation to die out. You can ask the WWF how true that is. A lot of people think that intercessory prayer works. But every time a proper experiment is conducted, that eliminates as many known sources of error as possible, the effect goes away: prayer has no effect.

    You may have heard of James Randi’s million-dollar challenge: if you can demonstrate a psychic, paranormal, miraculous effect under laboratory conditions, he’ll give you a million bucks. The offer has been around since 1968, and no one has collected. In fact, no one has passed the preliminary test to proceed to the formal test.

    In short, it’s not that scientists one day decided, just for giggles, that they weren’t going to look at anything paranormal. Rather, supernatural explanations don’t produce results. They don’t work. In centuries of investigation, they have never worked. If you try something a thousand times in a thousand different ways and it always fails, at some point you conclude that it just plain doesn’t work.

    Now, I don’t think you’re stupid. Nor do I think you’re dishonest, or insincere. If I did, I would’ve dismissed you with a one-liner. But I do think you’ve been misled by the likes of Answers in Genesis, who are either liars or as misguided as you are.

    In the other thread, I recommended some books to read (and I see you’ve already read Bully for Brontosaurus). To that, I’d like to add the January 2003 Post of the Month from talk.origins, because I suspect that you and she have a lot in common, and because it’s a touching story.

  7. I said a lot in my last post. Perhaps it wasn’t clear that I had “a priori presuppositions” in mind since I didn’t specifically mention that. I don’t see the views as being equally valid or relative–to just pick and choose. The issues should be examined. As I am sure you are aware there is a philosophy of science as well as a philosophy of a number of other things; we all have a priori presuppositions–including me. As I tried to say before, I don’t believe the scientific method is as error-free or objective as many would like people to think–I suppose because of the human factor–a priori presuppositions can have a heavy influence.

    These are issues that I am very interested in and will continue to read. I will check your lists of reading recommendations.

  8. Carol H said:

    I don’t believe the scientific method is as error-free or objective as many would like people to think

    This strikes me as a curious statement to make; what biases do you believe exist in the scientific method, and can you explain in what way they might invalidate the process?

  9. Quote of what Fez said, “This strikes me as a curious statement to make; what biases do you believe exist in the scientific method, and can you explain in what way they might invalidate the process?”

    I thought that I had made it clear what I was saying from the sentences immediately preceding this statement. Nevertheless, I could have made this sentence more clear: “I don’t believe the scientific method is as error-free or objective as many would like people to think.”

    It would have been more clear if I would have written, Because of the human factor–such as human a priori presuppositions or errors in reasoning or logic, I don’t believe the scientific method is as error-free or objective as many would like people to think. The scientific method process itself, as I understand it, would seem fairly straightforward.

    One interesting book that I have read recently examines the faulty use of reasoning used by a number of BOTH Creationists and Evolutionists. This author also states, ““. . .There is no rote method or mechanical procedure for discovering new truths in science either. If there were, scientific breakthrough would not require the creative activity of human beings. But perhaps most seriously, if one begins with empirical data (“observed facts”) and then “systematically classifies” them and “more or less colligates” them by generalizing from them (“brings them under general laws”), one will never get beyond mere empirical generalizations to theoretical principals or explanatory theories. Going from the empirical to underlying theoretical explanations requires a leap of human creativity. There is no purely logical or mechanical procedure for making the jump, and classifying and colligating or generalizing empirical data is simply inadequate to the task.” (page 137)

    The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (1997)
    Del Ratzsch (PhD, University of Massachusetts), Professor of Philosophy
    Calvin College

    Do you have any comments regarding this author’s quote–what are the strong points of this statement and/or errors that you might think that this statement has?

  10. Carol H:
    (Just so you know: your comment got dropped into the moderation bucket by my spam filter, which means your next one might drop into the spam bucket. I’m not entirely sure how the spam filter makes its decisions or how to control it. So don’t freak out if a comment of yours doesn’t appear.)

    Because of the human factor–such as human a priori presuppositions or errors in reasoning or logic, I don’t believe the scientific method is as error-free or objective as many would like people to think. The scientific method process itself, as I understand it, would seem fairly straightforward.

    I think you may be confusing scientists with the scientific process. Yes, scientists are human, they have biases, preconceptions, blind spots, prejudices, and so forth. But the scientific method is designed to weed out as many of those as possible. I’ve written about this before.

    Obviously, since science is done by imperfect humans, it doesn’t always proceed smoothly. But it’s still the best tool we have for telling truth from fantasy, in part because it encourages you to ask, “what sorts of errors could I have made in getting this result? How do I know I haven’t made those errors?”

    There is no rote method or mechanical procedure for discovering new truths in science either.

    It sounds like you (or Ratzsch) are making an argument of the form “computers will never be able to do X”. If so, you should know that this argument has a very poor track record: it was said that computers would never play chess. Now they do. Then it was said that computers would never beat a human grand master. This has happened. I bet people once said that computers would never recognize a face (they can), or recognize emotions (they can), or pick stocks (hoo-boy, do they).

    What about making and testing scientific hypotheses?:

    In a laboratory at Aberystwyth University, Wales, a scientist called Adam is doing some experiments. He is trying to find the genes responsible for producing some important enzymes in yeast, and he is going about it in a very familiar way. Based on existing knowledge, Adam is coming up with new hypotheses and designing experiments to test them. He carries them out, records and evaluates the results, and comes up with new questions. All of this is part and parcel of a typical scientist’s life but there is one important difference that sets Adam apart – he’s a robot.

    But more importantly, it doesn’t matter where ideas in science come from. Heck, Friedrich Kékulé said that he came up with the shape of the benzene molecule after he had a dream about a snake eating its tail.

    Ideas can come from anywhere. What matters is that there’s a method for figuring out which ideas are good (i.e., that they describe the world accurately) and which ones aren’t.

    Science has built up a culture in which there’s a way to tell correct ideas from incorrect ones, a huge catalog of Ways To Be Wrong, and methods of getting around them. And it has a far, far better track record than any other method of seeking truth.

  11. Carol H,

    I thought that I had made it clear what I was saying from the sentences immediately preceding this statement.

    Well no, which is why I asked, but arensb responded making the same point I would have; the process is not the actors.

    Do you have any comments regarding this author’s quote–

    As a matter of fact:

    perhaps most seriously, if one begins with empirical data (”observed facts”) and then “systematically classifies” them and “more or less colligates” them by generalizing from them (”brings them under general laws”), one will never get beyond mere empirical generalizations to theoretical principals or explanatory theories. Going from the empirical to underlying theoretical explanations requires a leap of human creativity. There is no purely logical or mechanical procedure for making the jump, and classifying and colligating or generalizing empirical data is simply inadequate to the task.

    – Del Ratzsch

    I don’t have this book at hand so I don’t know if the surrounding context is of import or not but I’ll accept that you are proposing this section in good faith.

    I’ll accept that Ratzsch is correct in his statement; if one:
    1) begins with observed facts, then
    2) systematically classifies them, then
    3) presupposes their conclusion by bringing them under general laws,

    one will never acquire new knowledge. Ratzsch goes on to backhandedly make the same point…but what he put forth isn’t the scientific method. If one misses or willfully ignores the facts a consistent logical framework can be constructed, but it’s useless because it based on an error. The ego can be a real bastard like that sometimes.

    That’s not to say there’s not value in observing/measuring, classification, and attempting to build a logical structure to bring the observations under general physical laws. For example when I was in secondary school I was taught there were 5 fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electric, magnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Now there are four; electric and magnetic have been unified.

    Why is this relevant? Because repeated observation by numerous different parties with superior tools resulted in a proposition that a) better fit the observational data and b) has successfully passed all properly designed experiments designed to prove it wrong. That was the scientific method which, when properly applied, is self-correcting including subtracting biases knowingly or subconsciously introduced.

  12. Fez:

    when I was in secondary school I was taught there were 5 fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electric, magnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. Now there are four; electric and magnetic have been unified.

    Make it three, now: the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force have been unified.

  13. Above, I mentioned science’s catalog of Ways To Be Wrong. Peter Norvig has a list of some of them here.

    Also, this talk by Richard Feynman has some good insight into the problem. Scroll down to the part about rats in mazes, the paragraph that starts with “All experiments in psychology are not of this type”.

  14. arensb,

    Make it three, now: the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force have been unified.

    Why wasn’t I notified?!?!?!11?!1/111?1! Now I have to recurve the timing advance on the car AGAIN.

    Thanks for the correction.

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