The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin Responds… And Fails

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 2, 2011

I found out recently that Casey Luskin of the intelligent design/creationist “think” tank the Discovery Institute has  responded in print to my takedown of his public lecture last August in Chicago.   I think it is important is to dissect his arguments and point out the utter failure of him to make any headway in his arguments; he is simply recycling the same ol’ same ol’, in my view.  For reference, here is my account of what happened at the event last August.

Me & Casey Luskin, chillin’ after his lecture.  Nobody was hurt in the making of this photo :)

And I also wrote a follow-up post specifically criticizing Luskin’s claims of the supposed scientific nature of ID’s so-called “design inference”. It is pretty telling that Luskin never addresses any of these points in his response, but more on that later.

Speaking of which, here is Luskin’s response. Technically, it isn’t really a response to my blog posts, because he never references my blog or the posts in his article, but he does refer to me and the questions I asked at his lecture (though he doesn’t name me).  Allow me to go through his points one at a time…


ID’s Critics Engage in Motive-Mongering to Avoid the Evidence

By Casey Luskin

In August 2010, the creators of Salvo graciously invited me to speak at the University Club in downtown Chicago. After a short 40 minute presentation on the positive scientific case for intelligent design (ID), we opened up the floor to the audience.

Most of the inquiries led to serious and worthwhile scientific discussions. But one gentleman [that's me] was confident he came armed with a “gotcha question” that would stump me. His challenge essentially boiled down to this: What about the ‘Wedge Document’?

The Wedge What?

Salvo readers generally believe—quite rightly—that seeking truth requires merely following the evidence where it leads. As a result, they don’t get bogged down in endless debates about personal motives or the religious (or non-religious) beliefs of scientists. At the end of the day, what matters is the evidence. Right?

For many ID critics, that’s not right. In fact those who follow the ID debate closely are depressingly familiar with the fallacious distraction of the “wedge document.”

While the “Wedge document” has no bearing on whether the information-rich molecular machines that underlie every living cell point to an intelligent designer, it’s worth rebutting to help those who are seeking truth understand this debate.

What is now called the “Wedge document” was originally a short fundraising packet compiled in the late 1990s by the pro-ID think tank Discovery Institute (“DI”). Like any good prospectus, it laid out the goals of the DI, centering around using pro-ID arguments to influence various branches of culture, including science, politics, education, and theology. …

Actually, the Wedge Document (and related strategy) is entirely relevant to the entire question of ID and its origins as an explicitly religious enterprise.  That’s because, as I documented earlier & as Luskin fails to note (surprise), during his lecture he stated on multiple occasions that “ID isn’t about religion, it’s about science!”  So when I pointed out the fact that the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document most certainly shows that the primary motivation for pushing ID is religious in nature (with such notable sections as the “20 Year Goal: To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.” – yup, that’s a direct quote, entirely within context.  Read it for yourself), Luskin was hoisted by his own petard, so to speak.  In fact, I had a conversation with one of the other audience members in the lobby of the University Club after Luskin’s lecture, and while this fellow wanted to agree with Luskin, he simply couldn’t because of exactly what I’d pointed out.

What was Luskin’s reaction to my criticism?  Well, the next section of his article pretty much spells it out.  Read on…

The Genetic Fallacy

The first level of reply is that this question commits the genetic fallacy, which attacks the origin of an argument rather than the argument itself.

The ID movement is a collection of scientists and other scholars with a wide variety of beliefs and backgrounds. Many—though not all—are Christians. There are also Jews, Muslims, and individuals of other faiths. Some notorious ID proponents are not even religious.

But all of this is irrelevant to whether ID is correct. The personal religious (or non-religious) views or motives of people in the ID movement do not determine whether their scientific arguments hold merit.

For example, consider the great scientists Kepler and Newton. They were inspired by their religious convictions that God would create an orderly, rational universe with comprehensible physical laws. Their ideas turned out to be right—not because of their religious beliefs—but because the scientific evidence validated their hypotheses. …

Now, note Luskin’s emphasis on the supposed genetic fallacy.  Firstly, he neglects to mention that there were a number of points that I (and others) brought up at the lecture criticizing the supposed scientific validity of ID – those are thoroughly documented here. My specific point about the Wedge Document was to basically call Luskin out on his claim that religion wasn’t a motivation for pursuing the “science” of ID, and he chose to make that into a straw man argument, as if that’s the only argument against ID!  It get’s better…

The Origins of Intelligent Design

The next stage of reply corrects historical errors made by the challenger. The origin of the ID movement was driven by science, not theology.

The first arguments for design in nature were made by ancient Greek philosophers—smart guys like Plato and Aristotle. They were not Christians—in fact they pre-dated Christianity by hundreds of years. Fast forwarding a couple thousand years, the term “intelligent design” was used by mainstream scientists as early as the 19th century, long before the advent of the creationist movements. …

Actually, to correct Luskin on not only his clear lack of knowledge of science but also of ancient philosophy, Plato & Aristotle were engaging in philosophical discourse on the matter of a supposed Designer.  The ancient Greek philosophers were not engaging in what we would call modern science, and if Luskin thinks that somehow they were then it’s no wonder that he can’t make any headway with these arguments!  I’m not one to poo-poo philosophical discourse, as I engage in a fair amount of it myself, but it shouldn’t be confused with modern science.  This is one of the primary failures of Luskin (and the ID movement in general): they confuse theology, philosophy, and science; I think they do it intentionally, in order to give their arguments an air of legitimacy.  If you want to call ID philosophy (which it is), fine – go for it, and teach it in a philosophy or theology class, not in a science class.  But that’s not what Luskin and his creationist allies want; they want to have it both ways.

Luskin goes on…

… While Polanyi predated the modern ID movement and was not pro-ID, in the ensuing years a number of credible scientists became convinced that the information in life required an intelligent cause.

The term “intelligent design” appears to have been coined in its contemporary scientific usage by the atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle. In his 1982 book Evolution from Space, he argued that “if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure of order must be the outcome of intelligent design.”

Holye was referring to the possibility that life arose through intelligent design by aliens.  Does this then mean that the Discovery Institute is willing to hook up with groups like the Raelians, an atheistic UFO cult which accepts the “science” of ID but thinks it was an advanced alien race, not God, which are the Designers?  Hmmm, I wonder why there was no mention of either Hoyle, the Raelians, or Alien Designers in the Wedge Document – a thorough examination of that document reveals no reference to any of the above, but plenty of references to the Christian God.  Why is that?

… Another early pro-ID scientist was Charles Thaxton, a chemist who in 1984 published a highly influential book, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, which argued that life’s information pointed to design. Soon thereafter, Thaxton served as academic editor for the first pro-ID textbook Of Pandas and People. In 2005, “Pandas” gained notoriety by being at the center of a lawsuit that sought to ban ID from public school science classrooms in Dover, Pennsylvania.

“I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do,” stated Thaxton in his deposition testimony for the Dover trial. “They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.”

Thaxton was never called as a witness by the Dover plaintiffs—perhaps because his testimony made it clear that the origins of ID stemmed from a desire to pursue science. According to Thaxton, he preferred ID’s approach because it differed from creationism and made a strictly scientific argument. …

And at the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial, it was shown conclusively that the editors of the book in question – Of Pandas and People – were clearly attempting to change the terms “creationism” into “intelligent design”.   In fact, an analysis of the various editions of this book during the trial revealed this trend of terminology replacement, with the most obvious shift taking place almost immediately after the 1987 Supreme Court decision which found scientific creationism to be in violation of church-state separation due to its religious nature…

This was nothing more than a mere re-labeling from an explicitly religious terminology to an attempted scientific-sounding terminology, but they messed up… badly.  For example, there were editions of the book which contained glaring editorial errors such as this, where it is obvious to any observer that the editors were simply replacing the now-forbidden “creationist” wording with the new “intelligent design” language, with little or no other substantive changes to the material:

Oops.  Luskin never mentions any of this.  I wonder why not?

Moving on…

But Is It Science?

In a segment of my talk unrebutted by the critic, I explained that ID uses the scientific method to make its claims.

The scientific method is often described as a four-step process involving observation, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion.

Like any good scientific theory, ID starts with observations of the natural world. ID theorists observe human intelligence to understand the types of information and structures produced when intelligent agents act. These observations have been used to construct a cause-and-effect relationship between intelligence and the origin of certain types of information. ID theorists observe that intelligent agents are the sole known cause of high levels of complex and specified information, or “CSI” (see Salvo 13 for a discussion).

ID theorists then hypothesize that if a natural object was designed, it will contain high CSI. A variety of experiments can detect high CSI. Mutational sensitivity tests ask how finely-tuned an amino acid sequence must be in order to generate a functional enzyme. Genetic knockout experiments can be used to determine if a structure is irreducibly complex—a special type of CSI where a system requires all of its parts to function.

Such experiments have been conducted by ID proponents on biological systems to conclude that some of them bear the hallmarks of intelligent design.

ID critics are welcome to disagree with this argument. But harping upon the religious beliefs of ID proponents won’t change the fact that ID’s methodology is scientific. …

Oh goody, this is where I get to point out, verbatim, my earlier criticisms of the supposed “science” behind ID. It should be noted that when I assembled these criticisms within my blog post, some of which I brought up at Luskin’s lecture (a fact that he ignores), I actually shared the post with Luskin via email – I know he received it because he responded to my email, too.  So he knows of these criticisms, yet he not only fails to address them in his article, he acts as if such criticisms were never made at all in the first place!  Here are my scientific criticisms of ID as outlined by Luskin:

**Note:  I want to point out something important here – the SETI Institute has explicitly rejected ID.  In fact, at their website they have a very specific rebuttal to Luskin’s implication that SETI is somehow an ID-like endeavor which is supposed to lend credence to his claims – in short, SETI has disavowed this supposed connection between their scientific work and ID.  See Seth Shostak’s article on the subject for more detail. This sort of intellectual dishonesty is par for the course in much of the propoganda pushed by the IDM.


**Note: Meyer’s paper was retracted because it was shown to have not gone through the proper peer-review process before publication – more details here. It’s curious that Luskin failed to mention this fact in his presentation.


[This next one is perhaps my biggest scientific criticism - it is outlined in greater detail at my post titled My Challenge to the Discovery Institute’s “Design Inference” Model]

**Note:  There are LOTS of problems at this point.  First of all, this definition of complexity is sorely lacking, both in detail and due to the fact that it isn’t quantifiable.  As someone asked in Q&A (not myself or Jamie), if you are going to claim to be doing science with ID, shouldn’t you have a way to quantify “complexity”?  Luskin’s response was something to the effect that yes the IDM should do that and they were working on it.  Pardon me, but the IDM and Discovery Institute has been at this for 20 years, and they still don’t have a quantifiable definition of “complexity” yet?  And despite this fact, they want ID taught in schools as a valid science alongside evolution?  Give me a break.

Another problem here is that this sort of argument is post-hoc in nature.  In other words, everyone already knows that Mount Rushmore is man-made; what is necessary here is for these folks to come up with a blinded test of their method without knowing whether or not the subject is designed ahead of time.  Here’s a simple way to do it:

1. Take two sets of a dozen drinking glasses.

2. Drop one set from a significant height into a clear plastic box so that they smash apart into a random jumble of broken glass at the bottom of the box.  This is the “naturally caused” pile of broken glass.

3. Take the second set of glasses and break them up with a hammer or whatnot in a very specific manner and then place the pieces into the bottom of a second box so that the pile of broken glass appears random.  This will be the “intelligently designed” pile of broken glass.

4.  Do all of this out of view of the ID-proponents (the test must be blinded), and then ask them to apply their method to identify the “naturally caused” pile from the “intelligently designed” pile.  Of course, the entire procedure would have to be performed many times to get a correct read on the statistics.

5. If there really is something to the ID method of “inferring design”, then the ID-proponents should be able to determine correctly the “intelligently designed” piles of glass at a rate significantly higher than chance (well over 50%).

The fact that I’ve never seen any ID-proponent perform, or even seriously suggest, such a blinded test of their design inference methods speaks volumes, folks.  And remember: they’ve been at this for 20 YEARS!


**Note: Again, what is the quantifiable definition of CSI?  In addition, for an excellent take-down on the work of both Dr. Minnich and Dr. Axe, take a look at this excerpt from the Dover trial via the Talk Origins website which clearly counters the claims made here by Luskin.


**Note:  Luskin acts like biological researchers are somehow trying to run away from this question, when in reality there has been much research done on the matter of ‘junk DNA’, and there is ample evidence that, while some of the noncoding parts of DNA are useful, there are huge amounts of DNA which serve no purpose.


**Note:  Bzzt!  Wrong answer, Luskin.  There are very good arguments for the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. In addition, Luskin is being slippery & inconsistent with his definition of “functionality” at this point – this is classic moving the goalposts.


[Here's another biggie]

**Note: At this point I followed up on these two previous questions.  I noted that Luskin appears to be trying to have it both ways – that is, on the one hand he states that the fully-formed bacterial flagellum is evidence of ID.  Then, upon being asked this second question, he states that it is further evidence of ID that the flagellum structure could be broken down and the individual parts have other uses (which is actually evidence for evolution, as I stated above).  So at this point I asked him about this apparent contradiction:  How can you simultaneously claim that both of these things are evidence for ID and still claim that ID, in this context, is a testable & falsifiable notion?  Because if the functionality of a fully formed flagellum is evidence for ID and the broken down pieces of the flagellum are evidence for ID, then what’s not evidence for ID?  If everything is, by default, evidence for ID, then how is this idea falsifiable at all?  And if it isn’t falsifiable, then how can it qualify as science?

Luskin attempted to talk around this question by making references to the evolution of the human eye (which he claimed could be evidence for evolution and not ID) being different from that of the supposed ID-supporting evidence via the flagellum.  When I pointed out that he didn’t answer my question, he got pretty defensive and kept on going on in the same manner.

Not very convincing, Mr. Luskin – and, I might note, that a number of people present also found my question to be quite interesting & thought-provoking.

Now if Luskin knew about these arguments, which he did because I sent some to him in an email and others were actually asked by me (and others) at his talk, why doesn’t he address them?  Good question.

In short, upon reading the rest of his article, Luskin goes on to use such questionable logic as “well, since so many evolutionists are atheists/humanists/etc, then it’s okay for the ID-creationists to be Christians”.  While this may be true, it also shows that Luskin is attempting to deflect from the two primary criticisms I leveled at his talk:

1)  Despite his claim that ID isn’t religiously motivated, it clearly – from the movement’s own documentation – is religiously motivated.  And it’s not just any religious motivation, it is specifically coming from a certain branch of Christian theology.  Once again, note that the Wedge Document makes no references to supposed Alien Designers a la the Raelians or Fred Hoyle, nor do they appear to be willing to incorporate the Catholic synthesis of evolutionary science with Catholic theology.

2)  Luskin chooses to basically ignore the massive amount of scientifically-related criticism leveled at him by me at his talk.  He also chooses to ignore the scientific criticisms I shared with him via email in my blog post (at least he didn’t respond to those points in his article).

This is in keeping with a pattern long-employed by ID-creationists: ignore scientific criticism and stay on message.  And that message is sadly what Luskin has been saying in his article – the message doesn’t change, it just keeps recycling the same tired old arguments again and again and again.

Folks, we have a name for this sort of thing: propaganda.  So much for the “science” of ID, Mr. Luskin.

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4 Responses to “The Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin Responds… And Fails”

  1. DataJack said

    As usual, very well done.

  2. Steve said

    I don’t think you are being entirely fair or objective with your experiment (destruction of breaking glasses) and I fail to see it as proving your argument.
    It is far, far easier to destroy (doesn’t require nearly as much intelligence) than to create something useful/intelligent (ie. brick house) to a certain specification (blueprint). You are debating the creation of existence on earth with all its complexity not the destruction of existence on earth (chaos).

    Here is my suggested experiment to counter yours.

    Part 1
    1. Place all the materials necessary to build a house or some symetrical structure in orderly piles at one building site.
    2. Place a blueprint of the house/structure to be built somewhere near the center
    3. Place sticks of dynamite randomly throughout the piles of materials
    4. Detonate the dynamite (to simulate the Big Bang theory) or just don’t do anything and wait (to simulate evolution)
    5. Observe if the house is built according to the blueprint.

    Part 2
    6. Place all the materials necessary to build a similar house or some symetrical structure in orderly piles at another building site.
    7. Give the blueprint of the house to be built to a paid contractor who will build the house.
    8. Have contractor (simulates God) and labourers (simulates his forces) build the house intelligently according to the blueprint.
    9. Observe which building conforms to the specification the most intelligently and if it is even a close comparison
    10. Have a blind test using people who have not seen which building used a contractor. Ask them to tell which one was built according to the specification/intelligently.

    I think you will believe what you want to believe. If you don’t want to believe in God you will simply refuse to believe in creationism/intelligent design and will look for the next best alternative. At this point I believe that the best theories are merely semi intelligent guesses that cannot be 100% proven. It definitely requires faith (in God’s existence) to believe in creationism/ID, something that science does not support. However, scientists are also willing to put there faith is theories that also cannot be definitively proven (Big Bang, Evolution, etc) because they were not there when it happened. I do believe animals can evolve over time within their own species (Gen 1:24) but doubt we came from primordial sludge. Unfortunetly we may have to wait until we are dead to see if it really matters all that much.

    P.S. I do not know Casey Luskin nor had I even heard of the Discovery group before reading your blog, which I found semi interesting.

    All the best.

  3. Joe said

    It does not appear to me you are being objective about Mr. Luskin. Although probably most proponents of I.D. are Christians, it does not logically follow that their proposition of intelligent cause for some aspects of nature (e.g., design information within DNA) is false, irrational, or strictly faith-based. Proponents of intelligent design have repeatedly stated that their arguments as based on evidence and logic, rather than the Bible or religious belief. Of course, opponents want to tie I.D. to the Bible, fundamentalist Christianity, and religion in their attempt to discredit intelligent design. This approach has been quite effective.

    Origins can be readily divided into either natural cause or intelligent cause. Atheists, philosophical naturalists, and secular humanists require natural cause as an all-encompassing explanation of origins. Regardless of how implausible, natural cause is the only explanation. For example, evolutionists believe the origin of the first living single-celled organism was due to natural cause even though the smallest single-celled life known to science is information rich, fine-tuned, functionally complex, and without a plausible natural explanation. Most origin of life experiments, when properly explained, illustrate the implausibility or impossibility of life originating due to strictly natural cause. However, because of their philosophical position, atheists, naturalists, and secular humanists dismiss or suppress this information. Their dogmatic position undermines their objectivity and credibility.

    The intelligent design community recognizes that natural cause has not demonstrated much constructive ability. Although evolution happens, random, naturally directed, purposeless, mechanistic change is severely limited as a constructive mechanism. In contrast, intelligent cause is highly effective as a constructive mechanism. Applied science shows that intelligent cause (in the form of human engineers and inventors) is significantly superior to natural cause. All of modern technology is due to intelligent cause. The accomplishments of twenty-first century applied science strongly support the ability of intelligent cause.

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