Dover, we have a problem
As a retired lawyer who grew up in York, I’m very interested in the
Intelligent Design (ID) case from Dover, going on right now in federal
court. I’ve followed the creationism-evolution dispute for several years,
and, speaking as a former trial lawyer, I have nothing but profound
admiration for the creationists’ rhetorical tricks, especially their
ubiquitous “false dichotomy.”
False dichotomy arguments are very simple. First, the creationist claims
that evolution and ID are the only two possible choices. That’s the
dichotomy. Then, he points out alleged problems in evolution. Finally, he
triumphantly concludes that, since evolution has problems, ID must
necessarily be correct, since it is the only other option available. Voila.
The debate’s over, and ID won.
Well, not so fast!
First, notice that this strategy allows the creationist to focus exclusively
on the flaws, real or imagined, of evolution, while keeping ID itself safely
out of the spotlight. That is crucial, because ID is so flimsy, it cannot
withstand even the slightest scrutiny.
Obviously, the false dichotomy strategy places great emphasis on
mud-slinging, which is why creationists “go negative” so much. Think back
to your own conversations with creationists. I bet they rarely offered
positive arguments for ID, and spent most of their time attacking evolution,
right? Well, that’s the false dichotomy trick, and it is completely
Dichotomy arguments are valid, only if the two options are cumulatively
exhaustive (no other options are possible) and mutually exclusive (they
can’t both be true simultaneously).
To illustrate, let’s say X is found dead in a locked room, along with
suspects A and B. If you know that A did not kill X, does that
automatically mean B did? Of course not. A and B are not cumulatively
exhaustive; there are other possibilities. X may have killed himself, died
of natural causes, or been killed by C, before A or B entered the room.
Merely proving A innocent, does not prove B guilty.
Also, A and B are not mutually exclusive; they could have killed X together.
Merely proving B guilty, does not prove A innocent.
Most arguments for ID and against evolution have exactly the same flaws.
Evolution and ID are not cumulatively exhaustive. There are other options,
including theistic evolution, deistic evolution, panspermia,
self-organization, Lamarckism, and non-theistic design theories, such as
Raelianism. So merely proving that evolution did not produce new species
would still not prove that ID did.
Nor are evolution and ID mutually exclusive. Even most ID advocates admit
the designer could have used evolution in the design process. So merely
proving that ID did produce new species would still not prove that evolution
wasn’t also involved.
False dichotomy arguments always fall apart when closely examined. Federal
courts usually examine arguments pretty closely. That could be a problem