Guest Blogger: Tim Beazley, J.D.

Tim Beazley, J.D., grew up in York and now lives in San Diego. His op-ed “Pro-ID piece uses rhetorical tricks” appeared in the York Daily Record on Sunday.

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
for Dover.

13 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Tim Beazley, J.D.

  1. I’ve never heard it called the “false dichotomy” before; I thought it was known as the “fallacy of false dilemma.” Probably synonomous.

  2. There is a sneaky way to avoid the false dichotomy and turn ID into a seemingly positive argument. I think this is Dembski’s strategy:

    Step 1) Define a quantity/property, “D” using lots of fancy math.

    Step 2) Show that a designed organism must have D.

    Step 3) Prove that natural causes cannot produce D in an organism.

    Step 4) Inspect various organisms. If an organism has D, then by steps 2 and 3 it must have been designed. If an organism does not have D, it was not designed (ID is falsified).

    I think the strategy is to note that steps 1, 2 and 3 have been taken care of. Now we only care about step 4, which taken alone is a completely positive argument.

    The problem is that scientists overwhelmingly disagree that step 3 has been done. And of course, step 3 houses all of the “negativity.” By being “true believers” and by tacitly acknowledging that step 3 is over with, ID proponents can give the illusion of having a positive argument by saying that they only care about step 4.

    Was this obvious? It took me a while to realize that IDers like to sweep step 3 under the rug. Now I can rest easy. 🙂

  3. Bravo. There are many more kinds of fallcious reasoning used by creationists. Please continue.

    And just as important, please address how creationists attempt, and fail, to turn the tables on scientists by accusing them of fallcious reasoning.

  4. A very interesting statement Michael Behe made in his testamony today (according to Reuters) was, “You can’t say that because you don’t have a natural explanation for something now, you won’t in future”, in support of his contention that ID is a scientific theory. Yet he repeatedly asserts that certain complex biological structures cannot be explained by evolution, pointing to gaps in current knowledge and implying that they will never be filled by future work — a very foolish prediction if ever there was one. Sounds as if he’s contradicting himself, big time. Behe seems to saying that a natural explanation for a designer might be found in the future but that it’s impossible that his “irreducibly complex” examples will ever be explained by evolutionary theory. If future research indeed provides natural explanations for his “gaps” (and even now some of them have been greatly eroded away) then his designer and his theory evaporate. It will happen. It always has.

  5. Nah. I’d say Behe is advocating for an expansion of the definition of science when he states the belief that we can find natural explanations for everything.

  6. Tristero, certainly specious arguments are found on both sides. To me the interesting question is: why do these arguments SOUND so convincing? In particular, the “ID is a positive argument” claim was bothering me.

  7. Actually, step 1 hasn’t been completed either. There is a a notion of what this property is, but the fancy math part hasn’t really been done. So in reality, Dembski is still sitting at step 1) but is trying to jump ahead to steps 3 and 4.

  8. I understand Dembski’s argument as calculating the probability of finding a specific, very small needle in a very large haystack using only a random search method. His point is that the search can only be successful (finding the needle) if guided by by something other then pure chance. A possible flaw in this approach is assuming that “nature” deliberately searches for one needle, then proceeds to identify and search for the next needle in some linear collection process. Evolution, however, is not a specific search, but a process of many trials responding to the selective feedback of success or failure. So, the calculations Dembski performs are only as truthful as the original premise. In other words, buy the premise and you will buy the joke.

  9. Dembski may be a mathematician, but he’s no chemist. If you take Avogadro’s number of “molecules”, modeled as the 26 letters of the alphabet, randomize them and print them out, you will find about 240,000 occurences of the 13-letter string “callmeishmael” imbedded in it. (The math here is trivial.) That number of “molecules” would fit into about one tablespoon. Does this show any “designer” is at work? Of course not. Does this create information or order out of nothing? Generally not, but it does if a combination of molecules, randomly arising, happens to have the property of organizing other molecules into a structure such as itself (as a template, for example). In other words, the property of self reproduction. Then Darwinian evolution is off and running (assuming these structures have some stability), with no further instruction and with no conflict with the laws of thermodynamics. The math predicts exponential growth. Chance and necessity at work.
    Randomly finding a (real) molecular structure with the property of self replication is truly highly unlikely, but the early Earth contained a lot of tablespoonfuls of stuff and a few hundred million years to play around with the chemistry (somebody always wins the lottery, even if your chances are miniscule). We don’t know specifically how this might have gotten started and probably never will, but there is good reason to believe a lab model of self replication will be discovered in the next few years.
    Apologies for all this technical stuff, but you have to confront technical arguments, a la Dembski, at the same level.

  10. I think Dembski also mischaracterizes our ability to even begin to calculate such probabilities in the first place (putting aside the fact that we know certain types of chemical pathways are preferred). The fact is there are *so* many dependencies and possible pathways that I find the very idea of trying to calculate the probabilities of all of them in any meaningfull way to be laughable.

  11. As I stated in my first essay, if a creationist relies almost exclusively on negative arguments (and they almost always do), you can be sure that he’s using the false dichotomy strategy, which is inherently illogical. Some readers have pointed out that ID-proponents, Dembski in particular, have attempted to avoid the accusation that they rely exclusively on negative arguments. None of those attempts, however, has been successful.

    For example, the Explanatory Filter (EF) is Dembski’s principle analytical tool for providing what he claims is positive support for the design inference. The EF is a three-stage filter, in which the three stages are law, chance, and design. If an event cannot be explained as the result of the operation of natural law, then it advances to the chance stage. If the event cannot be explained as the result of chance either, then and only then does Dembski conclude that the event was caused by design. Dembski insists that his EF provides a positive justification for the design inference, but the inference obviously depends on eliminating the law and chance alternatives first, and that’s clearly a negative argument.

    The EF has other problems too. Dembski uses two mutually inconsistent protocols in applying the EF, depending on what outcome he wants. In effect, the EF doesn’t do anything; rather the outcome is predetermined by Dembski’s arbitrary choice of protocol. Also, the EF is fatally defective, because it fails to allow for the possibility that law and chance may interact in some cases. However, my main focus here is that Dembski’s EF does not provide positive justification for anything, rather it is simply a negative argument dressed up in pseudo-scientific language. Negative arguments indicate the operation of the false dichotomy strategy, and that strategy is based on faulty logic.

    In “No Free Lunch,” defending against the “negative-argument” criticism, Dembski responded that even though his methodology does use negative arguments, it is still not a purely negative argument, because it eliminates a very large number of possibilities before inferring design. That’s hardly persuasive. First, even if a million possibilities were eliminated, so what? Eliminating possibilities is still negative, whether it’s one possibility or a million. Second, as Dembski himself acknowledged in “Intelligent Design,” Spinoza showed that negative arguments of this sort require essentially infinite knowledge; and no matter how many possibilities are eliminated, they still don’t add up to infinity. With a math Ph.D., “the Isaac Newton of the information age” should have been able to figure that out.

    Also in “No Free Lunch,” Dembski acknowledged the serious problems plaguing Behe’s definition of irreducible complexity (IC), one problem being that evolutionists kept coming up with plausible evolutionary pathways for Behe’s examples of supposedly unevolvable IC systems. Part of Dembski’s solution to that embarrassing problem was to modify Behe’s definition by adding the provision that no matter how complex any particular biological system was, it would qualify as IC, only if mainstream science had not already described a plausible evolutionary pathway for the system. Basically, Dembski transformed Behe’s definition into an explicitly negative definition. That’s hardly helpful in defending against the accusation that ID-proponents rely excessively on negative arguments.

    “Anonymous” commented that Dembski claims that some of his complex math calculations provide positive evidence for ID. Yes indeed, Dembski does make a lot of claims, but it’s important to remember that all statistical arguments start with assumptions about initial conditions. If the starting assumptions are faulty, then even the fanciest math won’t lead to a logical conclusion.

    For example, one of Dembski’s calculations related to the bacterial flagellum. Dembski’s starting assumptions included the proposition that the flagellum was a combinatorial object which did not have any functional precursors with fewer parts than the flagellum itself. After going through a lengthy statistical analysis, Dembski concluded that — Surprise! — the flagellum could not have evolved by chance. There’s no need to check Dembski’s math here. Michael Behe admitted in the trial that there is a small subset of the flagellum’s proteins that does indeed have a function, so Dembski’s starting assumptions were faulty, and, math or no math, his conclusion is therefore unwarranted.

    Furthermore, even without Behe’s testimony, it’s still obvious that Dembski made an error. His starting assumptions effectively included the assumption that the flagellum did not evolve. Since Dembski’s final conclusion was already contained in his starting assumptions, the conclusion is based on circular reasoning.

    Another of Dembski’s mathematical “proofs” involved calculating the probability of a particular protein forming by chance. In this particular “proof,” Dembski based his calculation on his belief that the protein’s amino acid sequence, its three-dimensional shape, and its function were three independent characteristics. Naturally, his calculation indicated that it was essentially impossible for such a protein to evolve by chance. Again, there’s no need to wrestle with the math; we already know that Dembski’s starting assumptions are wrong. The three characteristics that Dembski thought were independent are actually dependent. Protein function depends on its shape, and its shape depends on its amino acid sequence. Dembski’s calculation is fully and accurately described as: “Garbage in, garbage out.”

    Whenever creationists use math arguments, I like to remind them that Samuel Birley Rowbotham, an evangelical Christian living in Great Britain during the last half of the 19th century, also used mathematical arguments to support his claim that the Earth was flat, just like it says in the King James Bible. Rowbotham’s arguments were conceptually identical to Dembski’s. Rowbotham started by examining reams of data from maritime journals, from which he picked those few (probably inaccurate) observations that supported his theory, simply ignored the vast majority of the (probably accurate) data that conflicted with his theory, applied his math formulas to the biased data-set, and then proclaimed that the flat Earth theory was rigorously, mathematically “proven.” Dembski’s mathematical “proofs” are not new at all, rather they date back to flat-Earth loonies.

    There is other allegedly “positive” evidence that I want to address. It is very common in creationist circles to argue that ID relies on positive, empirical evidence as the basis for their “inference to the best hypothesis.” Behe, Stephen Meyer, John Weister, Dembski, and others have made that claim on countless occasions. If there were in fact any such positive evidence, that would seriously impair my argument about creationist reliance on the mud-slinging negativity associated with the false dichotomy strategy. As it turns out, however, my argument is safe, because the “positive, empirical evidence” that creationists point to is just a mirage.

    In Behe’s case, his “evidence” is that biological systems resemble man-made machines. Behe argues that machines are designed by intelligence, therefore the bio-systems must have been designed too. In this case, Behe’s claim that his argument is based on positive evidence is incorrect. Behe’s argument is actually based on an analogy, and analogies are not evidence, but explanations. Behe seems not to grasp the difference between analogies and evidence.

    Furthermore, not only is Behe’s analogy not evidence, it’s also flawed. All of the man-made objects Behe uses in his analogies were made by humans, and all humans are natural beings. For Behe to use such analogies as arguments for the existence of a supernatural being is unwarranted. Furthermore, few if any of Behe’s man-made designs were produced by a process involving reproduction, heredity, random mutation, and selection. Biological systems, of course, are produced by that process. There is no logical basis for Behe to conclude that two such radically different production processes necessarily have similar limitations.

    The complexity of bio-systems is another type of “positive evidence” that the four creationists named above rely on. Their argument goes like this: ID explains the existence of complex, functional bio-systems. We have evidence that complex, functional bio-systems exist, therefore the design inference is confirmed by that evidence.

    That conclusion is also unwarranted. The ID argument is like your neighbor claiming that he can prove that his hamster can drive a car, and when you ask to see the proof, he says, “Sure, no problem, see, here’s my hamster, and there’s my car. There’s the proof.” Needless to say, that sort of proof is not convincing. The neighbor’s evidence proved only the existence of the hamster and the car, and mere existence was not really the critical aspect of his claim. The critical aspect of the claim was the hamster’s driving ability, and the evidence that the neighbor offered was completely silent on that.

    For exactly the same reason, evidence proving the mere existence of complex bio-systems is completely ineffective as evidence of design. The disputed issue is cause, not existence. So the creationists’ claims of having positive evidence supporting their arguments are completely false.

    In summary on this point, ID-proponents rely almost exclusively on negative arguments, which indicates that ID-proponents are using the false dichotomy strategy. The false dichotomy strategy is illogical, because, as I stated in my original essay, design and evolution are neither cumulatively exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. When creationists argue that their negative arguments against evolution “prove” the validity of design, that is illogical, because evolution and design are not cumulatively exhaustive. ID-proponents are aware of the “negative argument” problem, and so they claim to possess positive evidence to supplement their negative arguments; but whenever the “positive evidence” is examined, it turns out to be nothing more than abstract mathematics with no demonstrable connection to biological reality; analogies, which, even if they weren’t flawed, would still not constitute “evidence;” or observations that are completely irrelevant to the disputed issues. In any case, when creationists argue that proof of design constitutes evidence against evolution, that is also illogical, because evolution and design are not mutually exclusive. The creationist argument would be illogical, even if the “proof” actually existed, which it doesn’t.

    Theories based entirely on faulty logic and erroneous factual claims should not be taught as legitimate science in public school science classes. And that finishes what I wanted to say about issues related to the false dichotomy strategy.

    On a completely different subject, one of the comments said: “A very interesting statement Michael Behe made in his testamony today (according to Reuters) was, ‘You can’t say that because you don’t have a natural explanation for something now, you won’t in future’ in support of his contention that ID is a scientific theory.” The comment went on to highlight an apparent inconsistency in Behe’s arguments. I’d like to make a different point.

    The constitutional issue in this case is whether teaching ID in public schools constitutes government promotion of religion. In previous cases (Epperson, McLean, Edwards, and Selman), the courts noted creationism’s historical connection to Christian fundamentalists and used that history to support their decision that anti-evolutionist proposals amount to government promotion of religion. Those cases, as a group, imply that ID will not survive constitutional scrutiny unless it produces enough legitimate science to outweigh that historical baggage. Now, the point I want to make here is, that historical baggage is a serious problem for ID, and it already exists. Behe’s statement, on the other hand, implies that, while ID’s scientific value may be established at some unknown point in the possibly far distant future, its current scientific status is questionable at best. That means the ID side is essentially asking the court to approve ID for inclusion in public high school science classes, even though ID has known, serious, religious implications, on the off-chance that someday, somewhere, somehow, ID might possibly turn out to have some as yet undetermined, scientific value.

    That does not sound like a winning, constitutional argument to me.

    Tim Beazley

  12. Hey, Can someone please post me the email adres of Tim Beazley? to:
    I am writing a paper against creationism, and I saw some handy reviews of him. Pls let me know trough email.

    thanks in advance


  13. 1) The reason I would choose to attack evolution over ID is that more people I know believe in the ID theory that a divine being introduced evolution to the world. Why not just create? Also, it makes more sense to disprove evolution first, then introduce ID, which is what most people do… it’s not necessarily forcing between the two. It’s like the game of “Clue”, suggesting instead of accusing.

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