I love a good mystery. I love that the world is still chock full of things we aren’t even close to explaining. Deep within me lies an itty bitty Buddhist, and that critical part of my being would wither away and die without a little mystery in the world. It is this love, this irrational appreciation for the inexplicable, that causes me to keep track of truly bizarre coincidences and collect links about blind videogame prodigies and how screwed up your tongue is. If some nut job believes in it, odds are I’ve looked into it. As a result, I harbor moderately strong beliefs in a wide variety of crazy stuff, but I’m certainly no pushover.
After a few years of these casual investigations I developed a certain mindset about how to approach them. I’ve never come up with a name for it, but now I shall christen it the Skidmark System. A skidmark, for those who don’t know, is a slang term for the telltale brown streak that is left behind after an all too rapid wiping of one’s rear. In other words, a skidmark is an indicator of shit, or in this case, bullshit.
There are a few obvious skidmarks to always keep in mind. Is the argument promising an answer for everything? Is it offering you something for nothing? Is it presenting an argument without a shred of evidence (or vaguely alluding to nameless “researchers,” “others,” and my favorite, “people”)? Does it “shift the paradigm” out of the blue? Does the arguer have a history of mental illness?
This certainly isn’t a full list, and it’s worth mentioning that none of the above skidmarks alone is enough to instantly put me off of an argument. Conversely, I’m a little liberal as to what will convince me of a claim’s veracity. Is there a wide body of anecdotal support? Have I tried this myself? How extreme are the claims being made? Further research needed good, comparisons to Galileo bad.
So here’s the latest press-grabbing claim, intelligent design. Jason Kottke has a bizarre fixation with it, so you’ve probably heard of it. At first blush, the argument is incredibly persuasive. Can you think of a painting that has no painter, or a building that has no architect? A good point, but that’s pretty much the only one. ID goes on to claim that since biological organisms are so mind-bendingly complex, with so many intricate parts working in inconceivably precise unison, that they cannot possibly have arisen by Darwinian natural selection (or as ID supporters call it, “chance”).
I smell a skidmark. In the realm of science, and I’m using that word in the broad sense of rational, logical argument, you can’t set out to prove a negative. “I believe the world is not flat,” is not a valid hypothesis. It sounds logical and valid, but it isn’t, since you’re really just claiming that flatness is wrong and therefore something else is right. Such a claim cannot be investigated or even effectively argued against in any practical sense. This is the heart of the ID argument. It claims evolution by natural selection is wrong, and leaves the rest up to the vague concept (I repeat, vague concept, see above) of an Intelligent Designer (see also “explanation of everything”). ID makes no guesses about who or what this Designer could be, and in fact tends to dodge that point, preferring to point to “holes” in evolutionary theory and call them flaws. Nevermind that these “holes” are not so much the product of scientific mystery as the result of poor research on the part of the ID supporter. No Darwinian explanation for the complex human eye, you say? Most importantly, however, proponents of ID offer not a single shred of real evidence in support of their theory. It’s all metaphor. Einstein used metaphor, too, but he had undeniably brilliant and scentifically verified mathematics backing up the simple metaphors that have made him famous. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing real behind it. This is Creationism with the letters G, O, and D removed.
I hope you remember the first part of this post, the one where I talked about my sense of wonder and my attraction to things that flout the cocksure edifice of mainstream science. So you can see why, for about a week, I entertained Intelligent Design as a valid theory. I very quickly came to my senses, and even moved on to a far superior system of thought. ALL HAIL HIS NOODLY APPENDAGE!