Roy Spencer and Intelligent Design

Roy Spencer was called to give evidence before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. The hearing was itself was called Climate Change: It’s happening now. Personally I think that Roy Spencer is entirely unsuitable for giving evidence before such a committee. The reason I think so is that he has supposedly signed the Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming. You can read the declaration yourself, but I’ll highlight one of the things the signatories deny

We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

So, this appears to be suggesting that man cannot be influencing our climate in any significant way and hence suggests, to me at least, that Roy Spencer has already made up his mind about the significance of anthropogenic global warming. How he could be regarded as open-minded and unbiased is beyond me.

However, what I thought I would comment on here were his views on creation versus evolution. I’ve listened to most of Roy’s testimony, but should acknowledge that I got what he said about creation from a comment made by Bill on HotWhopper’s recent post Roy Spencer the half-truther and Roger Pielke Jr the global warming advocate. Senator Whitehouse asked Roy Spencer

And do you still believe that the Theory of Creation actually has a much better scientific basis than the Theory of Evolution, to be specific?

to which Roy Spencer replied

I think, I think I could be put into a debate with someone on the other side and I think I could give more science supporting that life is created than they could support, with evidence, that life evolved through natural random processes, so yes.

I think this reflects very poorly on Roy Spencer’s scientific credibility. I have no problem with people believing almost anything they like. However, for a professional scientist to claim – in front of a US senate committee – that they could find more evidence to support the idea that life was created than formed via natural selection (at least I assume he means natural selection) is absolutely amazing. As far as I’m aware there is an immense amount of evidence in support of evolution via natural selection and virtually no evidence in support of life being created.

Prior to this, Roy Spencer expanded on his view by saying

I mean there’s a lot of work out there that’s shown that you can not statistically combine all of the elements that are contained in the DNA molecule by chance over however many billions of years you want to invoke or how many, how much known universe there is with all of the matter in it.

It appears that he is saying that the probability that a complex biological system could form via chance is vanishingly small and hence suggests that it must have had some kind of designer. The problem with this argument is that the probability calculation is done the wrong way around. I’m no expert at probabilities or at evolutionary biology, so may not explain this quite correctly, but I believe the idea is something like this.

Although it may be true that the chance that a particular complex biological system will have formed is small, what you really need to know is what is the chance that any kind of complex biological system could have formed? Life is thought to have first formed on Earth about 3 billion years ago. If there was enough potential variation in how this first life could “evolve” then the chance that it could become more and more complex is quite high, even if one can not actually predict precisely what type of complexity will evolve.

An analogy might be to consider the chance of winning the EuroMillions. I looked this up and the chance of winning the top prize in the EuroMillions is 1 in 116 million. One could then argue that this is so small that noone should ever win. However, if enough people take a ticket then it becomes quite likely that someone will win. It wouldn’t be possible to actually predict who that person will be, but determining the probability that someone will win is quite straightforward. In fact there are many things that happen all the time and that one could argue were highly unlikely. If you are willing to go back enough generations it becomes highly unlikely that any of us would ever have been born or be the people that we are today. However, we’re simply one realisation of an almost infinite number of possible realisations. Similarly, the biological complexity we see today is simply one realisation of what was presumably a very large number of possible realisations, fine-tuned by natural selection.

So I believe that is the basic reason why the probabilistic argument in favour of Intelligent Design is wrong. It may be true that a specific complex biological form is highly unlikely, but if there is sufficient opportunities for complexity, then it becomes likely that biological complexity will arise. What we find today are simply those complex life forms that happen to be the ones that survived. That Roy Spencer doesn’t appear to appreciate this basic subtlety does not reflect well – in my opinion – on his scientific abilities. However, given that I’m neither an expert on probability theory or on evolutionary biology, I’m happy to be corrected by those who are.

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13 Responses to Roy Spencer and Intelligent Design

  1. Lars Karlsson says:

    Here is Spencer at “The Evolution Crisis. I’m not certain what kind of argument Spencer is making here. It could simply be a “tornady in junkyard”- type of argument (i.e. he believes that evolution is entirely a matter of randomness”. It could also be a somewhat more sophisticated “irreducible complexity” argument, which admits that evolution has a deterministic element, but believes that it can only work in a very linear manner: complex structures can only evolve by adding one piece at a time, while maintaining the same function.

  2. Yes, I’m not sure I get the argument he’s making either. He also seems to make a number of rather strong statements that he doesn’t really justify. I’m aware of the possibility that more and more scientists are starting to think that biological complexity isn’t possible via natural selection.

  3. kap55 says:

    This is an old argument, effectively destroyed by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Blind Watchmaker,” which I recommend for a fuller insight into the topic.

    The basic point is that once you have a self-replicating molecule of any kind, no matter how simple, natural selection will then create complexity on its own.

  4. Yes, I read that book a long time ago and had forgotten that it covered this topic. It is worth a read if interested in this general area. Although, I should add, that there are aspects of Dawkins’s rhetoric that I sometimes have some trouble with but, by and large, he does do quite a good job of debunking silly arguments made by those who promote theories like intelligent design.

  5. Fragmeister says:

    For those not keen on Dawkins, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True is excellent.

    From what I have read of Spencer’s ID, he is an unthinking creationist. He repeats the old, thoroughly debunked creationist “arguments”. He can’t be trusted on his own account of his ‘conversion’ to intelligent design – he says he spent two years reading around the fake debate yet he clearly knows nothing about evolution, or at least doesn’t let on what he does know. And it does say a lot about his scientific credibility.

  6. Rachel says:

    There’s a good potholer youtube clip about this called “Golden Crocoduck nominees ponder improbability” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxxolSyWd6Y
    He uses the lottery example as well.

  7. Roy spencer is nothing more than a professional contrarian.

  8. A great video. Really explains it very well. Much better than I did, but at least I think I got it basically right 🙂

  9. Thanks, I’ll have to try and have a look at Jerry Coyne’s book.

  10. This:

    “So, this appears to be suggesting that man cannot be influencing our climate in any significant way and hence suggests, to me at least, that Roy Spencer has already made up his mind about the significance of anthropogenic global warming. How he could be regarded as open-minded and unbiased is beyond me.”

    Is weak in my opinion. The same can be said about us who accept and support the scientific findings on AGW. You don’t dismiss someone on the conclusion he or she has but on the evidence and arguments used to get there (or lack thereof).

    And this what Dr. Spencer said is just nonsense:

    “I mean there’s a lot of work out there that’s shown that you can not statistically combine all of the elements that are contained in the DNA molecule by chance over however many billions of years you want to invoke or how many, how much known universe there is with all of the matter in it.”

    That’s, like Karlsson already pointed out, a tornado in a junk yard type of argument. Evolution doesn’t work on blind chance, there are selective pressures that make it non-random. The mutation in itself are random, but the entire process isn’t. Evolution isn’t about trying out every single base pair combination to achieve a gene – or entire genome – but about selective pressures on existing genes.

  11. I’m not sure I agree about your first point. I don’t think anyone who supports AGW has signed a declaration stating their beliefs and what they deny. That’s really the issue in my view. If you sign such a declaration then it seems to me that you’ve effectively stated your position which – in my opinion – is not something a serious scientist should do.

    I agree with you and Lars that what Roy has said about evolution/natural selection is simply nonsense.

  12. Let me expand on it a bit then.

    A lot of us have lobbied for action. Some doing what Spencer did: sign a declaration that affirms our stance. Even scientists have done similar actions. For example the civil disobedience of James Hansen during the Keystone XL White House protests. Or the signed public letters or declarations to the media and/or governments.

    In itself it cannot be used against someone. As it simply doesn’t say anything about what you just signed is an accurate depiction of what the science says (or did for that matter).

    It also goes past the point that the very reason some misinformation campaigns are so successful is because scientist generally do not like to make such statements. But we need them to speak out and inform the public, without it we can’t even have a good discussion on what we want to do as a society.

    Now you and I both know the statements in the document aren’t valid and not backed by what we currently know. My point is that you dismissed Spencer because he signed this treaty without explicitly giving something that shows it’s incorrect.

    That was the part that I find missing from what you wrote. Which is very important to include for anyone who isn’t informed on these issues and to prevent yourself from being quote mined or straw manned.

    Just saying someone has an incorrect position because of X isn’t enough. You always need to explain why or refer to that explanation.

  13. Okay, you have a point. I wrote a longer post about Roy Spencer and the Cornwall alliance where I addressed some of this in more detail. I was in kind of two minds about this post. Do I write again about why his stance makes him unsuitable or do I write about the probability arguments related to Intelligent design. I went for the latter simply because it is something I find interesting and threw in the bit about Roy Spencer and the declaration for context. You’re correct, though. Should really justify any objections I have about signing such a declaration.

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