Saturday, August 12, 2006

Testing ID Hypotheses

An instructive exchange between me and another commentator took place at the blogsite Telic Thoughts. The topic centered around the origin of life. The entire thread can be viewed at the website. The exchange, which spanned multiple posts, is reproduced. My comments are preceeded by B and the other commentator by the letters OC. My blog comments are in bold print.


OC: The problem with an ID hypothesis for the origin of life is that it doesn't seem to make predictions other than by exclusion–"there are no conditions in which random chemical reactions can self organize to produce something that reproduces with heritable variation".

This is an objection to ID based on personal preference. "Heritable variation" is a phrase loaded with dubious assumptions. The belief that catalytic qualities of RNA are sufficient evidence that "reproduction with heritable variation" would proceed has not been demonstrated. Various RNAs do exhibit catalytic properties. Cleavage of phosphodiester bonds has been demonstrated but the scope of RNA catalysis is not nearly as broad as that found in proteins. More importantly heritable variation needs a coding context. That context is the genetic code. Its existence provides functional meaning to the nucleotide content and order of DNA. Without an in place code different nucleotide sequences are meaningless. For that matter the alphanumeric symbols of the English language are meaningless without a convention by which their identity and sequences acquire meaning. Random sequences of RNA nucleotides then are heritably useless without the simultaneous existence of a governing encoding convention.

It's easy enough to demonstrate the weaknesses of origin of life hypotheses as well as the subjective nature of preferred predictions but what about OC's point? Are there design predictions and ways of testing them? Continuing:



B: I'll give you a reason that is testable. Found universally are error detection and repair mechanisms that maintain genomic integrity. Causes of genomic mal-function include factors that were present on earth at life's origins. The prediction is that such mechanisms are absolutely essential to the viability of a genome and a test involves observing replication without such mechanisms. If the rate of information loss exceeds gains a generation mechanism is fatally compromised.

OC: So once again, the best that you can come up with is a negative prediction: reproduction without separate error correction mechanisms will never be observed.

Note the way OC frames the issue- in negation form. Consider this instead:

An indicator of intelligent causality is an outcome that would not otherwise occur through natural forces alone. Nucleic acid sequences naturally become disordered with time. In the absence of error detection and repair mechanisms the rate of decay will exceed possible increases in genomic information resulting from selected changes. Experimental verification of this hypothesis would establish the alluded to indicator of intelligence.

The presentation is positive but for OC the message is negative. It's about the message and some dislike the concept that intelligence is detectable.


B: Predictions entailing negations are useful. Physical realities can reflect one option or its opposite. Why assume one is valid without testing? It is an irrational approach.

In this case negations have an affirmative flip side. There are two possibilities. An outcome (life) was either the result of an intelligently directed process or one that was undirected by intelligence. Evidence against one is necessarily evidence favoring the opposite.

OC: Obviously, such a prediction cannot be confirmed in a finite amount of time.

B: We can get a very good indication of what occurs under varying conditions and if the data is overwhelmingly lopsided after much testing a conclusion can be drawn. Confirming events of natural history may be intrinsically difficult but the best fit will win out in the end.


B: Predictions entailing negations are useful. Physical realities can reflect one option or its opposite. Why assume one is valid without testing?

OC: As a rule they are not useful. Scientifically, they are almost always dead ends, because people who make negative predictions never actually seem to try to test them. It is just human nature–people find it hard to motivate themselves to attempt something that they believe to be impossible. Essentially all scientific progress is made on the basis of positive predictions. For example, even though you have tried to frame this as a prediction of ID, there are no ID advocates attempting to test it. All of the work on testing origin of life scenarios is being done by people who hypothesize that such a mechanism exists.

A prediction about competing rates: one a theorized addition of information and the second a measurement of its loss can be viewed positively. Which process is predominant? The implications are enormous for more than just life's origins.


OC: As a rule they are not useful. Scientifically, they are almost always dead ends, because people who make negative predictions never actually seem to try to test them. It is just human nature–people find it hard to motivate themselves to attempt something that they believe to be impossible.

B: In this case testing genomic corruption as well as biological mechanisms designed to prevent it yields very useful data related to disease and cancer. It is no doubt true that funding could be problematic for an ID oriented study and anti-IDers would want to fry any publisher of adverse test results. But that's the political dimension of it.

I get the impression that motivation is less of a problem for IDers than is funding.

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