Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Irreducible Stupidity

If you've been in several debates with creationists over the existence of god or whether evolution is true you will undoubtedly have come across the same tired old argument again and again: Dr. Michael Behe's "Irreducible Complexity" argument.

The irreducible complexity (IR) argument was defined by Behe in his book Darwin's Black Box as:

A single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.

IR has become the poster child of the intelligent design movement and played a leading role in the Dover PA trial on whether intelligent design was actual science, which the trial determined it wasn't.

But intelligent design advocates like Behe and the folks at the creationist thinktank the Discovery Institute never seem to stop touting IR as an argument against evolution, despite it having been repeatedly refuted over and over again, most famously by Christian biologist Ken Miller (see here).

So I came up with a term to describe such people who use refuted arguments over and over:

Irreducible Stupidity: Using the same refuted argument again and again and failing to learn from it

It's short and easy to remember. So if you come across a creationist who brandishing IR as a "knock down" argument against evolution, tell them we have numerous examples of biological systems whose parts can be removed that function for other things, including the often cited example of the bacterial flagellum itself. And if necessary, kindly remind them that using the same refuted argument again and again and failing to learn from it is textbook example for irreducible stupidity.


  1. That's pretty funny. Often I wonder to myself if it really is stupidity or if it is simply dishonesty. Does he not understand that his argument has been refuted (stupid) or does he not care because it will still be a compelling argument to the uninformed (dishonest)? Either way, it is completely ridiculous.

  2. The thing is, given Behe's definition of Irreducible Complexity above, many biological systems are irreducibly complex - the definition assumes that the SAME function must be maintained.

    Behe's definition of Irreducible Complexity (and that I've seen used by others) also seems to ignore the fact that a biological system can be arrived at by not just adding, but also subtracting and mutating "parts" - slight modifications and scaffolding are available, but ignored.

    A large part of the problem with the terms used by Intelligent Design proponents is that they have no clear definition, and so the proponents can slide back and forth between definitions depending on which is being refuted. Another problem with ID proponents is that many of their claims are not biologically relevant (such as ignoring subtraction and mutation of parts above, and Demski's continued view of evolution as a "search" algorithm on a simple, unchanging, jagged fitness landscape - something which does not correspond to biological reality).

    1. I've seen the definition of irreducible complexity change. The version I use above is actually an updated version from the original. Although it is true that the same function cannot be made if parts are removed, just like removing the wheels of a car, as you correctly mention, the other parts can have other uses.

      ID proponents who use IR as an argument are all using it under the assumption that these intermediate steps and uses cannot exist and that's how the argument is refuted.

    2. Ken Miller famously uses a mousetrap with parts removed as a tie clip, in order to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of ID claims.

      I think to refute the arguments, all you need to do point out the equivocation :-)

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  4. I like your line of thinking here.

    One thing that I've pondered for awhile is that many atheists (like myself) are content with merely discovering the flaws in theistic arguments, whereas I think we should also consider an obligation to effectively communicate to others those same flaws in ways that are quickly understandable (pithy, etc.).

    Those atheist commenters I suppose I admire the most are the ones who are not merely fluent in the many disciplines brought up, but also able to point out the flaws in ways that are admirably succinct and effective.

    So, yeah, kudos to you for adding to the quiver of effective rhetoric.



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