Minnich vs Harvey: "The witness is smarter than the lawyer" - Evolution News & Views

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Minnich vs Harvey: "The witness is smarter than the lawyer"

ACLU ends Minnich's Cross-Examination by Making the Points ID Experts Were Trying to Make All Along
Harrisburg, PA -- Dr. Scott Minnich endured nearly 2.5 hours of cross-examination Friday and did an excellent job of fending off the assertions of plaintiffs' attorney Mr. Stephen G. Harvey. Minnich runs a lab at the University of Idaho, which studies the bacterial flagellum, and has been teaching biology at the college level for 18 years.

I want to first give Mr. Harvey credit for his bravery to go against a well-credentialed and well-published tenured microbiologist who runs a lab that studies a biomolecular machine at the very heart of this litigation. Given the circumstances, Mr. Harvey didn't do too bad against a formidable opponent. However, I'd like to look behind the rhetoric and style and go to the substance and strategy of the questions asked of Dr. Minnich. A repeated theme throughout the cross exam reemphasized and proved Minnich's important points about the scientific nature of intelligent design.

(I note that it is possible that I missed questions, or sequences of questions, as it was difficult to take notes by hand as fast as the talking went. In fact, the talking was at points so fast that even the court reporter had to ask the participants to slow down. So I apologize and concede at the outset that my notes are probably somewhat incomplete. Below are some of the highlights I was able to write down.)

The Questioning
Mr. Harvey started the day continuing his questions from the previous day employing the genetic fallacy that if creationists talk about something, and you talk about that same thing, that therefore you must be promoting creationism. Apparently a creationist had talked about the flagellum in some publication from the 1980's which Minnich knew nothing about. I personally didn't see any relevance of that point to anything.

The flagellum line of questioning then led into a question about if Minnich had ever published on the flagellum and ID based upon his research. He explained how he had done so. He explained how his paper was reviewed by the Wessex Institute and presented at a conference where biologists, engineers, and physicists explored design in nature.

Not getting anywhere, Harvey then turned to the Type Three Secretory System (TTSS), the existence of which Minnich's research helped to predict and discover in the mid-early 1990's. Harvey tried to claim that Dr. Milton Saier's 2004 paper implied that the TTSS could have been a precursor to the flagellum. Minnich then explained how Saier's work implies that the TTSS is not a precursor to the flagellum because the TTSS is found only in a narrow group within gram-negative bacteria, whereas the flagellum is widespread among many different prokaryotes. He explained that the TTSS is used for interaction with Eukaryotes, which implies that it is a relatively late arrival in prokaryote history.

That line of questioning wasn't going so well for Mr. Harvey, so he tried something new. The previous day Minnich had quoted mainstream biologists such as the eminent cell biologist (and NAS president) Bruce Alberts recognizing that there are biomolecular machines in the cell which bear an uncanny resemblance to human-designed machines. Minnich had also quoted Carl Woese regarding deficiencies in our knowledge of evolution. Minnich specifically acknowledged that these biologists were in fact not ID-proponents but were, as far as he knew, fully committed evolutionists. Apparently forgetting Dr. Minnich's testimony overnight, Mr. Harvey started off by finding quotations where some of these biologists (such as NAS President Bruce Alberts) specifically rejected ID or pledged allegiance to evolution. But Minnich had already acknowledged that Alberts or Woese were not ID proponents, so this was no surprise to Minnich or anyone who was paying attention the previous day. I'm not sure what Mr. Harvey was trying to prove.

None of this was really winning the day for Harvey, so he turned to peer-reviewed ID literature. Mr. Harvey highlighted the "publish or perish" line that Michael Behe used in Darwin's Black Box. Minnich first responded that publishing about ID comes with a great risk because it goes against the consensus of scientists. This quote has been repeated in various news articles. Nonetheless, Minnich testified that he believed that about 10 peer-reviewed papers had been published which were by ID proponents and supported ID arguments. Minnich specifically mentioned papers by Axe, Behe, and Meyer. Harvey tried to take apart the papers by Axe and Behe by noting that they didn't specifically mention ID. But Minnich explained that the point of these papers is to find specified complexity in sequence space--a prediction of ID. Meyer's paper remained the "elephant in the living room" against which Harvey apparently could muster no argument.

This line of questions seemed to be going nowhere for Harvey. So he started a line which rattled off the religious beliefs of many ID proponents. Minnich was happily open about the fact that he believes the designer is God, but explained that this belief does not come from ID theory. Harvey then began listing off the religious beliefs of many ID proponents who are Christians. It wasn't clear precisely what these ad hominem insinuations were supposed to mean. The lack of relevance became especially clear in light of Minnich's testimony about the famous British atheist Antony Flew who became an ID proponent after being a prominent proponent of atheism, but didn't have any particular religious commitment even after publicly stating his support for ID.

This line of questions definitely didn't get much out of Minnich. So Mr. Harvey decided to try to get Minnich to talk about the mechanism for ID. Minnich explained that ID doesn't say much in terms of the mechanism the designer used. (As Mr. Harvey would say, "we'll look at this in more detail later.") Somehow this fact was supposed to count against ID, as if because ID is silent on some questions, then it couldn't make statements about other questions. It also seems odd to criticize ID for limiting its claims to what can be inferred from the data. But I digress. Harvey's line of questioning inadvertently brought out the fact that ID is not an appeal to miracles, and isn't about "creation ex nihilo." It seemed like Harvey helped Minnich to prove a key point which weakened the plaintiffs' arguments against ID.

Harvey then tried to resurrect the debate between Paley and Hume talking about watches by making it into a modern debate between Minnich and Harvey talking about cell phones. Harvey's strategy was to get Minnich to admit that the ID argument is like Paley so he could take it down with the classical objections from Hume. Here's what happened:

Minnich explained that biologists recognize design in nature, and said that the important question is "if the design is real"--not necessarily "how the design was implemented" [paraphrased]. Minnich explained that ID is based upon a purposeful arrangement of parts and molecular machines. Harvey tried to twist this into a Paley-like argument, to which Minnich responded that his argument today is much more sophisticated than Paley's because today we have a more acute knowledge of the machine-like nature of structures in nature than did Paley.

Harvey then tried to use a Humean objection, explaining that since we have no experience with designers making biological machines, therefore Minnich's inference breaks down. Minnich then made a very compelling argument that we recognize that the algorithms and information processing in biology are more sophisticated than anything made by a human software engineer. We see an alphabet, numbers, information storage, and this all points to design. He said if anything this makes the inference to design in biology EVEN STRONGER than the inference to design that Paley tried to use!

Harvey then tried to characterize the ID argument as finding a "mouse in a field" but Minnich never took it to the level of the "mouse" and simply kept his inferences to design at the strong analogical level of inferring design due to the presence of machines and information processing systems which closely resembles those made by humans.

The net effect of this line of questioning actually was to bring out the strong nature of the positive arguments for design. Harvey's Humean objections also implied precisely why ID theory can only infer intelligence (which we do have observation-based experience with) but can't tell you if the designer is supernatural (because we don't have observation-based experience with the supernatural). Once again, Harvey helped prove Minnich's points.

Mr. Harvey was doing his best against a biochemist, and to his credit, wouldn't give up. Harvey tried to claim that a purposeful arrangement of parts didn't imply design. Minnich, who had repeatedly explained why this implied design then tried to pull a Clarence Darrow on Harvey by asking him "Tell me why it isn't a valid inference?" Harvey then started to say "luckily for me, I don't [have to answer your questions]" but stopped midway and instead decided to say "unluckily for you, you have to answer the questions." Harvey's Freudian slip was revealing: Harvey was lucky, because he had nothing to say in response to Minnich. He was speechless, and turned to another line of questioning.

Harvey then tried to get Minnich to explain that ID was just a negative argument for evolution. This attempt completely failed. Minnich had been providing positive arguments for ID all day long! Harvey tried to fit Minnich into making the "2-model" false dichotomy that "if it ain't evolution, then it must be ID." But Minnich explained that ID is fundamentally based upon a positive argument for ID--that the information processing in irreducibly complex systems in the cell implies that there is an intelligence associated with it. Having failed to pin Minnich down to making a purely negative argument for ID, Harvey decided it was best to take a break.

It was right at the end of this break that an elderly woman sitting next to me on the plaintiff's side said, "The witness is smarter than the lawyer." Again I have to give Mr. Harvey some credit. Minnich is a trained and experienced biochemist and Mr. Harvey was obviously a highly skilled and impressive advocate. I don't think it's fair to say that Scott Minnich was smarter than Mr. Harvey, because I was impressed with Harvey's ability as a non-scientist to be fairly conversant with the technical arguments over ID. Dr. Minnich is smart too, and I have no desire to render verdicts comparing anyone's intelligence, so my point is that I don't want to slander the skilled attorney's intelligence. The one thing that was clear up to this point: one person seemed to have more compelling arguments, and my lady friend's intuition knew who it was.

Note to Future Attorneys: Mid-Cross-Exam Breaks are Great for Regaining Composure
One advantage to being a cross-examining attorney is that you are in control of the questioning. It goes where you want it to go, it stops when you want it to stop, and then it resumes when you want it to resume. You call the shots. If you need a break, you take it and regain your composure. So that's what Harvey did.

After the break, Mr. Harvey regained his composure and did better, stylistically. But whatever Harvey gained in rhetorical style and emotional appeal, he continued to lack in actual substance. In fact, I found the fundamental weaknesses of the plaintiffs' arguments most revealing in this second half. If the arguments and articles Mr. Harvey and his NCSE support-staff thrust at Minnich were the best they could muster against ID, then as my colleague Logan Gage said after witnessing the day's cross examination, we have good reasons indeed to be confident in ID.

As a strictly rhetorical analysis, however, I'll say this: Minnich still scored a few points before Harvey built up emotional momentum to the point that he glamorously ended by making all the points for Minnich that ID proponents have been making all along in this trial. The eye that looks beyond the rhetoric will see who won.

Harvey started off with an admittedly tough question for Minnich: "are there objective, quantitative measures for design?" This is a hard question for Minnich to answer because Minnich's arguments were analogical. But that doesn't mean the evidence for ID couldn't be there, and Minnich replied that the argument is more intuitive than quantitative. Other ID proponents (like Dembski) might make more quantitative arguments, but Minnich's arguments are more analogical in nature. But I wish that, again, Harvey had been in the "unlucky" position of being the questionee, and could have been asked for quantitative arguments for evolution. That would have been quite interesting.

Next, Harvey turned to the Lenski paper. Minnich explained that the Lenski paper doesn't model biological reality because it pre-specifies the target it is supposed to evolve (and they knew it was evolvable before they started). As further evidence that this computer program was different from real biology, Minnich had explained that Lenski's lab has overseen tens of thousands of generations of real bacterial growth and seen very limited change--much less than in Lenski's computer simulation.

But the big paper Harvey trotted out to try to rebut Minnich's claim that there are no detailed Darwinian accounts of how complex systems or pathways arose was about "Mitochondrial Evolution" (from Science in 1999). It claimed to bear out the monophyletic nature of the alleged origin of mitochondria. Minnich countered that we want a true phylogeny--not just one possible phylogeny based upon sequence analysis. Harvey retorted that Minnich doesn't accept such studies out of personal incredulity; that the science just doesn't meet his personal standard. But Minnich noted that claims about common ancestry as such were mere inferences--similar to how we infer ID, and that the alleged phylogenetic history of the mitochondria wasn't hard fact. Harvey seemed to miss Minnich's point that these phylogenies are based upon the assumptions that "similarity should imply ancestry" which are not necessarily valid. I guess Harvey's ignorance was his bliss, because if he realized how right Minnich was then Harvey's confidence might have been shaken for the next paper.

Harvey then pointed to a paper about the alleged evolution of a complex biochemical pathway. The pathway allows bacteria to metabolize DNT (similar to TNT), which is a man-made compound. Obviously DNT doesn't exist naturally, so if bacteria can metabolize it, then obviously it had to have evolved very recently. Apparently some air-force scientists found a way to get DNT to be metabolized as part of a project to decompose this waste product using microorganisms. (This is similar to the project to use bugs to eat oil slicks. A little claim once made by a professor of mine once said that the oil-eating microorganisms have never been used in the real world because of fears that they might get into the world's oil supply, and eat it all.) In any case, Harvey tried to claim that this paper showed some important example of evolution. Minnich replied to Harvey "you don't understand my position." Minnich, who had previously read the paper, explained that to evolve this pathway required the modification of maybe 2 or 3 preexisting enzymes. There was really nothing new here, and certainly nothing approaching an irreducibly complex biomolecular machine. Minnich called this microevolution.

Harvey later challenged Minnich's assertion about Bruce Alberts' paper "The Cell as a Collection of Protein Machines" (1999, CELL). Harvey claimed that Alberts does not advocate using design engineering in molecular biology but read a quote at the end which recommends that students learn more basic biology, physics, and chemistry. But Minnich pointed to two other passages in the paper which bore out his argument that the point of Alberts' paper was to use those basic subjects in a combined manner so students could understand systems biology, which Minnich says implies they should learn principles of design engineering.

Having been out-quoted by Minnich, Harvey then asked if there is any ID research going on. But Minnich had already answered this question by talking about his own work on the TTSS, Behe's research published with David W. Snoke in Protein Science on IC in protein-protein interactions, and also Axe's work on specified complexity in the cell. Harvey called the argument for ID an argument from ignorance at which point Minnich confidently proclaimed that it isn't because "from our experience, a code implies a coder behind it."

Minnich then talked about predictions of ID such as functionality for Junk-DNA, and finding irreducible complexity in biological systems. Minnich explained that IC systems are evidence for design because they are a hallmark of intelligence.

Harvey then asked Minnich if ID talked about the age of the earth. Minnich answered "yes" and acknowledged his belief that the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Harvey then read a quote from the Pandas where it apparently alleges that ID doesn't take a stand on the age of the earth (pg. 92). Minnich apparently wasn't aware of this quote but if anything, Harvey's line of questioning here just showed how Minnich clearly was not a Genesis literalist, revealing that ID is far removed from creationism.

Harvey then claimed that a methodologically naturalistic definition of science would have to be changed in order to accommodate ID. Minnich agreed at first, but then explained that ID requires abandonment of methodological naturalism not because it excludes supernatural causes but rather because it excludes intelligent causes a priori. Thus, Minnich didn't claim that redefining science implies that ID is making supernaturalistic explanations. He simply claimed that ID explains via reference to intelligent causes.

The grand finale came when Mr. Harvey came up with a list of a bunch of questions ID can't address, and asked them sequentially of Dr. Minnich in a rhetorically powerful but substantively vacuous manner. The answer to these questions was generally "no" so Minnich came off as negative.

The questions asked were: if ID identifies the designer?; if it tells you the specific mechanism used by the designer?; if ID tells you when it was designed?; if ID tells the moral purpose of the designer?; or if ID implies a family of designers?.

Harvey actually proved Minnich's point that ID doesn't postulate supernatural explanations. In fact, Harvey proved all of Minnich's points that ID isn't talking about miracles, young earths, identities of designers, or moral purposes like intended "evil design." Harvey ended by saying something about that when the line crosses into "philosophy or theology," that is where the scientific theory of ID stops talking. Ironically, Harvey was exactly right. Harvey's ending helped Minnich prove many important points about intelligent design.

Minnich vs. Harvey: Who is the master intellect?
As the attorney in control of the questioning, Mr. Harvey had the option to end it here. So he did so when, by his own tone and rhetoric, he had built the questioning to an emotional high for his side. Harvey framed the questions in a way which emotionally and rhetorically disparaged and denigrated ID when all he was doing substantively was demonstrating that ID respects the limits of real scientific inquiry. This might pull the wool over the eyes of a jury, but to the trained ear of a learned Judge, all Harvey did was help Dr. Minnich demonstrate that ID doesn't get into any theological, religious, or philosophical questions which can't be based upon scientific evidence.

At this endpoint Harvey also employed a logical fallacy: he seemed to imply that if ID can't address some things, that therefore it can't provide answers to anything. The fact is, ID is not a theory of "everything." In reality, even if ID can't study questions like "is the designer supernatural," that doesn't mean it can't still address the question of whether there is real, actual design in nature. Unfortunately, Mr. Harvey got sucked in by the NCSE's preached-and-practiced advice to be an unpacifiable skeptic of ID and not take anything ID proponents are saying seriously. This attitude is well-exemplified in Pandamonium. Such Darwinists are impossible to please because they aren't interested in being pleased. They're only interested in playing rhetorical games to keep the evidence for real design in nature at a safe psychological (or, as in this case, legal) distance.

Here are some examples of NCSE-esque-rhetoric:

  • If ID does postulate the designer is God, then it isn't science. But if it is silent on that question and leaves completely open the possibilities (and doesn't rule out stuff like a 'family of designers'), then it is ridiculed as deficient.

  • If ID tells you that the design was good or bad, it is talking about moral purposes, which is improper for science making ID unscientific. But if it can't tell you if the design is evil (or good), it is ridiculed as deficient.

  • If ID tells you that there were miracles, then it is not scientific. But if it doesn't tell you if the mechanism was a "miracle" because science can't study that, or if it can't tell you about the mechanism because the data isn't telling us anything about this question, then ID is ridiculed as deficient for not providing a mechanism.
  • At this point, the plaintiffs' tactic was revealed. Here's how it works:

    (1) Try to get ID theory to make some claim that goes beyond the realm of science so you can call it unscientific;
    (2) If the ID proponent is respecting the limits of scientific inquiry and won't give in (like Scott Minnich) then emotionally and rhetorically ridicule his theory for not providing an answer to that question, or for remaining silent and thus not ruling out ridiculous options; or make some claim that it is vacuous as a theory.
    (3) This last point is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT: NEVER ever EVER acknowledge that ID proponents are right in noting that the claim you are trying to get them to make would go beyond the scope of science or what can be inferred from the data. And also DON'T acknowledge that there is a valid rationale for inferring design from the data. If you do either of those, you've lost.
    (4) And whatever you do, don't let them put you on the defensive by letting them ask you "Well, how do you propose to use empirical evidence to address that question?" because then you're checkmated. If you try to answer the question you concede that the design inference can be based on legitimate empirical evidence; but if you recognize that empirical evidence cannot establish the claim, then you legitimatize that the claim is beyond the scope of science. Thus, it's safest to only use this tactic when you are "lucky enough to not be the person answering the questions."
    In the end, very few of Mr. Harvey's questions had any bearing on constitutional issues, apart from the fact that he helped Minnich further demonstrate that ID is based upon empirical evidence and does not try to answer religious questions.

    Namecalling or a Bluff?
    Later in the day, an ACLU attorney apparently called Minnich-ian observations that the genetic code contains an information processing system far more advanced than anything any human has ever created, "a meager little analogy that collapses immediately upon inspection":

    His opponent, a lawyer for the 11 parents suing the school board, dismissed intelligent design as dishonest, unscientific and based entirely on "a meager little analogy that collapses immediately upon inspection." (Closing Arguments Made in Trial on Intelligent Design by Laurie Goodstein, NY Times)
    Given Minnich's credibility as an expert in studying biomolecular machines, I must ask this question: is the plaintiffs' attorney offering compelling rhetoric or is this just typical Darwinist namecalling?

    As an ID proponent who believes in academic freedom to learn about science, I'll say something here that the Darwinists' counsel was afraid to let students hear about ID: you weigh the evidence and decide for yourself.