Melanie Phillips displays scientific ignorance…twice

Melanie Phillips has in my opinion dug herself into a bit of a hole over the last few days, writing an opinion piece in The Spectator (Creating an insult to intelligence) concerning Intelligent Design (a subject she does seem ill-equipped to comment on), and after it got rather rubbished (by people who are better qualified), a lengthy follow-up also published in the Spectator (The secular inquisition). In the first article, Phillips is somewhat exercised by those who claim that ID is merely creationism in disguise – in particular a Radio 4 interview with Ken Miller, in which:

Miller referred to a landmark US court case in 2005, Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District, which did indeed uphold the argument that Intelligent Design was a form of Creationism in its ruling that teaching Intelligent Design violated the constitutional ban against teaching religion in public schools. But the court was simply wrong, doubtless because it had heard muddled testimony from the likes of Prof Miller.

Phillips goes on to define creationism as follows:

Creationism, whose proponents are Bible literalists, is a specific doctrine which holds that the earth was literally created in six days.

Of course, those of us used to dealing with fundie dimwits are aware that this merely described Young Earth Creationism. There’s a whole spectrum of creationist belief, including Francis Collins’  BioLogos, which is a rehashed theistic evolution. But what of ID? Of ID, Phillips says:

Intelligent Design, whose proponents are mainly scientists, holds that the complexity of science suggests that there must have been a governing intelligence behind the origin of matter, which could not have developed spontaneously from nothing.

So, here we have a definition that really describes a creation event. Indeed Phillips goes on to write:

The confusion arises partly out of ignorance, with people lazily confusing belief in a Creator with Creationism.

That doesn’t seem to me to be a lazy confusion. ID proponents do invoke a creator in the world-view. Indeed the Kitzmiller v Dover case clearly blew apart the claims of ID proponents that ID was indeed a scientific approach. In fact ID cannot make testable scientific proposals, because in the end, a supernatural entity is responsible. Phillips winds up with this:

On Today, Humphrys perfectly reasonably pressed Miller further. If ID was merely a disguised form of Creationism, he asked, why were so many intelligent people prepared to accept ID but not Creationism? Miller replied:

Intelligent people can sometimes be wrong.

Indeed; and it is Prof Miller who is wrong. Creationism and Intelligent Design are two completely different ways of looking at the world; and you don’t have to subscribe to either to realise the untruth that is being propagated — and the wrong that is being done to people’s reputations — by the pretence that they are connected.

Actually, intelligent people can be wrong. Phillips may well be intelligent, but it would seem that on scientific issues she is woefully undereducated. A quick squizz at Wikipedia reveals not only that her higher education was in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, but that she’s been involved in other scientific controversies. She apparently perpetuates the MMR-autism myth (earning the wrath of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is said to have called her “the MMR sceptic who just doesn’t understand science”) and is a global warming denialist.  So, should we take her views as to the scientific nature of ID seriously? I suggest not.

A number of bloggers have taken her to task over this article, notably Jerry Coyne, author of the excellent “Why Evolution is True” (a book, incidentally, that Phillips should read, if she’s not done so already), who blogged (UK columnist defends intelligent design) a brief but heavy criticism. In response to that article and others, Phillips came out fighting, with the second Spectator article, and one that’s even longer than the first, but even less convincing. It’s this article that really reveals the depths of Phillips ignorance. Classic misapprehensions abound:

So what’s the big hullabaloo about? ID proponents are said by the Charles Johnsons of this world to deny evolution. But this is not so. Creationists deny evolution. But ID proponents say over and over again they are not Creationists and accept many aspects of evolution, in particular that organisms develop and change over time.

What they don’t accept is that random, blind-chance evolution accounts for the origin of all species and the origin of life, the universe and everything. ID proponents say the idea that science can account for everything – the doctrine known variously as materialism or scientism – flies in the face of reason and evidence and seeks to commandeer the space previously reserved for the unknowable, or religion, which can sit very comfortably alongside science, as it does for so many. [my emphasis]

Well, actually, evolution isn’t “random blind-chance”, as any biology student would know, and evolution does not concern “the origin of life, the universe and everything”. Phillips later writes:

ID is thus a paradox. The whole point is that it states that the ‘intelligent designer’ it posits as the only logical inference from scientifically verifiable complexity cannot be known through scientific means. This is because the essence of the ID idea is that there is a limit to science beyond which it cannot go, since science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God nor any kind of ‘ultimate designer’ of the universe which thus stands outside that universe and its laws. That is where science stops and faith begins.

OK, so there we have it, clearly stated by Melanie Phillips – Intelligent Design is not science. Can she now accept that she has been pontificating about something she doesn’t know about or understand? Well, sort of:

To repeat – I have no particular brief for ID. I am not in a position to judge whether its arguments about ‘irreducible complexity’ and the logic of intelligent design are soundly based or not. But I do know that the attempt to shut down this debate runs against every principle of rationality and scientific freedom; and that the claim that it is rooted not in science but in religious fundamentalism is a falsehood designed to smear and intimidate people into silence.

Phillips clearly isn’t in a position to judge ID on its scientific merits. She shouldn’t have written the first article, let alone dig herself deeper with the second.  Jerry Coyne’s latest response can be found at his blog (Poor beleaguered Melanie Phillips!). He finishes with this line “On the other head, maybe she’s just ignorant and biased, like the Inquisitors themselves.” On the evidence of these two articles, I’m inclined to agree.

4 thoughts on “Melanie Phillips displays scientific ignorance…twice

    1. I had the misfortune to look into when writing that blog article.
      The astonishing thing is that she thinks she's qualified to pontificate about something she clearly knows nothing about. The depths of her ignorance of evolution, and the scientific method is breathtaking.
      Here's another blog about her Spectator bullshit article – Respectful Insolence –

  1. She thinks she`s qualified to pontificate about EVERYTHING! She`s on Question Time quite often, and displays arrogance, unswerving self-belief, and an almost total lack of humour: she`s the very last person you`d want on your side in an argument!! I believe she`s Jewish – she certainly takes their side without question. Slaughtering innocent Palestinians and stealing their land is just part of the Jews` right to "peaceful" co-existence: she never criticises them. On almost ANY subject, I could quite confidently predict what her line would be and be proved 100% correct! And as for "Intelligent Design": if you`ve got an "Intelligence", then you`ve got a "Creator" – how can you possibly argue otherwise? The whole point is that they`re too "intellectual" to be seen as Bible Bashers, so they have to dress it all up in a more acceptable garb; but whether we`re talking about 6 days or 6 aeons, it`s still "God" creating the Universe!!

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