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A Broom that sweeps litter in

A comic strip in a book format

By Mark Perakh

Posted on April 18, 2003

Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Curiosity - the driving force of science

  3. Broom's own idea

  4. The new shape of divinity according to Broom

  5. The business of science according to Broom

  6. What is life - according to Broom
  7. More of the same

  8. Conclusion

  9. References

1. Introduction

Hardly anybody would deny that a broom is a useful tool in a household. Useful, that is, if utilized to remove litter from living quarters. Nothing, though, in the broom construction prevents using it for dragging litter into the house. A reasonable person, though, would hardly make such use of a broom.

However, if a broom is not just a broom but a Neil Broom, he can easily find publishers and admirers acclaiming his actions, which are in fact the equivalent of sweeping litter into living quarters. All it takes is capitalizing on the popularity of the thesis according to which science allegedly supports religious dogma, and whenever it does not do so it is because of science's severe limitations.

A book by Mr. Broom [1] titled How Blind Is a Watchmaker? was first published in England (Ashgate, Aldershot 1998) and then reprinted by InterVarsity Press in the USA. The book's title is an obvious reference to the widely known book [2] by Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker) which itself was a reference to William Paley's "watchmaker argument" [3] otherwise known as a version of the "argument from design."

Broom's book has the subtitle "Nature's Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science." While the first half of that subtitle, "Nature's Design" is hardly much more than gobbledygook whose meaning is Broom's secret, the second half seems to contradict Broom's thesis according to which all science, as it has been practiced so far, is "naturalistic." Therefore the word "naturalistic" in the subtitle does not seem to carry any useful function. In fact, Broom's thesis is about the limitations of science as a whole, whose main deficiency, according to Broom, is in not allowing for the supernatural explanation of the observed phenomena.

No wonder that InterVarsity Press, which is a publishing outlet of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, chose Broom's opus for re-printing. This organization specializes in publishing books and periodicals promoting religion in a quasi-scientific disguise. No wonder also that Broom's opus is accompanied by a foreword from William Dembski and by blurbs from Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, and the theologian James Loder. Even without reading Broom's book, just noticing the names of the notorious quartet of Intelligent Design gurus enthusiastically approving it provides a reliable prognosis of what a reader may gain from Broom's creation: hardly anything useful, but possibly a little fun.

Indeed, whoever has patience to read the more than two hundred pages of Broom's narrative will hardly gain anything useful but possibly will have a little of fun. The reason for the fun is that Mr. Broom has missed his real vocation as a cartoonist. His book is in fact a comic strip in a book form wherein many funny cartoons are diluted by a torrent of quotations with only a few sprinklings of Broom's own notions.

From the biographical data on the book's cover we learn that Neil Broom, PhD, is an associate professor of chemical and mechanical engineering and has worked in biomechanical research. Biomechanical research and teaching chemical or mechanical engineering are respectable endeavors. Since he also is a talented cartoonist able to engage in an enjoyable hobby, one can only shrug and wonder why a person with a good profession and a fine hobby would waste his time and effort on producing such a book. This book contains almost nothing original. It looks like an attempt to assert its author's religious beliefs by mining quotations from many other sources and ignoring arguments which contradict his thesis.

In fact, there is in Broom's book one point which may be considered as his original contribution to the subject of Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism. I will discuss that original contribution a little later. There is also a certain point in his book providing some information not found in the books of other ID advocates. This point stems from Broom's being a New Zealander. As such, he seems to be a great New Zealand patriot. I believe that New Zealand is a wonderful country. Being patriotic is often considered a respectable trait. However, while nothing is wrong in loving one's country, it is advisable not to forget that it is by chance that one was born in that particular corner of the globe. A narrow patriotism which taints one's judgment in a way making one exaggerate one country's merits as compared with other places on the same planet is often more comic than respectable.

From Mr. Broom's book, whose subject does not seem to have anything to do with such assertions, we learn, for example, that it was not brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright who invented airplane but Richard Pearse of New Zealand. Perhaps Dr. Broom would be surprised to learn that his compatriot Pearse has at least one more competitor in the quest for fame. There are scores of books and articles asserting that the first airplane was invented by a Russian named Mozhaiski. This story was vigorously promoted by the communist rulers of the former USSR. Their preposterous thesis was that in fact all important inventions and discoveries were made in Russia. Hundreds of books and endless streams of articles, dissertations, and lectures inundated Russia, all intended to prove that ridiculous thesis. To the Russian people's credit, by and large they related to that propaganda with a disdainful smirk. Their ironic attitude to such attempts at glorifying their culture (which indeed is second to none in its literature, music, theater, and, yes, excellent science) by attributing to it everything ever invented or discovered was perhaps best evinced by an ubiquitous in Russia derisive saying, "Russia is the Motherland of Elephants." With the end of communist rule, the pseudo-history of Russian science went the way of other communist lies and boastings.

When reading Broom's assertion of New Zealand's priority in the invention of aviation, or his reference to Sir Edmund Hillary's magnificent achievement of 1953 when (together with the great Sherpa mountain climber Tenzing Norgay) he was the first human to set feet on Jomolungma's summit (known in the West as Mount Everest), a feat certainly admirable (as I myself having been an avid mountain climber would gladly acclaim) but irrelevant to the subject of Broom's book, it reminded me of the ludicrously boastful communist propaganda.

If I were asked to succinctly define the main thesis of Broom's book, my reply would perhaps be that it essentially is an effort to prove the fatal limitations of science. Broom tries to qualify his thesis by addressing what he views as the universal feature of "materialistic science," a feature he refers to as "reductionism." This thesis amply demonstrates that the chemical engineer and expert in biomechanical research Neil Broom has a very narrow understanding of what science really is.

Every scientist would agree with Broom that science has limitations. However, these limitations have not prevented science from achieving great success. Moreover, these limitations have nothing to do with any philosophical premises. Scientific process had indeed entailed what is often referred to as methodological naturalism. The reason for that is, though, not any philosophical predisposition but sheer expediency. This approach has ensured the great success of the scientific method. This approach, however, does not entail automatic exclusion of a study of any object simply because it is determined to be beyond the "shackles of naturalism." The scientific method is limited by only one requirement it requires evidence. The question of whether a phenomenon is natural or supernatural is beyond science and is therefore not asked.

We see from Broom's book that he has two hobbies. One is the innocent hobby of drawing cartoons. The other is far from innocent. It is based on a desire rooted in Broom's religious preferences, to undermine the respect for science.

Perhaps the clearest expression of Broom's real attitude to science is found on page 194 of his book. In Broom's opinion (not supported even by a single piece of evidence) scientists (with a few exceptions like Broom and his co-believers) refuse to admit the supernaturalistic explanations of observed phenomena because of their alleged "craving for power." It is also referred to as a "desire to retain control over a mini-universe humanistically and therefore falsely delineated by an impoverished, naturalistic science...."

I wonder whether Broom applies the same criteria "delineated" in the quoted statement to his biomechanical research. His sweeping generalization of why scientists avoid supernatural interpretations of their data is too obviously contrary to facts, and making such statements is so far from an impartial attitude based on evidence that it makes one wonder what kind of scientist Broom can possibly be. If in his view science based on methodological naturalism is "impoverished" then obviously we deal here with a discourse that is not only far from being scientific but also is bluntly antagonistic to science. Indeed, since, as Broom himself asserts, science until now has been firmly grounded in methodological naturalism, and this makes science "impoverished" then in Broom's view all science is "impoverished" and hence a very inept tool for explaining the world.

To save the situation, Broom's prescription is unequivocal: let the supernatural enter science, apply the concept of God to find answers to scientific problems, and the severe limitations of science will be lifted. Here is what he says, "... for the reader who is willing to step out in a direction signposted by inferences drawn from an examination of some of the limitations of naturalistic science, there is a much more exciting journey to be made. It is a journey into a realm that must embody and yet transcend those qualities expressed in the material laws that this science so elegantly describes. It is, I believe, a journey toward the transcendent Divine presence." I wonder whether in his work on the development of a heart valve Broom enjoyed the direct advice from God or he followed instead the regular procedure of scientific research which has always been divorced from the researcher's religious beliefs? How precisely does Broom envision that journey toward divine presence when, say, designing a heart valve?

Broom is entitled to believe in anything of his choice. His beliefs, however, carry no weight for anybody else unless supported by evidence. There is not even a shadow of such evidence anywhere in Broom's book, only unsubstantiated declarations that have been heard many times before.

There are believers of various kinds among scientists, from Catholics to Buddhists and from Bahais to Moslems, as well as atheists and agnostics. They often work elbow to elbow in their labs, exchange data and theories at conferences and congresses, publish articles in co-authorships, and their religious beliefs and affiliations are not obstacles to their co-operation. As soon as they step into their labs, all of them apply the lamented- by-Broom methodological naturalism and achieve great successes. Broom's fuzzy prescription for following his "journey toward divine presence," even if his prescription were specific and practically viable (which it is not by any measure), would only lead researchers astray and paralyze free inquiry.

Therefore, in my view Broom's book is not only useless, it is actually a rather obnoxious effort by a religious zealot to shackle science by making it subordinate to pre-conceived beliefs, and this is contrary to the very essence of science. Fortunately Broom's book hardly has a chance to affect any substantial number of scientists (though it may possibly become popular among those already converted to Broom's creed).

Let us now talk more in detail about particular features of Broom's book.

2. Curiosity - the driving force of science

I will start my discussion of specific features in Broom's book from his Appendix. This will enable me to dispose of the discussion of the only one of Broom's points I agree with and thus free me to rebut the rest of his discourse. On page 194 we read, "Humans are creatures driven by intense curiosity. From ancient times this urge to discover focused not just on the myriad detail of our immediate environment but also on the much larger picture of human existence and its place within the vastness of cosmos." Continuing, Broom provides a brief description of the development of science which seems out of place in his book. However, since Broom deems it proper to expand on the topic of the development of science, it seems worthwhile to briefly review a few points of his Appendix.

I fully agree with Broom that curiosity has indeed been the driving force of inquiry into the unknown and therefore the source of the emergence and development of science. Broom, however, omits the question of why humans possess curiosity. He seems not to notice that having curiosity as an inherent feature of human nature finds a very natural Darwinian explanation. Curiosity is a very useful feature of the human mind. Having given birth to science, it served to immensely improve the conditions of the human existence. Therefore it was a powerful tool of evolution.

Of course Broom has a ready counter-explanation that the transcendent God has imbued the humans with curiosity in the furtherance of his purpose. Such a hypothesis, besides being arbitrary, i.e. not based on any factual evidence, entails serious problems. One is that curiosity is not an absolute advantage. Science led not only to the improvement of the human condition but also to the invention of horrible tools of destruction, inventions which were intended to provide advantages to certain groups of people against other groups of people. The argument stating that the ways of God are unfathomable does not sound to me convincing. Such an argument essentially means the admission that the hypothesis of God provides no explanation. On the other hand, the Darwinian explanation, according to which evolution has no target, provides a very elegant answer to the question of why humans possess curiosity.

Broom starts his historical essay with a bit about Francis Bacon. He refers with approval to Bacon's ideas that knowledge has to be based on "properly organized observation and experimentation, the careful recording of results and the need for interaction among investigators in different disciplines."

Bravo, Dr. Broom. If only he followed Bacon's advice in his own discourse. Broom seems not to notice that his rants about the alleged "shackles" of the materialistic philosophy which "suffocate science" and about the alleged necessity to allow for a supernatural explanation of the facts are by and large pure speculations without any basis in "properly organized observation and experimentation."

In fact, Broom's dream is subordinating scientific inquiry to the religious dogma, preferably of his own version an attitude long rejected by science because of its utter futility. Broom and his co-believers in the ID movement wish to turn the clock back. If they succeed, it would mean the death of science and the advent of a kingdom of obscurantism. Science works very well based on methodological naturalism, which is not a philosophical premise but only an expedient foundation for the progress. It does not prevent individual scientists from being religious and adhering to whatever faith (or lack thereof) each of them is free to embrace. If Broom or his co-believers ever manage to offer evidence for the supernatural origin of a single piece of data, then and only then will science readily adopt such an explanation. Such an occurrence, however unlikely, will in no way be contrary to the scientific method which has only one overriding rule follow the evidence.

3. Broom's own idea

Broom's book, as mentioned before, seems to offer only one notion which may be viewed as his original idea. It is evinced in chapter 10 and is, essentially, the notion that natural selection, if believed to be indeed the driving force of evolution, is anything but natural. The chapter in question is titled How Natural is Natural Selection?

Broom starts his assault with a quotation attributed to an American biologist John Avise, "Natural selection is merely an amoral force, as inevitable and uncaring as gravity." Broom views this quotation as "deliciously bizarre." He sets out to "explore this pivotal idea in some depth" (page 159).

Unfortunately for Broom, a reader would look in vain for an in-depth exploration of the point in question. In fact his discourse is disappointingly shallow. It can be expressed succinctly as the assertion that assuming the paramount role of natural selection in the emergence of the panoply of life means first assuming that "'to want to live' in the face of testing external challenges is a paramount biological principle" (page 160). He elaborates with another platitude, "If a particular innovation that improves an organism's chances of survival is to be exploited by the sieving action of natural selection, then this can happen only if the survival instinct operates as an absolute principle in the natural world."

I will leave without discussion the dubious reference to a principle (any principle) being "absolute," since Broom seems to be unaware of the exceptions to the principle in question. I will instead briefly review his argument against the selection being "natural."

He writes (page 160), "The moment we advance the notion that things actually want to live, to improve their lot, to go on living in the face of potentially destructive forces, we have transgressed the fundamental assumption of an impersonal, law-bound universe. Natural selection therefore embodies an idea that is both unnatural and alien to the spirit of materialistic science."

One can only wonder how such Broom's colleagues as Dembski who have supposedly been trained in philosophy and logic and who have so enthusiastically acclaimed Broom's book failed to at least notice the egregious lack of logic and substantiation in Broom's sole original notion. Broom's assertion that natural selection entails teleology, or "vitalistic ambitions" (page 160) is too obviously arbitrary since the principle of natural selection itself very naturally explains why the living organisms "want to live." No "vitalism" or teleology need to be invoked to substantiate the obvious logical conclusion that natural selection must necessarily favor organisms possessing the instinct of survival. In the competition for survival the organisms possessing a strong tendency to fight for survival would obviously have great advantages over the organisms which have a weaker instinct of survival. Those modifications of organisms which possess no tendency to survive or have that tendency weakened would be naturally eliminated in the course of evolution.

Attributing the instinct for survival to supernatural forces has no logical or empirical foundation, so Broom's only original thesis hardly deserves serious consideration.

In chapter 10 Broom endlessly harps about the alleged teleological implications of the observed phenomena without providing a single argument based on evidence. He asserts the alleged indisputable truth of his views even when interpreting the ideas of other authors, like Dawkins. For example, on page 167, when discussing the explanation of the development of eye in Dawkins's book Climbing Mount Improbable, Broom writes, "The very fact that Dawkins admits to aiming for the summit, or, in his own words 'only accepting mutations that improve optical performance,' is surely the most blatant admission that his version of neo-Darwinism is, despite claims to the contrary, profoundly goal-centered and purposeful." For anybody not brainwashed by intelligent design obfuscations, it is Broom's quoted assertion that is blatantly unsubstantiated. To anybody who has read Dawkins's book it is abundantly clear that Dawkins's position has nothing to do with its misrepresentation by Broom. Dawkins clearly and unequivocally explains that Darwinian evolution is a targetless process having no aims or designs.

Many more examples of Broom's contempt for facts could be quoted.

While in chapter 10 Broom at least suggests (albeit without any substantiation) his own idea, in the rest of his book he simply reiterates the notions suggested many times before by intelligent design advocates, all of which have been shown to be fallacious by biologists, information theorists and probability theorists.

4. The new shape of divinity according to Broom

The first chapter in Broom's book is titled The New Shape of Divinity. This title does not seem to reflect the contents of the chapter. Broom starts with the assertion that modern science is based on philosophical materialism. He writes (page 17), "The philosophy of materialism, or naturalism, largely dominates scientific interpretation of the natural world." A little further he adds, "Philosophical materialism sees humanity as an unplanned artifact, a biological byproduct of a wholly material sequence of events."

While these two statements sound like a reasonable statement of the factual situation, they are in fact misleading. Science indeed incorporates methodological naturalism as an underlying principle of the exploration of reality, but, first, this does not necessarily entail ontological materialism, and, second, it is not a philosophical premise of scientific theories but rather an expedient approach which has been proven to successfully work. Since it works, scientists see no need to reach beyond natural explanations of the observed phenomena.

All subsequent attempts by Broom to assert the desirability of including the supernatural into science suffer from the common malaise of such efforts the lack of any evidence which would justify invoking unobservable disembodied entities of unknown essence, be they God or gods, or any other supernatural sources and forces.

Broom's real passion becomes quite evident as we read through the chapter in question wherein he argues passionately that science is in fact a very unreliable endeavor. Of course, as usual for such assaults on science, Broom never directly admits that he abhors science. Instead, he paints a picture of science which has little in common with real science. In Broom's presentation scientists are driven by ulterior motivations, pursuing fame, money, and recognition rather than truth. Of course scientists are human, and as such many of them are indeed in pursuit of prizes, fame, and recognition. However, contrary to Broom, all this is a footnote rather than the main feature of science.

Here are the titles of the sections in chapter 1 of Broom's book: The Inner Sanctum of Science; Aristocrats and High Priests; Mechanistic Mongers of Gloom.

These titles alone reveal Broom's real attitude to science. This attitude is of one who has very negative feelings toward science and is eager to denigrate it. In order to redeem itself in Broom's eyes, science must (page 23) "admit to its own fundamental limitations and not to yield to the temptation of pronouncing on matters that lie beyond its legitimate reach."

I have news for Broom: science does not need his advice since he addresses a non-existent issue. Science readily admits its limitations without having waited for Mr. Broom's suggesting it do so; it does not pronounce on matters that lie beyond its legitimate reach. On the other hand, the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate in science do not lie where Broom would like to set them.

In Broom's opinion, the questions which are illegitimate for science are "the really big questions of life," (page 23) whatever (undefined) meaning Broom attaches to that term. In fact, the only illegitimate questions for science are those which are not about evidence. Whatever the "really big questions of life" are, they are fully legitimate questions for science as long as they are weighed in view of available evidence.

The notions Broom tries to advance in his book are indeed illegitimate for science because his thesis suggesting the necessity of introducing the supernatural into science is not based on any evidence.

Except for chapter 10 wherein, as mentioned, Broom at least suggested some notions of his own, the rest of his book looks more like a compendium of quotations than like original material.

5. The business of science according to Broom

Chapter 3 in Broom's book is titled The Business of Science. This chapter starts with platitudes, proceeds with more platitudes, and never gets out of platitudes.

On page 29 we read, "First, science is not equipped to give us truth in an absolute sense." What news! Broom apparently believes that until he explained the real situation, scientists erroneously thought that they possessed absolute truth. Broom's remark would be much more appropriate if he spoke about religions which indeed often assert possessing the absolute truth obtained through revelations. Such a statement, although true, would work against Broom's beliefs, so he carefully avoids the question of the veracity of religions, pouncing instead upon science. In fact, unlike religions, science never pretends to possess absolute truth, so Broom fights a straw man.

To support his thesis Broom mines quotations, often out of context, from such diverse sources as, for example, Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi. Anybody familiar with the views of Popper and Polanyi a little beyond the quotations cut by Broom out of the writing of these two authors will be aware that their views have very little in common.

Moreover, the views of either of these authors are just that their personal views and it is easy to mine any number of quotations contrary to whatever Broom managed to dig out of their literary output.

For example, the quotation from Popper ends with the following sentence: "An observation is always preceded by a particular interest, a question, or a problem in short, by something theoretical."

While the level of Popper's philosophical discourse is way above the jejune philosophy of Broom, his opinions are by no means uncontroversial. In particular, his assertion than an observation is always preceded by something theoretical is obviously unduly generalized. When Tycho de Brahe conducted his meticulous observations of planetary motions, nothing theoretical preceded these observations. In the next step, Johannes Kepler found mathematical equations accurately describing the planetary motions (with certain exceptions) but even at that stage no theoretical "something" was underlying his calculations but only a careful consideration of the evidence. Only when Newton derived the three Kepler's equations based on the laws of gravitation did "something" theoretical enter the discourse.

As for Michael Polanyi, he was a qualified chemist (as, for example, in his work, in 1935, together with Horiuti [4], on the calculation of the electrochemical overvoltage). However, even if we appreciate Polanyi's valuable (albeit limited) contribution to electrochemistry, this does not make him a qualified philosopher of science, and his views are nothing more than his personal preferences. In his philosophical pieces Polanyi fell short of relying on rigorous criteria like those he applied in his work in genuine science. Broom's references to Polanyi show nothing more than his sharing some of Polanyi's opinions which have no evidentiary value and which are based not on factual evidence but only on personal biases.

On page 42 we read, "For science to be successful, it must have a non-scientific base." I believe this quotation alone is sufficient to show that Broom's book is a piece of wishful thinking sprinkled with some absurd notions. In Broom's world science is an enterprise whose power is " faltering" (page 39), the thesis he mulls over and over, filling the pages of his opus with multiple quotations from various sources and filling the gaps between the quotations with unsubstantiated declarations sounding odd from an author who himself claims to be a practicing scientist.

6. What is life - according to Broom

Chapter 3 in Broom's book is titled What Is Life? Of course this is a vexing question and readers may be expected to eagerly turn to Broom's discourse anticipating deep analysis of the essence of life. They are up for a disappointment. First, the chapter contains very little of Broom's own ideas but instead is long on quotations, mainly again from Polanyi. The great idea Broom adheres to is in fact the notion that life, although displaying many features of mechanical systems, is not reducible to physics and chemistry. What news! What is absent though in Broom's discussion, 90 percent of which consists of quotations, is a reasonable answer regarding what precisely makes life more than a physical and chemical process. To simply say that life is something more than physics and chemistry without specifying what constitutes its distinction from physics and chemistry means saying nothing of substance.

For example, on page 54 Broom asserts that "life is inexplicable in terms of the lower level laws of physics and chemistry. Some other, higher level of control that transcends the purely material law is required." We can ask which non-material laws are required. How do you know those laws are non-material? Have you scientifically investigated that question? Obviously, Broom's assertion is arbitrary; it is not based on factual evidence but is only due to Broom's apparent lack of imagination and propensity for resorting to an easy escape from the problem to invoke his irrational beliefs stemming from his religious background. His assertion is just a low-level example of an argument from ignorance and of a lack of logic.

No wonder Broom admires the literary output of leading intelligent design advocates such as Behe. On page 61 we read, "Biochemist Michael Behe in his recent book Darwin's Black Box demonstrates clearly the irreducibly complex nature of various biological machines." This statement in fact "demonstrates clearly" that Broom's approach to his subject is completely unscientific. When scientists discuss a controversial issue, they always try to consider arguments both in favor and against the concept in question, regardless of which side they themselves adhere to. Broom heaps praise on Behe but ignores the other side the multiple articles, books, web postings and lectures by biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers [7, 8, 9, 10, 11] which to my mind "demonstrate clearly" the fallaciousness of Behe's concept.

The concluding section of chapter 3 is titled "What Does It Mean To Be Alive?" Unfortunately, after having read that section a reader is left without any semblance of an answer to that question. It looks as if Broom's ambitions, evident from such promising titles, substantially exceed his ability to treat his subject on a reasonably fruitful level. All Broom managed to come up with (page 71) is a quotation attributed to Jesus, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?" (Luke 24:5, NIV). It seems reasonable to ask, What this quotation has to do with the question of what life is? Digging quotations out of the Bible to support a view on a scientific question does not seem to be the best way to finding an answer to such a question, but Broom apparently can't offer a better argument than an irrelevant saying dating thousand years back.

7. More of the same

One of the features of Broom's book is that is plainly boring by virtue of being largely a mix of lengthy quotations with unsubstantiated declarations. Am I impolite in my discussion of Broom's opus? Perhaps I am, but this is mainly just a reply in kind. Broom is quite impolite himself in his assault on everybody who does not share his beliefs. For example, on pages 77-78 (chapter 4) we find Broom's repudiation of the books by David Attenborough, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Isaac Asimov. In Broom's opinion, these authors are (page 78) "...blatantly misleading and intellectually irresponsible." By having applied such denigrating epithets to respectable authors who happen to hold views different from Broom's he invites replies in the same manner, without a veneer of the restraint typical of scientific disputes.

Broom's assault on these (and other) popular writers also reminds me of the well known fable by the Russian fable writer Ivan Krylov. In that fable an elephant was shown to public on a street. A tiny puppy jumped out of the crowd and started barking furiously at the elephant. The latter did not pay attention to the small dog. In the crowd, though, some people said, "Look at that puppy. Evidently she is very strong if she dares to bark at the elephant."

It is a very unrewarding and boring task to repudiate all the unsubstantiated declarations, distortions and misleading statements which are so abundant throughout Broom's book. I could not find in that book a single thesis regarding its subject which he has either proven or at least discussed in an impartial manner. Broom has beliefs and convictions and no facts can shatter them. Therefore I will not discuss the rest of Broom's book systematically but will instead address a few points selected more or less randomly from the panoply of misstatements, arbitrary assertions, and other displays of his heavy bias and unwillingness (or inability) to weigh the evidence impartially.

Here is a quotation from page 82 illustrating Broom's unbounded (but unfounded) self-confidence. Writing about the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Broom concludes with the following tirade: "the Field Museum would do well to either pull down the shutters on this particularly bad piece of pop-science or, better still, use it to explain to viewers that such a purely material approach to the origin-of-life question has nothing whatsoever to contribute."

On the next page we find another example of Broom's contemptuous attitude to science as it has been practiced with enormous success following the guidelines set already by Bacon, and later by Galileo, "In all of the origin-of-life scenarios I have mentioned there is little offered but the parroting of fairy-tale materialism constructed philosophically from atoms, molecules, heat, lightning, vast dollops of time and monumental leaps of fantasy."

Unfortunately for Broom and his colleagues in the ID crowd, unlike in science, which has discovered atoms and molecules, his conceptual system contains nothing at all besides "monumental leaps of fantasy." In fact, although pretending he is only trying to improve the process of scientific inquiry by freeing it from the "shackles" of a philosophical pre-disposition, Broom is actually an enemy of science and an advocate of obscurantism of a rather explicit kind. When talking about science he is "parroting" the worn-out canards about science being allegedly hijacked by materialistic philosophy. When the question is what he can suggest instead, the abject futility of his position is immediately obvious as he does not offer a single concrete idea regarding how to do science differently from the proven path it has been following so far.

In chapter 5, titled Serious Science and Life Origin, we find statements which are rather odd coming from a professor of chemical and material engineering. For example, on page 85 we read, "... much of our understanding of the material world given to us through the disciplines of physics and chemistry has been achieved by exploiting the powerful conceptual tool of equilibrium thermodynamics - the science dealing with the relationship between heat energy and mechanical forces. The problem we are confronted with when studying the living world is that biological organisms are critically dependent on a complex array of mechanisms that operate under conditions far from equilibrium."

This statement misrepresents the actual situation. First, thermodynamics is not simply studying the relationship between "heat energy" and mechanical forces. This definition could be perhaps applied to the embryonic thermodynamics of Carnot (the first half of the 19th century). However, after Carnot thermodynamics underwent rapid and drastic development growing into the most fundamental part of physics, one that reaches far beyond the relationship between thermal and mechanical energies.

Second, the difference between living organisms and inanimate bodies is not in that the former operate under non-equilibrium conditions whereas the latter are in equilibrium. In fact all real processes are non-equilibrium ones (often also referred to as irreversible). Nevertheless, classical thermodynamics, which is based on the equilibrium approximation, is indeed a powerful tool, enabling us to successfully study the real irreversible processes, as long as we account for the limitations of the equilibrium approximation. This is true both for non-biological processes (such as, for example, corrosion of metals) and the biological ones.

The real thermodynamic difference between inanimate bodies and living organisms is in their behavior regarding their entropy (there are also non-thermodynamic differences). Very briefly and simplifying the real situation, it can be said that open inanimate systems can be constructed as homeostatic systems (i.e. preserving their temperature and composition in a relatively narrow range regardless of the changes of conditions in the surrounding medium) but they never decrease their entropy spontaneously. Living organisms are not only often naturally homeostatic, they also maintain their entropy for prolonged periods of time around a relatively stable level (while even stronger increasing the entropy of the environment) and are even capable of spontaneously decreasing their entropy (for example, in the process of an embryo's development). As Broom's reference to thermodynamics seems to show, he may be unaware of these facts. If this is the case, he is hardly qualified to discuss the difference between living and inanimate systems from the standpoint of thermodynamics, his professor's status notwithstanding.

Third, Broom seems to also be unaware of another powerful science, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, which has been specifically developed to study non-equilibrium processes.

Of course all these sciences have been developed without applying Broom's prescription which suggests explaining the observed phenomena by attributing them to a completely obscure and unobservable supernatural agency. Adopting Broom's prescription would mean the death of science and the advent of the kingdom of obscurantism. If his approach were substituted for the proven scientific method based on evidence, we would have to forfeit the development of new medications capable of curing diseases, or of better means of transportation, or of better ways to produce food and recycle the refuse, or of efficiently enhancing human productivity all those wonderful byproducts of scientific inquiry.

Naturally Broom's anti-science diatribes are admired by the likes of Johnson, Behe, and Dembski, although only Johnson among these three heavyweights of the ID crowd is as blatant as Broom in his assaults on science.

Broom never uses such expressions as "in my opinion," "I believe that," "to my mind," and the like. His judgments always are categorical and arrogantly self-confident. He knows better than any author who may happen to adhere to a different view. All over Broom's book we encounter misstatements, unsubstantiated asseverations, arbitrary declarations, too numerous for all of them to be addressed. Here are a few more of randomly chosen examples.

One of his most egregious escapades relates to Richard Dawkins's "biomorph" algorithm [2]. Broom's critique of that algorithm reveals Broom's lack of understanding of the nature of models in science.

Dawkins's biomorph algorithm is a computer program modeling the emergence of complexity in the evolutionary processes. Like any legitimate model, it is not a replica of the actual process. A model in science is not identical with the modeled object or process. A model preserves only a few features or properties of the modeled object or process, those which are crucial for the task at hand. It necessarily ignores many other properties of the modeled object or process, those which are of secondary importance for the task at hand. Here is a famous example. In Newton's celestial mechanics the model of a planet is a point mass. This model possesses only one property in common with the real planets the mass. All the rest of planet's properties, of which there are a vast multitude, are ignored. Indeed, that model seems to have little resemblance to real planets which possess, besides their mass, also size, shape, composition, etc, and in the case of Earth, also vegetation, population including Mr. Broom, etc. Should Newton have considered all those multiple properties of planets when developing the equations of his celestial mechanics? If he did, he would have never successfully derived his powerful equations but would have instead lost his way in the vast labyrinth of irrelevant details. Fortunately, Newton knew better. He knew how to choose a model. So does Dawkins. Broom, though, does not seem to know how.

According to Broom, there are "glaring conceptual flaws in Dawkins's analogy" (page 121). Dawkins, says Broom, "has committed a fatal error by mixing his metaphors. In effect he has confused living systems with objects."

Mr. Broom, Dawkins has not confused anything with anything else. He is perfectly aware that his biomorphs are not living systems and says so directly and unequivocally. What his biomorphs are is models of evolving organisms perfectly legitimate for the task at hand. That task is to demonstrate how the process of evolution results in an unlimited emergence of complexity. The biomorph algorithm demonstrates that very well. As Dawkins himself points out, his algorithm differs in many substantial ways from evolution in the biosphere. The differences, though, are inconsequential if the goal of that model is to illustrate the growth of complexity. Dawkins's model comprises several components, such as a model of genes and a model of mutations, but, instead of natural selection in entails selection by programmer. This difference between the biomorph algorithm and natural Darwinian algorithms is of no consequence for the illustration of the growth of complexity, which occurs in Dawkins's procedure in a way analogous to its occurrence in natural Darwinian processes.

Broom's disdainful dismissal of Dawkins's allegedly "misleading metaphor" is a compelling illustration both of Broom's serious misunderstanding of what a model in science is and of his visceral animosity to the Darwinian conceptual system, an animosity whose roots seem to be in his arbitrary religious preferences.

Here is a telltale quotation from Broom's opus (page 135, footnote): "Thus, if divine intent is at the very heart of all creation, both in the sense of causation and its constant sustenance, then any science that ignores or denies this transcendent aspect of reality will be a hugely impoverished science."

It is not necessary to be an atheist or even an agnostic to see the absurdity of that pronouncement. Science has never "denied" anything that relates to the supposed divine intent. It has no tools to handle such a dilemma and therefore does not concern itself with it. Science indeed ignores the "divine intent" as being alien to the essence of scientific procedure which is based on verifiable evidence. In no way does that make science "impoverished," regardless of how many times Broom and his colleagues among the ID advocates repeat their mantra. Science does very well indeed without any reference to a divine intent. This has nothing to do with the personal religious preferences of individual scientists among which there are believers of various denominations as well as agnostics and atheists. Broom is entitled to his religious beliefs and it is nobody's business what he believes in. However, when he demands that science somehow account for "divine intent" he exposes himself as not just a believer, but rather as an unreasonable adherent of an unsubstantiated and futile attitude. How exactly can science account for "divine intent?" Broom and his colleagues are silent on that crucial question. The insertion of the consideration of divine intent into scientific research cannot lead to a verifiable and useful theory but will always remain just a wishful supposition sprinkled with unfounded asseverations. Scientists keep their religious beliefs separate from their research because to mix them would lead nowhere. Even if Broom and his ID co-travelers have any idea of how to make "divine intent" a part of scientific procedure instead of relegating it to theology, or, at best, to philosophy, so far none of them has ever disclosed what precisely such an idea is like.

Broom's book is replete with meaningless statements like the one just quoted, usually pronounced categorically and disdainfully dismissing differing views. This seems to justify a similar dismissal of his book as a largely useless, heavily biased, and misleading twaddle.

Chapter 9 in Broom's book is titled Neo-Darwinism's Struggle To Survive. This very title portends the tendentious tenor of Broom's discourse in this chapter. It is designed to create the impression that Neo-Darwinism is in its death throes and its defenders, driven by some ulterior motivations, are desperately trying to eschew its imminent demise, unable to withstand the onslaught by ID advocates. Sweet dreams of Broom and his friends! In fact, what Broom refers to as Neo-Darwinism is alive and well because it is good science supported by an immense body of evidence.

The detractors of Neo-Darwinism constitute a tiny fraction of biologists, usually driven by poorly disguised religious motivations and short on factual arguments. To prove that opposition to Darwinism is wide spread among scientists and is growing, the ID advocates often collect signatures in support of their rejection of Darwinism, as if scientific problems can be resolved by casting ballots. Moreover, collecting signatures is a double-edged sword note the recent publication of the so-called Project Steve [5] which made fun of the signature-collecting mania of the ID advocates.

In chapter 9 Broom talks at length about information. This discussion is a mix of obvious non-informative statements with elementary misinterpretations of basic tenets of information theory. For example, in the section titled Genetic Code Algorithm or Blueprint, Broom spends many words to prove that algorithms are not the same as blueprints, no big news to say the least. While exerting great force to prove the obvious, he at the same time shows his lack of familiarity with some fundamentals of the very subject he endeavors to elucidate such as, for example, the Algorithmic Theory of Information/Probability/Complexity which has a direct bearing on his thesis but is apparently beyond his ken.

Am I too blunt in my critique of Broom's opus? Perhaps I am, but only in response to his arrogant style, wherein he categorically asserts his views and spares no sarcastic words assaulting those scientists who dare to have opinions different from his own. For example, on page 149 there is a following jab at scientists typical of Broom, "If the practitioners of science are at times guilty of disguising their real ignorance of some of the most fundamental aspects of their discipline, popular science feeds voraciously on this ignorance, thriving on the simplistic and trivialized kind of science that is promoted by certain sections of the scientific community."

Scientists are human. They make mistakes. Sometimes some of them may be guilty of the sins listed by Broom. However, all this is just a footnote to science, while Broom obviously is eager to represent those occasional deviations as the main trend in science. The cardinal sin of science, according to Broom, is in that it "ignores" the divine intent (as quoted earlier). On page 152 Broom offers the conclusion from his discussion of information, algorithms, and blueprints, "The sheer richness of the melody of life, its coherence and unity and its innovating freedom must surely compel us to acknowledge the hand of a great Composer." Really?

Biologists can supply multiple example of incoherence, disunity, and lack of innovating freedom in the biosphere which are as common as coherence and innovative freedom. Moreover, even if Broom's assertion about the "melody of life" were true, it would by no means lead to the acknowledgment of a Composer's hand. At best Broom's assertion is just what he chooses to believe, without any proof or factual evidence.

Broom never gives a serious consideration to arguments contrary to his views, dismissing them and routinely emphasizing his thesis by such words as surely, obviously, and the like.

8. Conclusion

The list of Broom's unsubstantiated statements and unproven asseverations could be prolonged, but to cover all of his fallacies would require another book as long as Broom's creation.

I wish I could point to something positive in his book. I can't.

It is upsetting to encounter such events as the publication of a book-length creation which is not even wrong, but simply nothing. There are many books and articles I disagree with. For example, the main concept of Irreducible Complexity as evinced in the book by biochemist Michael Behe [6] is in my view fallacious, and Behe's arguments promoting that concept unsubstantiated [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]. However, Behe at least suggests certain arguments in favor of his views. I disagree with his arguments, so I suggest counter-arguments letting the readers make their own conclusions. I disagree with such Intelligent Design theorists as Del Ratzsch [12], but I have to acknowledge certain merits of his discourse [13], so again, if I offer counter-arguments the readers have a choice between Ratzsch's and my views. Broom's book is in a different league. It contains practically no arguments at all but only naked categorical statements and name-calling regarding science and scientists.

I can't understand why a professor of chemical and mechanical engineering would want to waste his time on writing a lengthy discourse wherein all he does is give vent to his religious beliefs while derogating science. He could have done something useful instead. Of course, in his work in engineering he needs much better criteria to determine what is useful and what is claptrap.

I also wonder why some editors and publishers may have become enamored with such piffle as Broom's book.

This leads to a question why have I written this essay? I did not enjoy writing it and I had no fun doing it (aside from viewing some of his cartoons which mostly have little relevance to his subject). I had a bad taste in my mouth reading each chapter in Broom's book and forcing myself to discuss it. Moreover, I have no expectations that my critique may change even a single mind. For those who already share my opinion of the books like Broom's my critique is not needed. Those who may like Broom's book are already overwhelmingly in favor of his beliefs in general and usually are immune to arguments contrary to those beliefs.

I have reviewed Broom's opus mainly because I was asked to do so. Now, when this task is behind me, I start feeling better and hopefully will never have a need to open Broom's book once again.

9. References

[1] Broom, Neil. 2001 [1998]. How Blind Is the Watchmaker? Nature's Design & the Limits of Naturalistic Science. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill.

[2] Dawkins, Richard. 1996 [1986]. The Blind Watchmaker. Norton, New York.

[3] Paley, William. 1837. Natural Theology: Or Evidences of the Existence of the Deity from the Appearances of Nature. SPCK, London.

[4] Horiuti, J and M. Polanyi. 1935. Acta Physicochimica URSS, v.2, p. 505.

[5] NCSE Announces Project Steve.

[6] Behe, Michael J. 1996. Darwin's Black Box. The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York, Simon and Schuster.

[7] Perakh, Mark. 2002 [1999]. Irreducible Contradiction.

[8] Perakh, Mark. 2003. Unintelligent Design (chapter 2). Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.

[9] Dunkelberg, Pete. 2003. Irreducible Complexity Demystified.

[10] Miller, Kenneth R. Finding Darwin's God. A Scientist's Search For Common Ground Between God and Evolution. 1999. New York. Cliff Street Books.

[11] Orr, Allen H. 1997. "Darwin v. Intelligent Design (Again)." Boston Review, Dec. 1996- Jan.1997 issue.

[12] Ratzsch, Del. 2001. Nature, Design, and Science. The Status of Design in Natural Science. State University of New York Press.

[13] Perakh, Mark, 2001. Review of Del Ratzsch's book (see ref. 12) on Amazon.com website.


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Location of this article: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/broom.cfm