Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Design Intuition . . . is that really a Thing?

A new book, published by Harper-One, the religious imprint of Harper-Collins, basically seems to tell us that our intuition about a subject is equal to our intellect about a subject.  Really?  So what we 'feel' is an accurate as what we know.  Does that really work in the real life?

The topic at hand is this new book by Douglas Axe called "Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed" and the Discovery Institute (DI) is announcing it "Book by Douglas Axe Shows the Key to Understanding Origins Is the "Design Intuition" -- Pre-Order Now!" Obviously I haven't read Doug's book yet, since they are fishing for pre-orders you know it hasn't been published yet. But I wanted to address a few things.
First of all Doug, he is the head over at the DI's pet lab -- the Biologic Institute (BI).  While the DI seems to spend time trying to convince people that the BI is separate from the DI (including firing the original director after he tied the mission of the 'lab' to intelligent design much more closely than the DI seems to publicly want.)  We must never forget who started the BI (the DI), who funds the BI (the DI), and even whose address is the public face of the BI (the DI).  We've discussed some of this before (Is Biologics part of the DI?).  So if anyone thought it was strange that the DI's pseudo-blog, the Evolution 'news', and Views (EnV) site is announcing Doug's new book, now you know why.

Secondly, the publisher is Harper-One, which we've also discussed before.  For an organization [the DI] so hell-bent on denying their religious connections, why would you publish a book through a religious imprint?  The only answer I can tell is that the book is inherently religious . . . well, that and unlike scientific publications, there is no requirement on supporting your arguments in religious books.  If you doubt the basic religiousness of Doug's book, lets look at the Amazon listing:

"Throughout his distinguished and unconventional career, engineer-turned-molecular-biologist Douglas Axe has been asking the questions that much of the scientific community would rather silence. Now, he presents his conclusions in this brave and pioneering book. Axe argues that the key to understanding our origin is the “design intuition”—the innate belief held by all humans that tasks we would need knowledge to accomplish can only be accomplished by someone who has that knowledge. For the ingenious task of inventing life, this knower can only be God."
The same thing is on their own announcement.  Anyone have any doubt about it now?  I thought not. Anyone care to wager that when this book is finally published, it gets relegated to the Christian Living section of your local bookstore?  I do have to ask is the DI admitting officially that their designer is God?  Yes, they said it, finally!

OK, so we have yet another religious book, by a not-very-hidden member of the DI, pushing what exactly?  How human intuition is the equal to human intellect.  Really?

Let's look at something very simple, falling objects.  For how long did intuition tell us heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects?  I mean it makes perfectly logical sense, doesn't it? Well it did for a long time until a guy named Galileo came along and showed us that all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of weight.  Our intuition was faulty, even though it 'felt' like the right answer.  That's the problem with 'intuition', it might be right, but it might also equally be wrong.  How are you sure?  It's easy, you go beyond your intuition and investigate . . . just like Galileo.

But for some reason the DI doesn't want you to do that.  They want you to rely on your intuition, and if you don't have any intuition, they'll tell you what to think.  Seriously, look at the press release.  Without any support at all, they are trying to convince you that 'design intuition' is somehow going to magically explain away 150 of actual usable and useful science.  Ever see a movie knowing you are going to have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the movie.  It's kinda like that.  Before we go off on the DI again, let's look at intuition itself.

So just what is intuition?  Basically is it being convinced you know something without being aware of how you know it, that is without a rational thought or process to reach what you think you know.  You might be making decisions based on what you 'know', but in any event the knowing without knowing how you know is frequently called intuition.  It's also called instinct, experience, gut-feel, and a few other terms.

For example reading people's body language and facial expressions is a common example of intuition.  Without sitting there and rationally examining things like the frown on someone's face, their crossed arms, or posture, you get an idea of what that person might be like or what they might be thinking at that moment without going through a long, drawn out thought process.  That's an example of intuition because you don't consciously consider it, but you make a judgment on impression you are picking up, almost subconsciously.  You might be right, you might be wrong, but what you have done is convinced yourself to the point of a conclusion.  Think about any time you interviewed a person for a position within your organization.  Your impressions make up a larger part of your evaluation than many people realize.  That's intuition at work.  Have you ever hired someone that didn't work out?  Where was the failure?  It might have been in your gut-feel.  Be honest!

If you think about it, much of your intuition is based on experience.  You know what a frown means, or the crossing of the arms can be seen as defensive, or someone leaning forward or even backward. You've been interacting with people all your life and your brain catalogs these non-verbal clues and then uses then often with going through a conscious effort.  For example have you ever met someone you instantly disliked? You make those sort of judgements all the time, job interviews are a good example. 

I had an experience recently.  My boss introduced a gentleman to me.  He said his name and what the person's interest in our project was going to be and I shook the guy's hand . . . I shook his cold, clammy, and even slightly greasy, very soft handshake.  I instantly disliked the person and it took a great deal of effort not to wipe my hand on my pants leg as we stood there talking.  It wasn't until later when  my boss asked me about my reaction to the guy that I realized why I didn't like him.  I thought it was interesting that my boss picked up on it quickly, you might say intuitively.  But then, my boss knows me!

But how does 'knowing without thinking' really help us explore scientific topics?  I don't think it does to the degree this book seems to want us to accept.  A scientist might 'intuitively' come up with an idea, but it's the exploration that shapes the idea well past the intuitive first blush.  A scientist who relies on that 'intuition' without doing the leg work to not only confirm the idea, but build the rational support structure under the idea, isn't much of a scientist . . . more of a pseudo-scientist . . . which might explain why the DI, and their pet pseudo-scientist Doug Axe likes it so much.  Here's one of the things about 'intuition' from Wikipedia:
"Intuitive abilities were quantitatively tested at Yale University in the 1970s. While studying nonverbal communication, researchers noted that some subjects were able to read nonverbal facial cues before reinforcement occurred. In employing a similar design, they noted that highly intuitive subjects made decisions quickly but could not identify their rationale. Their level of accuracy, however, did not differ from that of non intuitive subjects." (Wikipedia: Intuition)
Interesting, their level of accuracy did not differ from non-intuitive subjects.  Sounds like intuition is more like a crap shoot than anything else.  So a scientist might use their intuition to develop a novel idea, but without the work to support it, it's nothing but conjecture and wishful thinking.  Sound familiar?

Of course the DI loves this idea.  They have been collecting other people's money and selling conjecture and wishful thinking for years, they just call it 'Intelligent Design'.  I know I have asked many, many times for them to get off their marketing asses and get into the lab and either do the work that will support their idea, or reach the conclusion that it is useless.  But either they refuse to do the work, are incapable of doing it, or unwilling to do it.  In any case they prefer marketing to actual science.  So there we have it.  The DI is trying to sell the idea that intuition is just as valid an investigative tool as intellect, but as we have seen.  They need this because they have nothing else!

There is a role for intuition for jump-starting ideas, but without the very things the DI doesn't seem able or willing to do, intuitive ideas simply fall by the wayside.  You cannot support ideas through intuition, you cannot force your wishful thinking on to other people.  You have to take the next step . . . it's called science.

I'm sure the DI will be hawking this book like they do all their religious material.  But my intuition tells me it will be just as successful -- which isn't very complimentary.  People who already share their religious beliefs will praise it and the majority of the scientific world will give it the attention it deserves, little to none.


  1. The only pseudoscience is Darwinian evolution mate.

  2. Since Pseudoscience is defined as a claim, belief, or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method , The modern theory of evolution doesn't fit that definition. However, when you look at a list of topics characterized as pseudo-science, you see Creation 'Science' listed and one of the sub-listings under that is "Intelligent Design" . . . mate

  3. The design intuition is indeed a weak argument, but by far not the only one in that book. If you write something, make it credible. Criticize the ideas and don't worry about publisher or even author.

    1. Since I wrote this post before the book was available, as I stated in the post, that would have made it hard to criticize the ideas. It was intended to focus on several things, including the scientific viability of 'intuition' and the fact that for all its claim of not being a religious ministry, the advance comments and choice of publisher once again leave their claims meaningless.

  4. Here is a proper critique of this book: http://nonlin.org/undeniable-how-biology-confirms-our-intuition-that-life-is-designed-by-douglas-axe/

    Feel free to learn about other topics on the blog and contact me but only if you have valid counterarguments.

  5. Publicizing your own critique as a 'proper critique' seems a bit of hubris to me. In any event I will take a look. Thanks for posting.

  6. Shouldn't scientists judge the arguments themselves and not the ones who present those arguments?
    Can the blogist scientifically justify, how he defines what things belongs to a science?
    Labeling something religious shouldn't mean, that it's automatically outside the field of science or false. Religion and beliefs can also be grounded on historical evidence and facts, which could be studied scientifically. For example, one can study scientifically whether or not biblical prophecies actually hold true with historical events and if the accounts were written before such event's or were they edited afterwards.

    Let all the flowers bloom and let those with the best arguments out grow those with weaker arguments.

    P.S I've no opinion about the affiliations the blogist is referring to, or about the book discussed either. I'm just a Msc biologist who stumbled to this block accidently.

    1. So . . . you want scientists to judge what exactly for themselves? Intelligent Design? What are they supposed to judge? ID proponents have avoided offering anything substantive in the way of support. It makes it hard to judge when something is only conjecture and wishful thinking.
      As for dismissing religious concepts simply because they are religious . . . you are under-thinking things. Religious concepts do not get dismissed simply because they are religious, they get dismissed when they do not fit the available evidence. Science started diverging from religious beliefs well before Darwin for that exact reason, religious explanations don't work. Apollo's chariot, the flat Earth, sky held up by corner pillars, the Earth at the center of the Universe . . . all examples. Evolution works, the evidence supports it, Creationism is a nice story, but doesn't answer any of the actual biological questions.
      Evolution has outgrown Creationism, and continues to grow. In all honesty, have Creationist arguments changed much in the last 2000 years? Aside from the occasional re-labeling, they really haven't changed.