Claim: “Nobel laureate Brian Josephson supports Intelligent Design”

Somebody at the Discovery Institute came across an old interview with Brian Josephson done as part of a CBS documentary. They are now highlighting it as “evidence” for Intelligent Design on the blog “Evolution News”. …

He compares design in evolution to human creativity, and concedes that his ideas about ID may not be consistent with traditional theism. The kicker comes at the end. Kuhn asks: “What is your confidence level, on a scale of 0 to 100, that the design of the process of evolution is by some kind of transcendent intelligence?”

Josephson answers: “Well, about 80 percent perhaps,” adding that “materialism would have a hard time if that were known to be correct.” And that is certainly true.

This claim is problematic for a wide variety of reasons.

The Source

The reference they use comes from a CBS interview but they don’t link to the source. Without a reference there is no way of checking to see how accurate the quote is or what the actual context was. The lack of a reference to the actual interview does make me very suspicious. If you do watch the various CBS Closer to the Truth interviews with Brian Josephson that are on-line (here and here), you find that he babbles on about the reality of ESP, and also talks about consciousness being separate from the universe. He clearly believes in a higher power, but it is in no way a belief that is aligned with the more traditional religious views.

Key Problem 1: If they are going to cite him as an authority, then it is a package deal. They need to either accept everything he says, or none of it. They can’t just cherry pick a snippet that aligns with their specific beliefs and toss the rest for no reason at all.

Key Problem 2: He is a physicist and not a biologist, his expertise regarding evolutionary theory is non-existent. When it comes to physics, I have no problem with him being cited as an expert, but to cite him as an authority for anything else is highly problematic.

Who is Brian Josephson?

You can read all about him on his Wikipedia page.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 for his prediction of the Josephson effect. That prediction was made in 1962 when he was a 22-year-old PhD student at Cambridge University. For this he quite rightly deserves all the applaud, praise and associated awards.

When it comes to physics then he is quite clearly an outstanding individual, but he also has a reputation for stepping way outside the normal scientific mainstream. He has also been a supporter crackpot ideas that do not have credibility such as parapsychology, water memory, cold fusion, and now also apparently some variation of Intelligent Design, but I suspect not as advocated by the ID community.

Is this an Ad Hominem?

The basis for the Discovery Institute highlighting Brian Josephson’s opinion is his status as a Nobel Prize winning physicist and not because he has some specific evidence. Since they are playing the reputation card here, I’m simply pointing out that while his reputation as a physicist is rock solid, his reputation for opinions on things outside that core domain have resulted in him being labelled a bit of a crank. The DI folks might indeed latch on to his 80% confidence in ID, but I suspect they would in reality choke on many of the other ideas he advances.

To illustrate that point, the DI folks highlight him as …

an emeritus professor at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University.

… but that is not strictly the whole story here. If you check his own homepage at the university, then you discover that he is in fact working on a lot of crackpottery …

Welcome to the home page of Professor Brian Josephson, director of the Mind-Matter Unification Project of the Theory of Condensed Matter Group at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge

In summary: Physics and he gets a big tick and lots of well-deserved associated applause. The other stuff … well, that is perhaps eye-roll territory that triggers my skeptic meter.

2 thoughts on “Claim: “Nobel laureate Brian Josephson supports Intelligent Design””

  1. I have checked the comment in Evolution News and Science Today (07.07.17) that ‘Brian Josephson, Nobel laureate in Physics, is “80 Percent Confident in Intelligent Design’ and checked also the riposte in Skeptical Science above. As a dispassionate enquirer from an Arts discipline, trained in rules of logic and evidence, I have to report that the comments in Skeptical Science, (as is all too common in these ripostes) show a disregard for simple truth. It is totally untrue that it is impossible to access the interview and check if it is fairly report: I have just clicked on the picture, as the EV News invites one to do, I have then heard the whole interview, and the quotations from EV fully accord with what Professor Josephson said.. The ‘somebody’ who came across this supposedly ‘old’ interview is credited as David Klinghoffer, whom I recognize from my reading as a wholly responsible scientist and author. As for the interview being ‘old’, I can find no suggestion that Professor Josephson has gone back on this comment – and the fact that he has interested himself in parapsychology, cold fusion and such, only makes him kin to the great scientists of the past such as the great scientist and polymath William Whewell, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, who thought it important to explore ‘outside the box’.

    I have bothered to object, because it is vital to the progress of knowledge in all its divisions that the critics and gainsayers follow commonly understood rules of logic, evidence and fair argument. If the sceptics resort to falsehood, misrepresentation and abuse (as people like Richard Dawkins do), it disgraces their position and obstructs the progress of knowledge.
    Professor David Frost, former Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, Emeritus Professor of English Literature, University of Newcastle, NSW

    I fear it is unlikely that Skeptical Science will use this riposte – but it is a warning that it is vital for ‘promoting science and critical thinking’ that they up their game.

    • Professor Frost, you correctly point out that if you click the picture within the Discovery Institute blog posting it goes directly to the CBS recording. I missed the fact that it did that and assumed it was simply a picture. The fact that the text within the blog posting also reads “Click on the image above to go there.” is a rather subtle clue that I should have picked up upon as well.

      Regarding the observation that the interview is old, the intent was not to suggest that he no longer holds this view. I have not checked, but I fully anticipate that he most probably adheres to this position, or some variation of it today.

      Being interested in the unusual or unpopular is wholly appropriate. Supporting such ideas when there is no compelling evidence that warrants doing so after many decades of investigation does however invoke a degree of skepticism in general amongst the mainstream.

      I’m surprised at the passing reference to Richard Dawkins and the claim that he resorts to falsehood, misrepresentation and abuse. I’m not aware that this is an established fact, but I do accept that as a believer you might indeed hold such an opinion regarding somebody who is rather famous for being vocal about his non belief.

      We might not agree, but your comment is still very much appreciated and I thank you for that.


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