The Explanatory Filter and Forensics

Dembski (1999, 141) likens the explanatory filter's work in detecting design to a forensic scientist's work in detecting murder. Suicides, accidents, and murders, however, are not causes of death. These are socially constructed categories that are used to sort out kinds of deaths, not how death occurred. These categories have been subject to redefinition since the first such recorded categories in the Code of Hammurabi. Blood loss, shock, and tissue damage due to gunshot are causes of death that could be attributed to suicide, murder, accident, or justified homicide. Dembski repeatedly confuses these categories, as did Bradley and Thaxton (1994). Forensic scientists do not investigate murders per se. Rather, in the relevant context, we investigate death.

Forensics is largely an applied science. There are as many approaches to criminal investigation as there are criminals and investigators. Over the past century, however, an increasing amount of actualistic research (research conducted in natural settings, with very few controlled variables) has guided the examination and interpretation of death scenes. The portion of this research that is limited to field examination has been surveyed in the recent Federal Bureau of Investigation bibliography compiled by Michael J. Hochrein (2003). At 490 pages, this work is a powerful contrast to the missing original research of intelligent design.

Forensic science is like all other historical sciences in that practitioners rely on analogy, direct observation, replication, and the applications of basic sciences. The University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility (the Body Farm) is world-famous for actualistic research on the decomposition of human cadavers in natural settings. Studies on blood-spatter patterns, how to use a backhoe on a grave, and fly-maggot growth influenced not only by climate but even by a body's drug content can all be found in Agent Hochrein's bibliography.

The work of a forensic scientist begins with basic questions: are the remains human? How has the body been manipulated post mortem? What are the demographic characteristics of the dead person(s)? And then, what were the physical means by which death occurred? These are all naturalistic, physical mechanisms. If the cause of death cannot be determined, there is no further forensic science progress in the case. Period.

Consider the example I described at the beginning of this chapter: the woman whose leg fed some coyote puppies. Necessity has not explained her death (we don't know how she died); chance does not explain her death (we don't know how she died, but human death under circumstances that lead to predator gnawing is ipso facto complex). Strictly following the eliminative guide of the explanatory filter forces us to conclude design but can provide no help as to further action. Again, the real work is done with the side information, not the explanatory filter.

Even with the cause of death identified, the manner of death is neither obvious nor absolute. This fact is even clearer when we consider different kinds of homicides. Historically, what is considered murder is highly variable. Homicide interpretation is a kind of narrative construction. Suicide satisfies Dembski's requirements for a complex death that is the product of a purposeful intelligence while presenting fewer ambiguities than death at the hands of another.

Consider a death scene:

The deceased was a young man in his early twenties. The body was discovered in the kitchen of his home 24 hours after he failed to arrive for work. There was considerable alcohol in his stomach, and a blood-alcohol test revealed that he was intoxicated at the time of death. The deceased was found suspended from a rope attached to a sturdy metal ring mounted in a roof joist. The rope was tied at the ring with bowline knot and was attached around the deceased's neck by a noose. There was a thin coating of oils and dust on the ring and nearby ceiling and no wood, paint, or plaster debris on the floor, indicating that the ring had not been recently installed. The film of oils and dust was disturbed or missing at the contact of the rope and the metal ring, which, together with the lack of oils or dust on the rope's upper surface, where it was tied to the metal ring, suggests that the rope was not regularly attached to the ring. A 24-inch-tall stool was on its side approximately 4 feet from the deceased's feet. There was a phone book (approximately 3 inches thick) on the floor below the deceased. The phone book cover had a tear and an impression similar to the feet of the stool. The impression was discernable for approximately 20 pages of the phone book. The deceased was naked. There was semen on the floor, which DNA analysis identified as the deceased's. Medical examination indicated that death was caused by strangulation.

How should we recognize this death? What does the explanatory filter tell us? Suicide by hanging is less common than gunshot or drug overdose, but neither is it uncommon. There is no evidence of a second party, and the knots are well tied. These are consistent with suicide. We also saw that that the ceiling ring was not a recent installation and that the page impressions and the tear in the telephone book indicate that considerable force was placed upon it. The weight of the deceased on the stool balanced with one leg on the telephone book would produce similar impressions. This evidence is inconsistent with suicide.

In what sequence do we take up the possible death characterizations presented by this case? Clearly, the dead man was alone at the time of death, and there is no evidence that he was forced by any other person to commit the acts that led to his death. So we can exclude murder, as I promised earlier. A forensic scientist would obviously exclude natural causes, not from exhaustive elimination but from experience. That exclusion leaves us with either chance (accident) or design (suicide) as the possible categorizations of this young man's death. As in the plagiarism example, both hypotheses represent events that were the result of intelligent action.

It may seem obvious that the death is suicide, but is it? The explanatory filter cannot hope to resolve the question. We need to consider the victim's motivation and intent, a consideration expressly denied by intelligent-design theorists. The death conforms to known sexual-behavior patterns, and forensic investigators can therefore recognize that accidental death is the most likely categorization in the case just presented.

Let us consider some additional examples. Followers of the recent Christian faith tradition of snake handling interpret Bible verses Mark 16: 18-20 and Luke 10: 19 to promise that the faithful will have supernatural immunity from venomous snakes. As a sign that the God of scripture is in the world, believers hold snakes and, in some congregations, ingest poison as part of their worship practice (Kimbrough 2002, anonymous 2003b).

On 24 July 1955, George W. Hensley, the founder of the American Holiness snake-handling movement, was bitten for the uncounted and last time. He refused medical treatment, as he had on many prior occasions. The following morning, at the age of 75, Hensley was dead of snakebite, just as his wife had died before him. Some of his followers believe that he died of a stroke.

On 3 October 1998, John Wayne "Punkin" Brown, Jr., was preaching at the Rock House Holiness Church in northeastern Alabama. With him was his 3-foot-long timber rattlesnake. The snake bit Brown on his finger, and the 34-year-old collapsed and died within 10 minutes. He had survived an estimated 22 snakebites. Brown's family does not rule out the possibility that his death was due to a heart attack rather than the snakebite.

In 1991 Glendel Buford Summerford, pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, was convicted of trying to kill his wife with poisonous snakes. Summerford, a snake-handling preacher, forced his wife at gunpoint to place her arm into a box full of rattlesnakes. The court found him guilty of attempted murder (Covington 1996).

In 1941, the state of Georgia outlawed snake handling in religious services. Georgia's statute was the most severe of several southern states and included the provision: "In the event, however, that death is caused to a person on account of the violation of this Act by some other person, the prisoner shall be sentenced to death, unless the jury trying the case shall recommend mercy." The reasoning behind a capital felony charge was that, if someone violated the snake-handling law and a death occurred, then the death was a murder. Georgia later repealed the law (Burton 1993, 81).

These snakebite deaths are alternately found in courts to be suicide, homicide, and accident. As Ted Olsen (1998) observed about Hensley's death, "Officials, showing a complete misunderstanding of Hensley's faith, listed his death as suicide" (n.p.). I argue, however, that Hensley's and Brown's deaths were accidental. Each knew that he was taking risks, but they had both successfully met these risks before. To the believer, death from these bites is tied directly to God's rejection of the deceased, which makes their surviving followers' suggestions that the deaths were due to stroke or heart attack understandable. I also agree with the jury's finding in the Summerford case.

The key point is that the explanatory filter and the entire ID rubric cannot distinguish whether these events were suicide, murder, accident, or divine retribution. Dembski cannot tell you what category they belong to based on his EF. The real world is a hard place to sort out.

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