The false choices of intelligent design

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In The false choices of intelligent design, Wade Worthen, professor of biology at Furman University, writes

Proponents of intelligent design have suggested that its exclusion from classrooms is simply another assault on victimized Christians. This is an excellent example of the intelligent design strategy: Use false dichotomies and misinformation to obscure the real issue. Whether it should be taught in public school science curricula should not be about politics or religion. The real issue is this: Is intelligent design a legitimate scientific theory?

The answer is “no.” Scientific theories are explanatory models of how the physical universe works, validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment.

18 Comments

A very good editorial, gets the essential points across clearly and succinctly. I was only jarred a little bit by the reference to “The 400 scientists supporting intelligent design” because the statement they agreed to has nothing to do with ID, it only expresses vague skepticism that RM+NS is the ONLY mechanism behind evolution. I suspect that professor Worthen got this tidbit from DI propaganda, and never actually read the statement itself.

Probably Worthen isn’t involved in the issue deeply enough to have internalized the core observation: If the DI says *anything*, it’s misleading or false in some way.

“Scientific theories are explanatory models of how the physical universe works, validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment.”

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, why is string theory concidered a valid scientific theory in that case? Last I checked “validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment” doesn’t seem to apply to it.

String Theory and the Scientific Method addresses some of these objections. The argument is that while present technology cannot falsify string theory, this does not mean that it cannot be falsified

In the same manner, String Theory simplifies the fundamental assumptions by uniting the Standard Model and General Relativity, and is in this sense a “better” model even if it does not make any new predictions. String theorist Michael Green has said, “The moment you encounter string theory and realize that almost all of the major developments in physics over the last hundred years emerge|and emerge with such elegance|from such a simple standing point, you realize that this incredibly compelling theory is in a class of its own.” (quoted by Greene (2000, p. 139).)

One idea being “better”, “more elegant” and “simple” is completely subjective as I imagine the ID people would say the same thing. It’s one of the reasons science exists in the first place as you can’t uncover the mysteries of the universe with pure thought alone.

tmccort -

Theoretical physics as a discipline “races ahead” of scientific observation. But experimental physics is always trying to catch up. And perhaps String Theory should be referred to, for the time being, as “string model”.

At this point, I apologize to all string theorists for a) my almost total ignorance of the field and b) comparing honest string theorists to ID hucksters. Moving on…

However, unlike Intelligent Design, String Theory is almost certainly potentially testable. I’m sure any string theorist could come up with numerous experiments - albeit impossible for humans to perform, for the time being - that would support or cast doubt on string theory. Furthermore, the whole point of string theory is to explain legitimate observations at a very fundamental level.

This is radically different from ID. ID proponents never suggest anything to test ID. They frame their arguments in terms that make it implicit that ID can never be tested. They always claim that everything supports ID. Evidence against common descent is evidence of independent design, evidence in favor of common descent is evidence of “common design”, etc. They have no interest in explaining anything (“it happened by unexplainable magic” is their ultimate argument) and no interest in observing anything either.

Testable doesn’t necessarily mean testable right this minute but it does mean testable.

Also, I suspect few high school physics classes teach something as new and advanced as string theory. When experimentation can catch up, and the theory is strengthened, perhaps it will some day make its way to the high school science class. I suspect physics teachers have their hands full teaching mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and thermodynamics. (and hopefully a dose of nuclear structure) Tell the ID folks that their “theory” can have that status too after it has stood the test of time and experimentation. (I won’t hold my breath, though)

There is actually a lot of discussion in the physics community about the status of string theory. It is not yet considered an actual physics theory, technically. It is a set of mathematical structures. The theorists have made interesting mathematical discoveries. Some of the putative theory-type things can postdict (as opposed to predict) real physical results about the thermodynamics of black holes, for instance. And a lot of smart people in the physics community have the intuition that it looks right. Because of all these things, people work on it, but it’s not yet where we would really call it a theory, and there’s a sense that if they don’t get to something testable soon, it’s going to lose status in the physics community.

ID might also be “potentially testable” – if, for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster were to appear and give talks at biology conferences about how it created, um, everything, submitting to tests demonstrating authenticity, and winning the Randi million dollar challenge. I’m not holding my breath, but, still, “potentially testable” covers a lot of ground.

Saying that a theory is valid only if it is “potentially testable” opens up many problems.

Again playing devil’s advocate, here is my theory: The universe, Humans and all life on Earth was created as is by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The current location of the FSM is in orbit around the star Ramen 342 at a distance of 100,000,000 kilometers.

Is this a valid theory?

In the future we may have the technology to go and look but in the mean time lets just teach it in universities, create tv programs proclaiming the elegance and beauty of it, have many people work on it for 20+ years yet fail completely.

On the bright side, when we have the technology to go to Ramen 342 the Pastafarians and their theory will be vidicated!

Speaking from my (very) limited knowledge, I think the main difference between string theory and ID is that all forms of ID are completely empty of any actual content. String Theory (afaik) is a theory of quantum gravity or a combination of QM and GR. We need some theory to explain current gaps in our knowledge which cannot be explained by either QM or GR (in fact I think as they currently stand they are incompatible with each other). ID on the other hand is completely redundant as a means of explaining anything. In short we need some sort of string theory but we certainly do not need ID. Evolution remains the best explanation we have for bio diversity and there is no reason to assume that the gaps in our knowledge will not be filled.

“if, for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster were to appear and give talks at biology conferences about how it created, um, everything, submitting to tests demonstrating authenticity, and winning the Randi million dollar challenge.”

This would validate pastafarianism, but it’s NOT a potential test, because it will never be something we can do. It can only happen if the FSM itself decides to show up. To put it another way, this “test” applies to every supernatural idea. If Zeus appears and explains in great detail at a meteorology conference how he creates the thunderbolts…

“Saying that a theory is valid only if it is “potentially testable” opens up many problems.”

First of all, this isn’t what I said - I said that this was one way in which string theory is better than ID. I didn’t make a grand statement about the definition of all theories.

Second of all, this may be true anyway. Saying “any valid theory is potentially testable” is NOT the same thing as saying “anything potentially testable is a valid theory”.

“Again playing devil’s advocate, here is my theory: The universe, Humans and all life on Earth was created as is by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The current location of the FSM is in orbit around the star Ramen 342 at a distance of 100,000,000 kilometers. Is this a valid theory?”

See above. And this would only test the location of the FSM, not the greater issue of whether it created the universe.

“In the future we may have the technology to go and look but in the mean time lets just teach it in universities, create tv programs proclaiming the elegance and beauty of it, have many people work on it for 20+ years yet fail completely.”

If you have an issue with string theory, so be it. I’m sure you’re not the only one. But that doesn’t make it the equivalent of ID.

On 25 Sept tmcourt stated…

“Scientific theories are explanatory models of how the physical universe works, validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment.”

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, why is string theory concidered a valid scientific theory in that case? Last I checked “validated by testing falsifiable, predictive hypotheses by experiment” doesn’t seem to apply to it.

The threat of ID to science makes it tempting to overstate the status of our philosophical understanding of the demarcation problem. The criterion of falsifiability, most forcefully advanced by Karl Popper, has fairly broad acceptance in the scientific community (I would say that is esp. true for scientists who are more peripherally interested in the philosophy of science) but ol’ Sir Karl Popper is not without his critics. For example, wikipedia states:

Owing to its esoteric nature, the demarcation problem is not widely recognized even among scientists. Outside of academic circles, Popper’s philosophy has gained a smattering of populararity, his falsificationism often being heralded as the last word on demarcation. Despite this popular vote in favor of falsificationism, for professional philosophers of science, the demarcation problem is generally considered unresolved. It is not, however a purely academic problem. In its 1993 Daubert v. Merrell Dow opinion, the United States Supreme Court articulated a set of criteria for the admissibility of scientific expert testimony, in effect developing their own demarcation criteria. The four Daubert criteria are,

The theoretical underpinnings of the methods must yield testable predictions by means of which the theory could be falsified.

The methods should preferably be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

There should be a known rate of error that can be used in evaluating the results.

The methods should be generally accepted within the relevant scientific community.

In 1999 the Court extended Daubert’s general holding to include non-scientific expert testimony as well. The question of where the boundries of science lie is no longer one that affects only the funding and status of scientific enterprises.

I think this is a reasonable summary. In some way, it is nice to have the criterion of falsifiability to exclude ID, and I think it is appropriate to use it in this way. But I think the boundaries of science are fuzzier in reality (a statement that should not be construed as any sort of endorsement of pseudoscience, just an observation).

From a pedagogical standpoint, getting students to understand that science is not simply a collection of factoids about the natural world (which they can memorize in a manner superficially similar to the students of madrasahs memorizing the Qur’an and Hadith) but a process is difficult. In my Intro Genetics course I tried to use Lysenko as an example, describing an (admittedly) simplified version of Lysenko’s thesis regarding the acquisition of characters from the environment. The point was to get students to realize that Lysenko had made testable predictions - the problem was that he was willing to ignore contrary results because Mendelian genetics was inconsistent with dialectical materialism (in his assessment). Lysenko “jumped the shark” scientifically by being unwilling to submit his ideas to a test and abandon them when confronted with contrary data. Young Earth creationists are in a similar boat, looking to supposed anomolies like “polonium halos” and whatnot and inventing convoluted reasons for observations to find “evidence” against an ancient age for the Earth (and universe). I would assert that this pattern is one general type of pseudoscience - ideas that are scientific in the sense of falsifiability but unscientific precisely because people cling to them despite the fact that they have been falsified.

ID represents (in my mind) a distinct type of pseudoscience. It is so wide open (designer unspecified, role for evolution unclear, etc.) it is hard to see it ever yielding testable hypotheses under any circumstance. Obviously, variants of ID that are testable exist. Indeed, YEC and old Earth creationism are both variants of ID - after all, both have an intelligent designer that they name. I would compare ID (in the broad sense) more to a statement that “something strange is going on here and we don’t understand everything.” That statement will almost always be true about anything interesting in science.

But (before folks jump on me for being too gentle to ID) I would add that - unlike ID - a simple observation that more may be going on than we currently know is an honest statement that may catalyze further science (and no scientist would assert that the statement is itself a scientific hypothesis). ID instead takes the statement that more may be going on than we understand and then tacks on the unjustified statement that because we don’t understand something completely it must be impossible and require some sort of intelligent intervention. To me, that is sort of like saying “quantum mechanics seems wierd and it is incompletely understood [e.g., there is no successful and testable theory of gravity], so it must allow phenomena like ESP to take place.” To some degree, I suppose you could even accuse Roger Penrose of committing this crime in stating that quantum gravity may carry the key to consciousness. Why don’t we all pile on Penrose for being unscientific? Well, there are several reasons:

1. Penrose isn’t pushing the teaching of his ideas in high schools. 2. I suspect that Penrose is conscious (no pun intended) that his ideas are incompletely formed and that to be “scientific” they will need more development. 3. Point 1 reflects - at least in part - the fact that these ideas need more development.

I suspect Dembski, Behe, et al. would cause less controversy if they articulated ID in this manner. They would also largely be ignored (so no ego strokin’ for the ID advocates). Penrose took a stab at something. He is probably wrong, but he may or may not catalyze some additional science if others continue to examine his ideas. He isn’t trying to say he has proven anything. If ID advocates would get into the same boat, I suspect they wouldn’t catalyze any science but they also wouldn’t be a problem for science education. In the best case scenario, they may even catalyze some science - I would place work on galactic habitable zones in this category. Even if Guillermo Gonzalez believes in fine tuning based upon faith, it is not unreasonable for him to work on issues like the role of stellar metallicity in the distribution of extrasolar planets. If all he did was assert that the only habitable planet in the universe is the Earth that would be faith. Modeling the evolution of the galaxy and examining potential consequences for life fits into science (as long as he does not invoke God, Q from Star Trek, the FSM, the Vorlon Empire, etc. to alter conditions arbitrarily to alter the outcome).

This interplay between hunches, beliefs, theory, and observation is natural, and healthy for the progress of science. String theory in the broad sense does not make any testable predictions (though variants with large extra dimensions do make testable predictions - indeed, they are currently being examined), but it represent a mathematical and philosophical research program that may lead to testable ideas (until people started thinking about the size of potential extra dimensions the testability of string theory variants that have large extra dimensions wasn’t evident - although it should be added that proof of extra dimensions wouldn’t prove all of string theory - in fact, I believe at least some versions of supergravity are 9- or 10-dimensional and supergravity is a point particle theory). As KL stated, string theory advocates aren’t pushing the teaching of string theory in high school. I would add, however, that I would jump up and down for joy if high school students could be exposed to speculative theories - but only if they have the background to evaluate the current status of those theories. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is realistic.

I’ve thought about how I would handle a vocal creationist/ID advocate in my course, since I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t had that issue. I think I would just try to sit down with a disruptive student who believed in ID or some variant of creationism and say:

1. Evolution is the accepted theory. I expect you to understand and to be able to work with frameworks that are accepted by the scientific community in my course, and other courses you may take after Intro Genetics may expect the same thing. 2. Many arguements against evolution show little understanding of evolutionary theory, instead presenting straw man versions of evolution. If you are sincere in your belief it would be in your best interest to understand evolutionary theory sufficiently well that you do not make similar errors.

I don’t know if that would calm a disruptive student, and I hope not to have to find out.

Of course, we know why Dembski, Behe, et al. are pushing their ideas - and it has nothing to science. I’ve babbled far too long - I should get back to work!

P.S. I apologize for any typos - I wrote this in a stream of consciousness manner.

Edward Braun -

Nice post!

I agree; ID would be quite tolerable if its proponents said, “We think man/life/the universe is designed, and we’re going to try to prove it.

They’d still be wrong (IMO), but they’d be taking an honest (even scientific) approach.

I’d even be satisfied if they said, “We realize the scientific evidence argues (overwhelmingly) against ID/OEC/YEC, but our faith convinces us the evidence must be wrong.”

That would also be an honest position, albeit not a scientific one.

Of course, ID’s main proponents will apparently do anything but take an honest position. I think that says a lot about their real motivations.

Re: #49614. Point taken … But isn’t the real question here whether and to what extent the adverb “potentially” is useful when used to modify “testable?” “There is no way we can currently think of (or have the wherewithal to do) to test a theory” is not the same as “there is no way we can test a theory.” The former may be a fairly empirical matter of imagination or technology or experimental design. The latter seems restricted to something inherent in the proffered “theory” which flat forecloses testability. Using “potentially” to refer to both strikes me as punning on the word.

Perhaps – only “potentially,” you understand – there is a way we could summon or entreat the Flying Spaghetti Monster and persuade it to give up its secrets. And if – again only “potentially” – we could locate the FSM, in orbit around Ramen 342 or elsewhere, that would surely be something, although concededly not a total validation of pastafarianism.

All you people talking about this Flying Spaghetti Monster are wretched blasphemers and sinners destined to the eternal dung heap. All true believers know that the universe was designed by Her Holiness The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Repent before it is too late.

PvM,

Re ““The moment you encounter string theory and realize that almost all of the major developments in physics over the last hundred years emerge|and emerge with such elegance|from such a simple standing point, you realize that this incredibly compelling theory is in a class of its own.” (quoted by Greene (2000, p. 139).”

Does that mean that string theory has reached the point at which GR and QM can be deduced from it?

Of course, if so then that would be another distinction between String Theory and “I.D.”, since there’s no current theory that follows logically from the notion that life was somehow deliberately engineered in some way at some time by something.

Henry

Unfortunately, Enger (the author of the string theory paper under discussion) concludes as follows:

“We must in any case conclude that it is difficult to pin-point what makes String Theory different from non-science using a general principle.”

Whoops!

The Intelligent Designer missed the mark when mammals took off. Why don’t we have the ability to regenerate?

http://joot.com/dave/writings/artic[…]design.shtml

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by PvM published on September 25, 2005 6:58 PM.

Kansas BOE Chair - It’s either the evolution or the Bible, not both was the previous entry in this blog.

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