Skip to comments.Is Intelligent Design a Bad Scientific Theory or a Non-Scientific Theory?
Posted on 11/10/2005 4:43:24 AM PST by Nicholas Conradin
In an election in Pennsylvania this week, voters tossed out eight members of the Pittsburgh school board who wanted Intelligent Design theory to be taught alongside evolution in school. But should Intelligent Design -- the theory that living organisms were created at least in part by an intelligent designer, not by a blind process of evolution by natural selection -- be taught in public schools? In one way, the answer to this question is simple: if it's a scientific theory, it should; if it's not, it shouldn't (on pain of flaunting the Establishment Clause). The question, however, is whether Intelligent Design (ID) is a scientific theory.
Opponents dismiss ID's scientific credentials, claiming that the theory is too implausible to qualify as scientific. But this reasoning is fallacious: a bad scientific theory is still a scientific theory, just as a bad car is still a car. There may be pedagogical reasons to avoid teaching bad scientific theories in our public schools, but there are no legal ones. The Constitution contains no interdiction on teaching bad theories, or for that matter demonstrably false ones. As long as theory is science and not religion, there is no legal barrier to teaching it.
To make their case, opponents of teaching ID must show not just that the theory is bad, but that it's not science. This raises a much more complicated question: What is science? What distinguishes genuinely scientific theories from non-scientific ones?
In one form or another, the question has bothered scientists and philosophers for centuries. But it was given an explicit formulation only in the 1920s, by Karl Popper, the most important 20th century philosopher of science. Popper called it "the problem of demarcation," because it asked how to demarcate scientific research and distinguish it from other modes of thought (respectable though they may be in their own right).
One thing Popper emphasized was that a theory's status as scientific doesn't depend on its plausibility. The great majority of scientific theories turn out to be false, including such works of genius as Newton's mechanics. Conversely, the story of Adam and Eve may well be pure truth, but if it is, it's not scientific truth, but some other kind of truth.
So what is the mark of genuine science? To attack this question, Popper examined several theories he thought were inherently unscientific but had a vague allure of science about them. His favorites were Marx's theory of history and Freud's theory of human behavior. Both attempted to describe the world without appeal to super-natural phenomena, but yet seem fundamentally different from, say, the theory of relativity or the gene theory.
What Popper noticed was that, in both cases, there was no way to prove to proponents of the theory that they were wrong. Suppose Jim's parents moved around a lot when Jim was a child. If Jim also moves around a lot as an adult, the Freudian explains that this was predictable given the patterns of behavior Jim grew up with. If Jim never moves, the Freudian explains -- with equal confidence -- that this was predictable as a reaction to Jim's unpleasant experiences of a rootless childhood. Either way the Freudian has a ready-made answer and cannot be refuted. Likewise, however much history seemed to diverge from Marx's model, Marxists would always introduce new modifications and roundabout excuses for their theory, never allowing it to be proven false.
Popper concluded that the mark of true science was falsifiability: a theory is genuinely scientific only if it's possible in principle to refute it. This may sound paradoxical, since science is about seeking truth, not falsehood. But Popper showed that it was precisely the willingness to be proven false, the critical mindset of being open to the possibility that you're wrong, that makes for progress toward truth.
What scientists do in designing experiments that test their theories is create conditions under which their theory might be proven false. When a theory passes a sufficient number of such tests, the scientific community starts taking it seriously, and ultimately as plausible.
When Einstein came up with the theory of relativity, the first thing he did was to make a concrete prediction: he predicted that a certain planet must exist in such-and-such a place even though it had never been observed before. If it turned out that the planet did not exist, his theory would be refuted. In 1919, 14 years after the advent of Special Relativity, the planet was discovered exactly where he said. The theory survived the test. But the possibility of failing a test -- the willingness to put the theory up for refutation -- was what made it a scientific theory in the first place.
To win in the game of science, a theory must be submitted to many tests and survive all of them without being falsified. But to be even allowed into the game, the theory must be falsifiable in principle: there must be a conceivable experiment that would prove it false.
If we examine ID in this light, it becomes pretty clear that the theory isn't scientific. It is impossible to refute ID, because if an animal shows one characteristic, IDers can explain that the intelligent designer made it this way, and if the animal shows the opposite characteristic, IDers can explain with equal confidence that the designer made it that way. For that matter, it is fully consistent with ID that the supreme intelligence designed the world to evolve according to Darwin's laws of natural selection. Given this, there is no conceivable experiment that can prove ID false.
It is sometimes complained that IDers resemble the Marxist historians who always found a way to modify and reframe their theory so it evades any possible falsification, never offering an experimental procedure by which ID could in principle be falsified. To my mind, this complaint is warranted indeed. But the primary problem is not with the intellectual honesty of IDers, but with the nature of their theory. The theory simply cannot be fashioned to make any potentially falsified predictions, and therefore cannot earn entry into the game of science.
None of this suggests that ID is in fact false. For all I've said, it may well be pure truth. But if it is, it wouldn't be scientific truth, because it isn't scientific at all. As such, we shouldn't allow it into our science classrooms. At least that's what the Constitution says.
The writer teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona.
It does no such thing. It simply assumes a supernatural cause, without definition or attempt to understand its mechanisms, and decides that everything the observer is intellectually unequipped to understand is automatically a product of that supernatural cause. (And please, don't trot out the "Xenudidit" nonsense, or you'll have to tell me how Xenu was created, and how the creator of the creator of Xenu was created).
Query: Do Darwinists become closed-minded zealots and fools by education and training, or are these inborn traits?
Scientifically, we can express the ID conjecture as: "There exists at least one biological structure or process that cannot be explained by natural selection". ID advocates have cited some examples they think are candidates, such as the bacterial flagellum. Are any scientists out there willing to scientifically test the hypothesis, or are they going to take natural selection on faith, as with "human-induced climate change"?
Creative Design is, by definition, not a theory. To be a theory a hypothesis must be testable. Creative Design is not. When a theory becomes untestable it become philosophy.
Evolution isn't a theory, it's a fact based on the observed reality of the fossil record. There are theories about how it occurs. Natural selection is the most widely accepted theory of how evolution occurs (an early 20th c competitor was Lamarckism). Natural selection is falsifiable- one would merely need to show that genetic mutations are never beneficial to an organism, or that these mutations are acquired (Lamarckism) in the lifespan of an organism. Clearly the evidence is in favor of natural selection, but the theory of natural selection itself has undergone several major revisions over the past 100 years as a result of new evidence and a closer examination of existing evidence.
To the contrary of your assertion, I know several evolutionary biologists, and they are all thoroughgoing Popperians.
Query: Are Creationists capable of debating without using the ad hominem fallacy?
Science has never claimed to be the oracle of all possible knowledge. To make such a statement underscores your own ignorance of scientists. Do you actually know, in person or on line, any scientists? Any scientist who claimed science was such an oracle, would never pass his or her dissertaion exam.
This article seems fairly sound to me. But the same standard should apply to the other side. Proponents of evolution being a "blind process" -- i.e., purely the product of natural forces -- also propose no test by which that belief may be falsified, and therefore it is not scientific. Neither view belongs in a science classroom. Both are philosophies.
Neither should someone who does not know the difference between philosophy and science.
Falsifiability, especially in rhetoric (via a continually reinforced argument) is a good starting point. As to 'science', the Science Wars, have they been won or lost and by whom?
I would agree that falsifiability has it's place in science, but it is not the only element that qualifies it as such. Furthermore, much of what is posited by evoluionists as "falsifiable" is no such thing. The attitude ought to be "no options left out." I don't see that attitude in those who use the courts to enforce a particular, unproven, view of world history.
Here's another one about ID.
Sorry, what makes Genesis correct? There are hundreds of creation stories that claim equal validity. What you purport is not knowledge, but faith, because you have no proof.