May 25, 2005

Why ID is not science

In the previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks back at the history of science, all the theories that are considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions.

This is an important fact to realize when so-called intelligent design (ID) advocates argue that theirs is a 'scientific' theory. If so, the first hurdle ID must surmount is that it meet both those necessary criteria, if it is to be even eligible to be considered to be science. It has to be emphasized that meeting those conditions is not sufficient, for something to be considered science, but the question of sufficiency does not even arise because ID does not meet either of the two necessary conditions.

I issued this challenge to the ID proponents when I debated them in Kansas in 2002. I pointed out that nowhere did they provide any kind of mechanism that enabled them to predict anything that anyone could go out and look for. And they still haven't. At its essence, ID strategy is to (1) point to a few things that they claim evolutionary theory cannot explain; (2) assert that such phenomena have too low a probability to be explained by any naturalistic theory; and (3) draw the conclusion that those phenomena must have been caused by an 'unspecified designer' (with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the faithful that this is really God) whose workings are beyond the realm of the natural world explored by science.

Thus they postulate a non-natural cause for those phenomena and cannot predict any thing that any person could go and look for. (This is not surprising. The designer is, for all intents and purposes, a synonym for God and it would be a bit bizarre to our traditional concept of God to think that his/her actions should be as predictable as that of blocks sliding down inclined planes.) When I asked one of the ID stalwarts (Jonathan Wells) during my visit to Hillsdale College for an ID prediction, the best he could come up with was that there would be more unexplained phenomena in the future or words to that effect.

But that is hardly what is meant by a scientific prediction. I can make that same kind of vague prediction about any theory, even a commonly accepted scientific one since no theory ever explains everything. A scientific prediction takes the more concrete form: "The theory Z encompassing this range of phenomena predicts that if conditions X are met, then we should be able to see result Y."

ID advocates know that their model comes nowhere close to meeting this basic condition of science. So they have adopted the strategy of: (1) challenging the naturalism condition, arguing that it is not a necessary condition for science and that it has been specifically and unfairly adopted to exclude ID from science; and (2) tried to create a new definition of science so that ID can be included. This takes the form of arguing that a scientific theory is one that 'explains' phenomena.

There are variations and expansions on these arguments by the various members of the ID camp but I have tried to reduce it to its skeletal elements. These variations that ID proponents adopt are designed to blur the issues but are easy to refute. See this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (thanks to Daniel for the link) and this cartoon (thanks to Heidi) and this funny post by Canadian Cynic about the possible consequences of using ID-type reasoning in other areas of life.

The rejection by ID advocates of naturalism and predictivity as necessary conditions for science goes against the history of science. Recall for example the struggle between the Platonic and Copernican models of the universe. Remember that both sides of this debate involved religious believers. But when they tried to explain the motions of the planets, both sides used naturalistic theories. To explain the retrograde motion of Mercury and other seemingly aberrant behavior, they invoked epicycles and the like. They struggled hard to find models that would enable them to predict future motion. They did not invoke God by saying things like "God must be moving the planets backwards on occasion." Or "This seemingly anomalous motion of Mercury is due to God." Such an explanation would not have been of any use to them because allowing God into the picture would preclude the making of predictions.

In fact, the telling piece of evidence that ended the geocentric model was that the Rudolphine Tables using Kepler's elliptical orbits and a heliocentric model were far superior to any alternative in predicting planetary motion.

While it may be true that the underlying beliefs that drove people of that time to support the Platonic or Copernican model may have been influenced by their religious outlook, they did not seem to invoke God in a piecemeal way, as an explanation for this or that isolated phenomenon, as is currently done by ID advocates. Instead they were more concerned with posing the question of whether the whole structure of the scientific theory was consistent with their understanding of the working of God. In other words, they were debating whether a geocentric model was compatible with their ideas of God's role in the world. The detailed motions of specific planets, however problematic, seemed to have been too trivial for them to invoke God as an explanation, although they would probably not have excluded this option as something that God was capable of doing.

It may also well be true that some scientists of that time thought that God might be responsible for such things but such speculations were not part of the scientific debate. For example, Newton himself is supposed to have believed that the stability of the solar system (which was an unexplained problem in his day and remained unsolved for about 200 years) was due to God periodically intervening to restore the initial conditions. But these ideas were never part of the scientific consensus. And we can see why. If scientists had said that the stability was due to God, and closed down that avenue of research, then scientists would never have solved this important problem by naturalistic means and thus advanced the cause of science. This is why scientists, as a community, never accept non-natural explanations for any phenomena, even though individual scientists may entertain such ideas.

So the attempts by ID advocates to redefine science to leave out methodological naturalism and predictivity fly completely in the face of the history of science. But worse than that, such a move would result in undermining the very methods that have made science so successful.

In the next posting, we will see why just looking for 'good' explanations of scientific phenomena (the definition of science advocated by the ID people) is not, by itself, a useful exercise for science.


Public money, private profit

The National Weather Service is funded by tax payers. It seems to do nice work and produces (among other things) weather forecasts at its excellent website. Just type in your zip code and you get the forecast for your area.

This service is provided free to all, which seems right since it is funded by all of us. This weather information is of vital importance to pilots, fishermen, farmers, and others.

But never ignore the ability of private companies (with their lackeys in government) to make money off publicly funded activities. Just as private drug manufacturers profit off government funded medical research, now Senator Santorum (R-PA) has introduced legislation forbidding the National Weather Service from giving this information away free. Could it be a coincidence that the commercial, for-profit, AccuWeather company, that gets its data from the National Weather Service, then packages it and sells it for a profit to other people, is located in Pennsylvania? And that its employees are contributors to Senator Santorum's campaigns?

So if Santorum's legislation passes, consumers will pay for the same information twice, once in the form of taxes to generate it, and then again when we purchase the information we already paid for.


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I agree that ID should not be called science. I know you have posted about what science is but my definition would be that science is an investigation into the question of how the universe works. Additionally I would say philosophy is useful for answering why the universe works the way it does. It would be poor science to say if we find a question that is unexplainable to us, the only answer must lie in God. If most ID advocates are Christians, regardless of their opinion on the details of creation, they would probably all agree that creation is a supernatural event brought about by God. If so, why would they try to use science to prove what they believe is supernatural?
However, even if ID is not science, it may still have a point. In the post by the Canadian Cynic there was a link to an another article ( which makes a good point. It is just as vain for scientists to say they have the answer as it is for ID advocates to say they do. What I mean is that it seems like the scientific community is convinced that evolution is the answer and any further investigations into the past are only needed to fill in the details. Even if the ID advocates are wrong, it is good if it causes scientist to rethink long established theories.

Posted by Joe Felix on May 25, 2005 08:02 PM

Envision a world where a passionate god was part of every day life, meaning nobody doubted his existence, and he was somehow known as a fact to all humans. Can science exist in such a world, or rather, would science be popular? Imagine that in the normal course of your day, science accurately predicted 95% of the events that took place, but the other 5% had an outcome decided by the god. 95% is not bad, so I would assume that yes, science would still be popular, but there would be a common understanding that it couldn't explain everything. In light of that 5%, perhaps there would emerge a combined field of study, called designience (or something). Schools taught designience because it was inclusive of both the 95% they perceived to be true and the 5% they knew to be true.

Now imagine that same world, except the god no longer makes his presence known. Science still accurately predicts about 95% of things, but the other 5% goes unexplained. Designience cannot be taught because, there, it does not include a natural explanation for the 5%. In this world that makes sense.

And yet, what is the single difference between these worlds? In one, the god made himself known, in the other he did not. In the second world, the inhabitants were unable to see beyond the scope of their natural perception in order to reach the study of truth that the first world did. It's important to know that I don't blame the inhabitants of the second world, because well, they're working with what they've got. Perhaps it will take them millenia to realize that arguing over whether designience is appropriate is just a straw man created by the limitations of the 95%. What they really should seek and teach is understanding and truth, in all it's forms -- science, designience, philosophy, mathematics, art.

Now the real question is: is it worth it to you to believe that the earth could be like the second world described? **If so, shouldn't we broaden our concept of what should be taught, and loosen the tightly coupled bond between science and truth?**

I'm not arguing pro-intelligent design, I'm just posing the questions that arise in my head when someone says, "No, that should not be taught" (which is of course different from, "No, that is not science.") In all fairness, I've not heard Mano say "it should not be taught." These sorts of exclusions really smack of protectionism and censorship, which I'm against in world one, world two, through world inf.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 26, 2005 02:16 AM

Kurtiss, I think the issue at hand is not whether or not to teach intelligent design, period. The issue is whether or not to teach it in a science classroom. Because it is not science, it has no place being taught alongside scientific theories. Postmodern literary criticism is a fine thing, too, if you're into that, but I don't want it sucking up time in a biology classroom.

Posted by Erin on May 26, 2005 10:01 AM

All the commenters make valid points. There are lots of interesting things in the world and an infinite number of ways to look at the world and devise explanations. As I said in the series of postings earlier about developing a personal philosophy of life, some people will include God and other forms of spirituality (in all the varied forms) in that personal search for meaning in life, and others won't. That is their choice.

What I am opposing is the attempt to redefine science in ahistorical ways to serve a non-science agenda, and then use that wrong definition to require that science standards, science curriculum, and science teaching be done in a particular way to advance that agenda.

I agree with Joe that I don't think that science has all the answers. I would go even further and assert that it probably never will. I believe that all knowledge is fallible, even in areas like quantum mechanics and relativity where we seem to be doing fairly well. Eventually, I believe all these theories (including evolution) will be replaced by others, but I expect those new theories to be also naturalistic and predictive, and come into prominence in the way that scientific theories have done in the past, and not by the fiat of legislative bodies.

Kurtiss is right that the teaching issue is a separate one. His question of whether the world is 95% natural and 5% God directed is an interesting one. That model might well be true. But the scientific approach would be to say that even if it were true, since we do not know which 5% is outside the bounds of science, we have to treat everything as having a possible explanation.

I just heard on NPR last evening about plant botanists solving an evolution problem that had stumped them for 100 years. (I have not been able to track down the citation yet.) So we can never be sure what is an insoluble problem and what is a soluble one. So scientists act as if all are soluble. After all, how do we know if (say) awful and incurable diseases like Lou Gehrig's disease, Parkinsons, and Alzheimers are not caused by God as part of some plan? Medical researchers have to act as if they are not and seek naturalistic cures. That is all we can do.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 26, 2005 01:47 PM

Mano, I completely agree, especially with that last paragraph--that's all we can do. However, I would caution Erin against phrases like "it has no place being taught alongside scientific theories," which very specifically tightens that bond between science and truth. See my first comment as to my feelings on that. I'm fine with it not meeting the necessary criteria of a scientific theory (or being taught in a "science classroom"), but only so far as science is not equated with truth.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 26, 2005 06:47 PM

Kurtiss, I don't recall saying anything about truth in my comment, so I'm not really sure what to say in response to yours. I'll expand on my comparison to postmodern literary criticism: whether this way of thinking about the world is "true" or "untrue" is irrelevant to the point, which is that it doesn't belong in a biology classroom - on which point we seem to agree... so I'm not really sure what we're arguing about.

Posted by Erin on May 27, 2005 09:27 AM

I suppose I'm arguing about the connotations of a phrase like "x has no place being taught alongside y", which to me (and I would assume a few others), doesn't mean, "x should be not taught in a classroom designed to teach y", rather "x is less valuable than y, and therefore does not deserve to be taught as much as y".

In this particular case, I'm citing truth as the rod by which the value of teachable content is measured. The phrase then connotes, "intelligent design is not as truthful as science, and therefore does not deserve to be taught as much as science."

If that's not what you meant, then cool. =D However, I can tell you that people will likely derive that sort of meaning, if only subconsciously.

Posted by Kurtiss Hare on May 28, 2005 02:02 PM