Thursday, May 14, 2009

Redstate the Latest One to Get It Wrong

Charles Taylor points us in the direction of a Redstate column, which is really a reply to another column at which, derisively, has a section devoted to conservatives called "Ask a Wingnut," as if all conservatives tilt at windmills. The writer at Redstate, who identifies himself as "Realityunwound," decries the usual liberal penchant for casting all conservatives as anti-science and then proceeds to support their point. After some cursory comments about how conservatives are not anti-science, he brings up ID as a good example of science that should be taught. He makes the following points about ID:
  • I believe the world was created by an Intelligent Being, and I don’t believe Darwin (or any other amalgum of scientific theorists) offer as reasonable and scientifically proveable explanation of how the world is.
  • I accept that there is a theory of evolution, and that smart, intelligent, educated, honest scientists in the world ascribe to this theory.
  • I will also concede that Intelligent Design is a theory in the same way that gravity is a theory (an assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture). It has not been observed as a complete process (i.e. we weren’t there at creation) so it can not be verified as an observed fact.
Lets take point one. You say you don't "believe" that Darwin or any other theorists offer an alternative of how the world is. It is perfectly all right to state that you believe that the world was created by God. No problem there because it is "belief." What education has led you to "believe" that Darwin or other "amalgum of scientific theorists" can't explain the world as it is? Do you not accept gravitational theory, which explains not just why things fall out of the sky but the existence of black holes? Do you not accept germ theory, which has led to the deriving of antibiotics to combat nasty bugs? Your use of the word "proveable" indicates that you don't understand how science works. Science never "proves" anything. It simply shows relationships between phenomena and tests hypotheses. Note: these hypotheses can be experimental or predictive.

Point Two: You mention that there is a theory of evolution and that "smart, intelligent, educated, honest scientists" subscribe to it. Do you think they subscribe to this theory in a vacuum and are just deluding themselves after decades of honest work in the fields of biology, palaeontology and geology? Do you have enough expertise in these fields to be able to tell them that they are wrong?

Point Three: You also "concede" that Intelligent Design is a theory much in the same way that gravity is a theory. How is this even remotely so? Gravity is an incredibly robust theory (which is not the same as an hypothesis, by the way) that can be and has been tested repeatedly through actual observation and prediction. Intelligent Design is NOT SCIENCE. It offers no testable or predictable hypotheses. Its very essence is an appeal to a supernatural explanation because it is perceived that no naturalistic one is in the offing. This perspective is called argumentum ad ignorantiam or "argument from ignorance." One has exhausted all of the known explanations to a problem so it explained in a supernatural way. Here's the problem: say we have competing hypotheses for why some phenomena is the way it is. Then let's say that I conclusively demonstrate that your hypothesis is wrong. That doesn't make my hypothesis right. All we know for sure is that yours is wrong.

The other aspect of Point Three about theoretical bases not being "observed fact" is every bit as troubling as that already mentioned. It is a variant of the Ken Ham "Were you there?" quote. The idea is that since we weren't around to witness an event, we don't know for sure that it happened. If a tree falls in the forest...and so on. In a strict sense, you are correct. But do you really believe we can gain no inference from past events? Court rooms are filled every day with trials in which a prosecuting attorney is trying to make a case that a defendant committed the crime of x. He or she does this by reconstructing the events leading up to and following the crime. It is necessarily predictive and is accepted as common practice of law because of its robusticity. The so-called historical sciences, geology, palaeontology and, to the extent that it takes light a long time to get to us, astronomy all use prediction to flesh out theory. If we hypothesize that the transition to the first land animals occurred in shallow Devonian seas, we can hypothesize that a transitional critter should be found in those deposits. If we find a critter in those deposits that has characteristics of land animals and late fish, it means that the data support the hypothesis. It is called Reconstructing the Past and it is basic to science.

A free exchange of ideas is fine as far as it goes, but if I want to teach modern geography and you want to teach that the world is flat, the two theories don't hold the same amount of scientific merit. It is easy to show that the world is not flat, just as it is easy to show that despite protestations to the contrary, there are thousands of transitional fossils. ID, on the other hand, can't construct even a basic hypothesis that is testable. As Paul Nelson, a fellow at the DI's Center For Science and Culture said in 2004:
Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory now, and that’s a real problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as “irreducible complexity” and “specified complexity” –- but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.1
To my knowledge, no other ID supporter has come out to deny that stance. Simply put, ID cannot be science if it has no testable hypotheses or theoretical basis. As such, it doesn't belong in the science classroom.

1Nelson, P. (2004) The Measure of Design," Touchstone, pp. 64-65


  1. Ah yes, the "Were you there?" epistemology. Of course Ken Ham doesn't want to ask the question "Were you there when the Bible was written? Did you see it?" because that would undercut his whole argument.

  2. I think it was Robert Schadewald who once said that very few times will YEC supporters actually follow their arguments through all the way to the end.