Dispatches from the Creation Wars

During his testimony, Michael Behe continually brought up the big bang as being comparable to intelligent design. His intent was to show that some people objected to the big bang because it had religious implications as well, but that didn’t mean that the big bang theory wasn’t a genuine scientific theory. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But the analogy fails for a number of reasons and I want to focus on the key reason, which I think also shows why ID hasn’t contributed anything to our understanding of the natural history of life on earth.

It’s true that the big bang theory was initially resisted in some quarters because it was viewed as having theological implications (by showing that the universe had a beginning, some think that it supports theism or even Christian theism in particular; William Lane Craig is the most prominent advocate of this position). The fact that it has theological implications does not, of course, mean that it’s not a scientific theory. To that extent, Behe is correct. But he’s missing something very important, which is why the big bang theory is a genuine scientific theory and how it was established as one. It was established as a scientific theory because:

A) it explains the data well
B) it makes risky predictions that turn out to be true

The second one there is very important because it gets to the heart of what makes an explanation testable and falsifiable. Big bang theory began as an explanation that was consistent with the known data at the time (which means it made accurate retrodictions about the evidence), and it was derived from our observations of the universe. But it also had an actual model from which to derive testable hypotheses. Big bang theory was a model that had identifiable consequences, making if/then statements that must turn out to be true in order to confirm the validity of the model.

The most famous of these is the background radiation prediction. If the big bang was a valid model, then not only should there be a measureable cosmic background radiation, but it must be isotropic and at a certain intensity/temperature. In 1964, Penzias and Wilson discovered that background radiation, found it to indeed be isotropic, and measured the temperature in the correct range. They won a Nobel prize for their work and big bang cosmology was thereafter considered validated. The COBE satellite in 1989 reaffirmed those findings and gave more accurate readings that confirmed big bang cosmology with even more certainty.

A couple of important things need to be said about this type of prediction. Had those predictions failed and the evidence not matched the expectation, the big bang would have been falsified and thrown on the dustheap of history along with thousands of other failed explanations. The important thing here is that the big bang theory made risky predictions, predictions that could falsify it if they failed. This is the key to testability. No idea that can explain any set of data is testable because nothing could possibly disconfirm it. And this, I would argue, is precisely the problem with ID. And Michael Behe’s testimony provides a lot of evidence for my position.

Behe spent a good deal of time arguing that ID was consistent with virtually anything. The book Of Pandas and People says that ID conflicts with common descent, which is the theory of evolution. Indeed, he said that ID was consistent with a young earth or an old earth, with abrupt appearance or gradual appearance, with common descent or special creation. William Dembski joins the fray to assure us that:

In particular, there is no reason to think that ID requires God to specifically toggle the genes for the bacterial flagellum and make this structure magically materialize. ID is entirely compatible with a path-dependent form of evolution that is intelligently guided.

Now let’s compare this to what Dembski was saying in 2001. In response to objections that ID is not testable, Dembski and Behe and almost all of the other prominent ID advocates have argued that Behe’s irreducible complexity is the testable core of ID – show that those systems that he claims are IC could have evolved without intelligent intervention and you’ve disproven ID:

If it could be shown that biological systems like the bacterial flagellum that are wonderfully complex, elegant, and integrated could have been formed by a gradual Darwinian process (which by definition is non-telic), then intelligent design would be falsified on the general grounds that one doesn’t invoke intelligent causes when purely natural causes will do. In that case Occam’s razor finishes off intelligent design quite nicely.

So Dembski’s position appears to have changed, and this is very important. His position now appears to be that even if we establish beyond a reasonable doubt that those famous “irreducibly complex” systems could have or did develop through normal evolutionary processes, this doesn’t disprove intelligent design because God could also have created through the natural processes established by the laws of the universe that he endowed and “guided” the process.

Now, I happen to agree with that position. I think he’s absolutely right that it is impossible to rule out the posibility of God working through natural processes. But this is an entirely untestable idea. There is no way to falsify it, no way to test it, because it is compatible with any set of data. I pointed out another example of this here, noting that Richard Thompson, during questioning, had said that genetic homologies between humans and apes could be explained by God merely using similar material rather than re-doing his work. But of course if the genomes were significantly different, that would also be taken as evidence for creation by God.

ID, then, can be made compatible with any set of data. If it looks one way, it’s because God did it that way. If it looks the opposite, well then God did it that way. If evolution can’t yet explain how a particular biochemical system developed, that’s evidence for ID. And if evolution does explain it, that’s evidence for ID too because God must have “guided” the process. In science, this type of idea is referred to as sterile, because no predictions can possibly flow from it. An idea that explains everything in fact explains nothing.

There is one more big difference between ID and the big bang that I want to point out here: the big bang theory was not created by people trying to spark a social revolution. It was created by scientists working to explain the data they had. The fact that they met with a bit of resistence from some circles because of the theological implications implicit in the theory didn’t make them shriek and cry about the “Hoyleian Priesthood of Steady State Orthodoxy” trying to censor them. They had a scientific theory, one amenable to testing. They proposed tests, carried them out, and the theory was confirmed. All of this was done within the scientific community, published in peer reviewed journals and the strength of the testing won the day with big bang cosmology becoming the standard cosmological model in a relatively short period of time.

Why can’t they do the same thing with ID? Because, as I point out above, it’s not testable at all. It can’t make any predictions about the nature of the evidence because God could have done it any way he wanted to. If the data is deemed inconsistent with evolution, this is viewed as proof of intelligent design. And if it’s consistent with evolution, then God must have guided that process. Heads I win, tails you lose. Scientists avoid such explanations because, in point of fact, they can’t possibly explain anything at all.

Comments

  1. #1 Ginger Yellow
    October 24, 2005

    “Big bang theory began as an explanation that was consistent with the known data at the time (which means it made accurate retrodictions about the evidence), and it was derived from our observations of the universe. ”

    This isn’t strictly true. It began as an exploration of the theoretical implications of Einsteinian physics on cosmology. One of the many ironies here is that Einstein of course was a steady-stater. But nobody paid any attention to that theoretical work (I forget who did the equations). It was (Jesuit priest) Lemaitre who really kicked it off, though, with his work on receding nebulae under relativistic gravity.
    The other key irony is that while big bang theory was orinally opposed by many scientists because it was supposedly conducive to creationism, it is now vehemently rejected by creationists because it is supposedly conducive to atheism. That one never ceases to crack me up.

  2. #2 mark
    October 24, 2005

    So Dembski is now a theistic evolutionist?
    Thanks to Behe, the next wave of Creationism may be known as “Purposeful Arrangement of Partsism (PAP).”
    Behe’s use of the Big Bang analogy may play well with an audience of nonscientists predisposed to favor Creationism. I’m glad Rothschild and his team are capable of seeing and making evident the “gaps and flaws” in Behe’s testimony.

  3. #3 STSmith
    October 24, 2005

    Would someone please inform Behe that the big bang theory supported by the latest measurements was formulated by a guy who wrote:

    “[t]he universe could have evolved from absolutely nothing in a manner consistent with all known conservation laws.”

    “The question of the origin of the matter in the universe is no longer thought to be beyond the range of science … everything can be created from nothing … it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

  4. #4 Jim Apple
    October 24, 2005

    If the big bang was a valid model, then not only should there be a measureable cosmic background radiation, but it must be isotropic and at a certain intensity/temperature.

    Do you have a cite for this? I had always heard that the Big Bang theorists predicted CMB, but not at a specific wavelength.

  5. #5 ruidh
    October 24, 2005

    Exactly, Jim. The prediction of BBT was that there should be a blackbody spectrum, but the precise temperature of that spectrum was dependant on the (then unknown) amount of expansion which had occurred since the decopling of energy and matter.

    The CMB is not at a specific wavelength, but is a particular distribution of wavelength versus intensity at at characteristic temperature.

  6. #6 Dave S.
    October 24, 2005

    Do you have a cite for this? I had always heard that the Big Bang theorists predicted CMB, but not at a specific wavelength.

    Robert Dicke and James Peebles at Princeton had already calculated that there should be a uniform background radiation at about 4000 Mc/sec (corresponding to a temperature of ca. 3K) and were preparing to build the antenna to measure it. That’s when they found out Penzias and Wilson had already measured it (without knowing the significance). Penzias and Wilson got the Nobel, Dicke and Peebles the shaft. Both papers were published in the same edition of the Astrophysical Journal (volume 142, 1965).

  7. #7 Dave S.
    October 24, 2005

    Right….Dicke and Peebles estimated the temperature, not so much the wavelength.

  8. #8 Ed Brayton
    October 24, 2005

    It was the temperature of ~3k that I was referring to as being predicted. Interestingly, I just found out that Penzias and Wilson found all of this by accident, that they thought it was just noise and were trying to find a way to get rid of it so they could get on with what they really were trying to observe. Fascinating bit of science history.

  9. #9 Matthew
    October 24, 2005

    During his testimony, Michael Behe continually brought up the big bang as being comparable to intelligent design. His intent was to show that some people objected to the big bang because it had religious implications as well, but that didn’t mean that the big bang theory wasn’t a genuine scientific theory.

    That’s not the impression I got. What I thought he was trying to say was that, like ID, the Big Bang was a theory that only sought to detect the phenomenon and not to explain how (or what) caused it. Scientists can say that the data currently suggests that a big bang happened without knowing what happened prior to the planck epoch.

    Likewise ID could detect design without explaining how god did it. Of course they don’t because they are quacks and the data contradicts their claims. Behe repeated in his testimony that ID only is an effort to detect design, and so this is why I got the impression that this was his comparison to big bang.

  10. #10 spyder
    October 24, 2005

    “Behe spent a good deal of time arguing that ID was consistent with virtually anything.”

    As there are still some revised modified steady staters (none of whom are creationists) out there it would be interesting to test Behe’s willingness to extend ID to their work??

  11. #11 Ginger Yellow
    October 25, 2005

    “Scientists can say that the data currently suggests that a big bang happened without knowing what happened prior to the planck epoch.”

    Yes, largely because it’s effectively meaningless to ask what happened “prior” to the Planck epoch. But no scientist would say it’s appropriate to suggest that a big bang happened but not to ask what the mechanism was.

  12. #12 raj
    October 25, 2005

    A couple of points.

    The CMB was predicted by George Gamow in 1948. In the 1950s, there were two competing theories, Fred Hoyle’s “steady state” theory, and the theory of many physicts that Hoyle denigrated as being the “big bang.” Gamow in 1948 predicted the CMB as evidence of the Big Bang.. Penzias and Wilson discovered it in 1963 (if memory serves, althought they were awarded the Nobel prize later, somewhat by accident) and that laid the “steady state” theory to rest.

    Regarding

    Do you have a cite for this? I had always heard that the Big Bang theorists predicted CMB, but not at a specific wavelength

    If you look at the traces on the graphs, it is precisely same trace as is evident from blackbody radiration. The values might not be the same, but they are precisely the same traces as Planck’s blackbody calculations, which have upheld quite well.

    NB: it is really Planck who instituted quantum theory. Long story.