A Clarification

In my recent post criticizing John McCain for his remarks about teaching ID, I quoted the following remark, from the article in the New York Sun reporting on McCain’s speech:

Responding to a question about a report that he thinks “intelligent design” should be taught in schools, the senator mocked the idea that American young people were so delicate and impressionable that they needed to be sheltered from the concept, which says God had a hand in creation and which has been challenged by Darwinists as unscientific.

I responded with:

Incidentally, in light of my previous post, we shouldn’t let slip the reporter’s statement that Darwinists dismiss ID because it is unscientific. It really drives me wild that this meme is so widespread.

This is the previous post being referred to. In it, I criticized biology professor Sylvia Mader for writing, in her biology textbook:

Still, teachers who have a solid scientific background are not comfortable teaching intelligent-design theory because it does not meet the test of a scientific theory.

I have been asked to clarify what I meant by my comment. I mean, ID is unscientific, right?

Indeed it is. I even devoted one of my CSICOP essays to explaining my thoughts on that question. As I explain there, I regard it as important and self-evident that ID and creationism are not science.

What bothers me about the reporter’s remark is the implication that scientists reject ID because it is unscientific. That is not correct. ID is rejected because the arguments made on its behalf are demonstrably incorrect. Period. That ID is unscientific is an additional criticism, one that is especially relevant in School Board fights and legal trials. It is not the primary reason for rejecting ID.

For example, ID proponents say that irreducibly complex biological systems are best explained via the action of a mysterious intelligent agent. This suggestion should be regarded as unscientific for its reliance on an intelligence of unspecified motives and abilities, for its inability to be tested via experiment or observation, and for the fact that it does not suggest any novel or interesting lines of investigation.

But the suggestion should be rejected because it is simply false that familiar evolutionary mechanisms can not account for such systems.

This distinction frequently gets lost in media accounts of this subject. Sadly, it sometimes gets lost in the writings of biologists, who should know better. Implying that ID is rejected because it does not meet a scientist’s conception of what science is plays right into the hands of the ID folks. One of their main arguments is that ID can’t get a hearing because scientists use arbitrary definitional conventions to rule ID out of bounds without giving any fair hearing to its arguments.

Readers whose only contact with this issue comes from brief accounts like the ones quoted above could easily conclude that they are right. That’s what I was objecting to.

Comments

  1. #1 Bob C
    July 22, 2006

    Took me a while to sort out your comments. What I ended up with is that there are two things wrong with the ID arguments. First, they *are* unscientific. That does not condemn them to perdition: there are many nonscientific ideas that are just fine- art, poetry and appreciation of beauty in general do not follow the scientific mode of reason. We don’t condemn this. But beyond this, they are antiscientific: they are claimed to be *good science* while not even coming close to this standard. So, lies are built in.

    As you point out, the more fundamental objection is that the examples given to support ID as science are wrong. Demonstrably wrong.

    Bob

  2. #2 SLC
    July 22, 2006

    Rather then state that ID is unsciencific, it would be better to state that it does not meet the criteria for a scientific theory. It explains nothing, it predicts nothing and it is not falsifiable. Contrast this with, say, the theory of relativity which explains the result of the Michaelson-Morley experiment, predicts time dialation, and has made no predictions which have been falsified.

  3. #3 Elbogz
    July 22, 2006

    There is a famous story of the lady, whom, at the end of a scientific talk about the universe stood up and looked at the Scientist and said How dare you spout such wild ideas, everyone knows that the world is held up on the back of a tortoise. The scientist asks, Well then madam, what holds up the tortoise To which the woman replies, Sir, it tortoise, all the way down

    It seems like any discussion on the scientific nature of intelligent design leads to the same response: It is tortoise, all the way down

  4. #4 Wafer
    July 23, 2006

    In principle I see your point but completely disagree with your emphasis. That “…scientists use arbitrary definitional conventions to rule ID out of bounds without giving any fair hearing to its arguments.” is a critical point. Simply because the IDists use this argument does not make it a good one. Suggesting that the definition is arbitrary is ridiculous, if the definition of science included the supernatural then we are done. The very power/importance of science is that it excludes such explanations. Also, I want to point out that all these facts that biologists have to discount ID and other pseudo-sciences were obtained using this framework. One advantage of the definition of science is that those untrained in science can understand it, whereas the factual evidence for evolution requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of biology. Thus, the framework of science is not as trivial as I believe you suggest, nor should we back away from it simply because the ID community has a sound bite.

  5. #5 James
    July 23, 2006

    So obviously this is a point well deserved, about the reasons to dismiss ID and the reasons the media gives for dismissing ID. It is distressing that the media’s description plays into the hands of ID proponents. However, the fact that ID is not scientific combined with its acceptance is somewhat more alarming, in my opinion. It just points out how broken our school systems are that people can’t pick out a logical fallacy, don’t know the scientific method, and huff their egos up so much as to talk about things they know nothing about. I’m working on a PhD in environmental engineering, and some of my colleagues think ID is worth teaching alongside evolution, since evolution “don’t explain everything”. How did these people make it so far in a scientific career and not pick up on the scientific method? This is sixth grade science, here…
    Granted, I am in Cincinnati – a rather conservative town…

  6. #6 bmkmd
    July 23, 2006

    Jane: “…how did these people make it so far in a scientific career…?”

    University education can be very narrow, with people taking only what’s necessary for their area of interest. Physicists may take no biology courses. etc.

    Secondly, I’m not so sure that creationsim and ID are not science. They are just bad, unsubstantiated science, which should be easily countered. I like to refer to them as Bible-science.” You know, the world being created in six days, the earth as the center of the “solar” system, man being created in God’s image out of the dust of the earth. etc.

    These theories should be be rejected from scinece education in the same way other “Bible Science” is, becasue they reflect the way the world was understood by the people who wrote the bible when they wrote the bible.

    You don’t think that will go over well with ID people who are cofortable with supranatural explinations? Neither do I, but at least it describes what’s happening.

  7. #7 David D.G.
    July 24, 2006

    [blockquote]Secondly, I’m not so sure that creationsim and ID are not science. They are just bad, unsubstantiated science, which should be easily countered. I like to refer to them as Bible-science.” You know, the world being created in six days, the earth as the center of the “solar” system, man being created in God’s image out of the dust of the earth. etc.

    These theories should be be rejected from scinece education in the same way other “Bible Science” is, becasue they reflect the way the world was understood by the people who wrote the bible when they wrote the bible.[/blockquote]

    In other words, bmkmd, Creationism and ID [i]ARE NOT[/i] science, and the term “Bible science” is an oxymoron. Let’s please not muddy the waters by using terms that seem to suggest that mythology and science are compatible. You surely would not describe Achilles’ supernatural near-invulnerability as an example of “Homeric science,” you would just call it what it is — an aspect of myth. It would be ridiculous to call it science of any kind, good, bad, or even primitive; it is simply an element in an ancient story.

    ~David D.G.

  8. #8 David D.G.
    July 24, 2006

    Sorry I got that coding wrong before; Jason, please feel free to remove that post. Now, to repeat, hopefully with the right coding this time:

    Secondly, I’m not so sure that creationsim and ID are not science. They are just bad, unsubstantiated science, which should be easily countered. I like to refer to them as Bible-science.” You know, the world being created in six days, the earth as the center of the “solar” system, man being created in God’s image out of the dust of the earth. etc.

    These theories should be be rejected from scinece education in the same way other “Bible Science” is, becasue they reflect the way the world was understood by the people who wrote the bible when they wrote the bible.

    In other words, bmkmd, Creationism and ID ARE NOT science, and the term “Bible science” is an oxymoron. Let’s please not muddy the waters by using terms that seem to suggest that mythology and science are compatible. You surely would not describe Achilles’ supernatural near-invulnerability as an example of “Homeric science,” you would just call it what it is — an aspect of myth. It would be ridiculous to call it science of any kind, good, bad, or even primitive; it is simply an element in an ancient story.

    ~David D.G.

  9. #9 Pi Guy
    July 24, 2006

    James and bmkmd:

    It shouldn’t matter if they are working toward a Ph.D in Underwater Scalpcare! The fact that they take or don’t take biology in college shouldn’t matter because, as James notes, we expect that 12 year olds should be able to discern statements that couldn’t pass through the Scientific Method filter regardless of their chosen field of profession or study. It’s just that that portion of their education occurs after they’ve already been brainwashed.

    Jason is correct in noting that, when one says that it’s dismissed because it’s “unscientific”, it is fodder for rebuttal by ID supporters – it implies that scientists refuse to examine it – when, in fact, it has been examined and subsequently rejected. I made these same points again today on the Uncommon Descent blog (What can I say? I haven’t given up the hope that one day, one thinking person will read one of my comments, when they choose to actually post one! – and say, “Hmmmm… Maybe I’ve been thinking about this the wrong way.” Or maybe I just like beating my head against a wall.) but they just can’t pull the blinders down and think unencumbered by the a priori assumption of a supernatural actor. They never even touch the prediction clause and don’t have the foggiest of ideas of what it means to deduce from observation.

    If the King James doesn’t say it, it isn’t possible.