The Intersection

Over at Real Climate, Raypierre has an exceedingly enlightening post about the similarities and differences between attacks on evolution and attacks on global warming. As someone who has explored both areas extensively–and who has also found striking similarities, if also some differences–I think he gets almost everything right.

Almost. You see, there’s one philosophical point that bugs me. Raypierre strains the entire discussion through an attempt to explain what constitutes science, and on this matter he takes guidance from Judge Jones’ already famous opinion in the Dover evolution trial. However, Raypierre seems to think that the Jones opinion relies heavily on Karl Popper’s problematic attempt to demarcate between science and non-science based upon a criterion of falsifiability. As he writes:

The first argument is against ID as science is that science does not rely on untestable supernatural causes. Supernatural explanations are “science stoppers” which preclude further inquiry. This is, in essence, a restatement of the falsifiability (positivist) criterion. Among the many documents Judge Jones cites is a National Academy of Sciences statement that notes that the publications arguing for ID “do not offer hypotheses subject to change in light of new data, new interpretations, or demonstration of error. This contrasts with science, where any hypothesis or theory always remains subject to the possibility of rejection or modification in the light of new knowledge.” The Judge declares, on the basis of the evidence, that “ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations.”

I am not a philosopher of science, but I disagree that Jones relied so heavily upon the falsifiability criterion (which is generally regarded by philosophers of science as being very problematic). What’s great about the Jones opinion, in my view, is that it wisely skirts this philosophical chasm. Instead, Jones defines science in a heavily sociological and historical vein, by describing what scientists a) currently do; and b) what they have traditionally done. That’s where the criterion of “naturalism” comes from–the history of modern science is, in essence, the history of a search for non-supernaturalist explanations. Similarly, Jones emphasizes the present day norms of the scientific community–i.e., publishing in peer reviewed journals–in order to emphasize that “intelligent design” doesn’t play by the rules.

So I disagree with Raypierre that Judge Jones is appealing to a problematic criterion like falsifiability. Rather, I think Jones has “defined” science in a much less troubling way–and that’s what makes his opinion truly one for the history books.


  1. #1 Jim Lippard
    February 17, 2006

    The issue of the demarcation problem (distinguishing science from pseudoscience, or more broadly from nonscience) is indeed a major point in Jones’ decision. He doesn’t place a huge amount of weight directly on Popperian falsifiability, but Judge Overton did in the McLean decision which Jones appeals to. Jones says repeatedly that the problem with creation science and ID is its appeal to the supernatural, and that anything involving the supernatural is inherently religion and cannot be science. Two examples from Jones’ decision:

    P. 22: “The court [Judge Overton’s decision in McLean v. Arkansas] concluded that creation science ‘is simply not science’ because it depends upon ‘supernatural intervention,’ which cannot be explained by natural causes, or be proven through empirical investigation, and is therefore neither testable nor falsifiable.”

    P. 29: “ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer. The courts in Edwards and McLean expressly found that this characteristic removed creationism from the realm of science and made it a religious proposition. … Prominent ID proponents have made abundantly clear that the designer is supernatural.”

    I think this is quite debatable–I don’t think that because a phenomenon is purportedly supernatural it is therefore beyond the scope of science. One problem is that “supernatural” doesn’t seem to be well-defined beyond “not natural” or perhaps “involving violation of natural laws.” If we find things that violate our current understanding of natural laws, if we’re practicing science we don’t declare it a miracle, we modify our theories to incorporate the new phenomenon, which is then classified as natural.

    I’m also fully in favor of ID advocates defining God sufficiently to make empirical tests possible–I believe there is empirical evidence relevant to the existence or nonexistence of a God with the characteristics attributed to such an entity by the typical believer. But I’m also pretty sure that the evidence is strongly on the nonexistence side, and that the typical believer will engage in redefinition to avoid disconfirmation. If Philip Kitcher is right (in his book _The Advancement of Science_), it’s the psychological commitment to a hypothesis irrespective of the evidence, and a failure to use the methodology of science which makes an activity “non-science,” not the subject matter.

  2. #2 John Timmer
    February 17, 2006

    I think that falsifiability is important, but not as an end itself. The difference between natural explanations for observations can always be evaluated in terms of probability. This evaluation is the process by which science proceeds; few explanations are falsified by a single result, but a collection of results gradually makes them less and less probable, until they can essentially be ignored. So, it’s really this “evaluatability” that’s essential – falsifiability is just this evaluation process taken to its logical extreme.

    That’s why supernatural explanations don’t work in science. They’re all equally probable, and their probability cannot be weighed against the probability of any natural explanation.

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    February 17, 2006

    Isn’t the fact that Jones cites the Overton opinion, but does not adopt its Popperian criterion, rather revealing? Search for “Popper” in the Jones opinion. You won’t find the term (or at least, I didn’t).

  4. #4 David Roberts
    February 17, 2006

    Chris, c’mon. The public at large is soooooo far from even a rudimentary understanding of science and the scientific method. If we could just get the basic notion of falsifiability into their heads, we could count that as enormous progress. A more sophisticated understanding of science recognizes the limitations of falsifiability, but that’s a discussion for grad school seminars. At this point we just need to point out some of the big, obvious differences between evolution and ID, even if we have to use blunt instruments. We need a marketing blitz, and sophisticated philosophical accuracy is not one of the top criteria for a marketing blitz.

  5. #5 Jim Lippard
    February 17, 2006

    I’ve now read Raypierre’s post, which I hadn’t read when I made the previous comment. I don’t see anything to disagree with in what he says–the quote that he gave (from p. 70 of Jones’ decision), “ID fails to meet the essential ground rules that limit science to testable, natural explanations”, comes from AAAS and NAS statements describing the scientific enterprise. They, along with the McLean reasoning that Jones cites approvingly, are based on a distinction of science from nonscience that could accurately be called “Popperian.” I don’t think Jones was consciously invoking Popper (and thus doesn’t mention him), but I agree with Raypierre’s description that “This is, in essence, a restatement of the falsifiability (positivist) criterion.”

    Jones is, in that first of three arguments pointed out by Raypierre, using a demarcation argument–no doubt about it.

    Other noted skeptics have criticized this aspect of Jones decision:

    Physicist Vic Stenger (former colleague of philosopher of science Larry Laudan, noted critic of this aspect of the McLean decision):

    Philosopher Susan Haack:

    And I know that physicist Taner Edis and philosopher Evan Fales, two more skeptics, have raised the same objection here.

  6. #6 Carlo DiPietro
    February 17, 2006

    What I hate is seeing the same old strawman arguments being erected against Popperian rationalism. While it is true that the initial formulation that Popper wrote in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” was problematic on many levels, he corrected and modified himself in subsequent works, most notably “Cojectures and Refutations”.

    David Deutsch has elaborated upon Popper’s criterion further in “The Fabric of Reality”, which is in many ways more accessible than Popper’s works (and achievement in and of itself). I’d reccommend it, but here’s the gist: science is primarily about formulating falsifiable hypotheses. Falsification is important for tests, but science is primarily about problem solving. Scientific theories have to be, beyond falsifiable, useful.

  7. #7 qetzal
    February 17, 2006

    “Scientific theories have to be, beyond falsifiable, useful.”

    To a great degree, I think these are the same thing.

    Theories are useful if they allow us to predict in advance what we can expect to observe under certain conditions. Any theory that does this is automatically falsifiable.

    If a theory says “Expect A, not B,” then the theory can be falsified by observing B, not A. If a theory says “Expect A or B or both or neither,” it’s neither useful nor falsifiable.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

  8. #8 Chris Mooney
    February 18, 2006

    Folks, I just wanted to point out that Raypierre responded to my comment:

    What I was trying to get at, I think, was that I found Larry Laudan’s critique of demarcation attempts very powerful, and pretty devastating to the Popperian project. So I thought it was helpful that Judge Jones went in a more sociological and historical direction in attempting to define science. But not being a philosopher of science, I’m probably getting over my head here.

  9. #9 robert walden
    February 27, 2006

    tell me smart guy whats unnatural about me creating a terrarium. even a peachtry dish is an example of ID. I think if you actually look at the information available to you, you will find science has already disproved the possiblity of macroevolution through gentic sceine look up the seven hard points of DNA. It takes more faith and assumption to believ in Darwin then to believe something more advanced than us build a terrarium to experiment on us.

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