09.30.05

Intelligent Design is not science

Posted in Society at 15:54 by RjZ

While we’re at it, let’s have a brief discussion why Intelligent Design is not science.

According to wikipedia “science is knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method.” The scientific method goes like this: scientists (or anyone employing this effective method of inquiry) makes observations about the natural world and perhaps even deductions from these. For example, “wow, everytime I drop a pencil, it seems always to go towards the ground and never up!” An explanation is proposed about these observations and a hypothesis (an educated guess) is developed. “I bet that the next time a drop a pencil it will go down. In fact, given what I’ve noticed about pencils falling from all these measurements I’ve made, I bet it will fall with a speed that increases at a constant value I’ll call G.” Predictions are made from this hypothesis. “If G is what I say it is, then when I drop any pencils, I should be able to predict how fast it will be going when it hits the ground.” These predictions are tested by experiment. If several experiments seem to be predictive, we’ve got useful theory. “Well, I’ve been dropping pencils and my number for G seems pretty good. I think it’s time to let people know how I performed my experiment so that they can try it themselves. If we all keep getting good results, G must really be the acceleration of pencils when they fall to the earth!” We may have to add to the theory as we gather more information, but for now, it’s pretty useful in telling us how fast pencils fall.

Notice, that science doesn’t make predictions about things that aren’t tested without further experimentation. “Before I assume G applies to tomatoes or kittens, maybe I ought to test a few and verify that it isn’t just for pencils.” More importantly, though, science is only interested in predictions about the natural world. Some things are fascinating, but that doesn’t make them scientific, and it doesn’t make them wrong either Our scientist may also claim “I think certain #2 pencils may very well be able to read my mind. There is no way for me to ask the pencil, so I can’t do any experiment to check this, but it really might be true!” While it very well be true that #2 pencils can read the scientist’s mind, it isn’t testable (as far as we know) so it isn’t science. Science is only interesting when the results are testable through experimentation. We make guesses which we don’t yet have a way to test, but we hope we will be able to at some point. If, by definition they cannot be tested, that is definitely not science. (We might be able to see what that pencil was thinking and whether it could read the scientist’s mind at some point.) Oh, and science doesn’t have to explain why. We don’t know why gravity exists, but we know that it does. The “why” is for philosophers.

Intelligent Design (ID) makes some observations about the natural world: “The world is so incredibly complex it couldn’t have just happened. If I were to find a watch lying on a beach I would know immediately that it didn’t just happen, that it was made by someone intelligent; a watchmaker. How then can I imagine that humans and columbine flowers and the ebola virus could possibly have just happened when they are orders of magnitudes more complex than the watch on the beach?” This is a valid scientific observation. Next Intelligent Design proposes a hypothesis: “There must be some intelligence that has designed these things since they couldn’t just come into being on their own.” We’re fine here too. Unfortunately supporters of ID are done. There is no further testing, no explanation of this designer, nothing. Not even a suggestion that it’s a martian, or Q from the series Star Trek. We can suppose that supporters of ID won’t say that this unnamed designer is God or *gasp* God described in the Holy Bible but we’d have to test that.

Intelligent Design claims to be about “design detection — how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose.” That’s a reasonable goal, although a bit suspect since we’re no longer looking to describe the natural world but rather to fit it into our hypothesis. ID proponents make great pains to point out that there are flaws in our current understanding of science. Finding limitations to our current models is good science. Drawing untestable conclusions from the limits of what we know isn’t. Our pencil scientist might notice that the acceleration of his pencil under certain conditions doesn’t seem to fit his theory. He’s got some work to do, but a flaw in his theory doesn’t automatically support the theory that pencils will sometimes burst spontaneously into flames. Someone else will have to work that out for us. ID proponents should continue to look for an explanation for the patterns they find in nature. This is exactly what scientists have been doing quite successfully for hundreds, even thousands, of years. If ID supporters would take some time to stand on the shoulders of those scientists they’d find out that, while there are still gaps here and there, many of their questions have already been answered.

Ultimately, as long as Intelligent Design is not subject to the simple, effective, scientific method it is not a science. It may be fascinating, and it may very well be true, but science must be predictive and testable, everything else is conversation.

Information on Intelligent Design

Natural History Magazine debates Intelligent Design vs. Evolution with experts on both sides.

2 Comments »

  1. Penelope said,

    September 30, 2005 at 22:02

    I see that you, too have been touched by His noodly appendage! He sees it, and it is good! Arrr, matey!

  2. Rachel Robson said,

    October 1, 2005 at 17:00

    Thanks for weighing in on this. Of course, you already know my opinions on this, and I’m so very tired of typing ‘em.

    I’ve defined “success” for myself in my teaching of undergrads Bio 101 as such: if >=60% understand the difference between science and non-science, and scientific theory vs. colloquial use theory in five years, I will have succeeded. I don’t care if they remember the stages of the cell cycle, or the mechanism of photosynthesis, or anything else. Just as long as they get that one thing.

    It’s such an uphill battle. Crikey.

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