Sunday, July 26, 2015

Doing Science a Service

Victor stubbornly persists in his position that there is something legitimate about teaching children to ignore the vast body of evidence and instead look for a teleological explanation for how species came into existence.  In the ongoing discussion at his blog, in answer to the claim that ID is a means of teaching religion, but disguised as science, one of Victor's biggest cultists made the counter-charge that teaching evolution is just a means of teaching atheism.  (There's that projection thing again.)  DougJC replied:
And I am just as concerned that teaching evolution as a recruiting tool for atheism would downplay legitimate data, downplay certain areas of uncertainty and basically present an incomplete and misleading picture. Educators (along with scientists) should be expected to be superbly trained at leaving personal philosophies at the door of the classroom. - DougJC
I agree completely with this comment, but I don't think it answers the charge that was made.

Yes, teachers should leave their metaphysical beliefs out of secular education, but no, teaching the theory of evolution does not in its own right imply teaching atheism, the way teaching ID implies teaching (teleological) religious beliefs.  Why is this?  Because ID is based on a metaphysical view (a teleological basis for what happens in nature).  If you leave out the metaphysics, you can still teach the science, but ID no longer has any basis.  Evolution theory is still legitimate science without being based on any particular metaphysical foundation, but it also happens to be compatible with atheism.  Still, I know of no evidence whatsoever that teachers use it as a vehicle to push their metaphysical beliefs.

DougJC is quite correct, but Victor was heartened, because he doesn't know how to separate religious beliefs from evidence-based scientific fact.  He sees ID as a challenge to legitimate science.
I find comments like this very heartening. I think that people trying to tear evolution apart should be perceived as doing a service to science. The harder a theory has to work to be defensible, the better the science in the long run. - Reppert
Scientists will be the first to agree that we should question everything, and that all scientific theories are on the table for examination and refutation.  And evolution theory has been challenged perhaps more than any other scientific theory, but it has never been refuted.  For a century and a half, it has stood up to every test.  It has been successful in predicting outcomes, it has provided an explanatory basis that not only allows us to understand what we observe in nature, but also integrates seamlessly with other branches of science - it fits perfectly into the larger framework of scientific understanding.

ID proponents like to imagine that they are on the same playing field when they push their "theory".  But let's not forget, that ID is also subject to question and challenge, and it must be put to the test at least as much as evolution theory has been, before it can be seriously considered as a candidate to replace evolution.  In fact, ID has been challenged, and has failed to stand in the light of scientific scrutiny.

What is the evidence in support of ID?  First, there is the ancient argument that creatures appear to be designed.  They have marvelously adapted functional components that seem to be just right for doing a specific job, just as man-made tools are designed to fulfill a specific function.  This idea has been somewhat formalized in Dembski's hypothesis of Complex Specified Information (CSI), which claims:
systems or sequences that are both "highly complex" (or very improbable) and "specified" are always produced by intelligent agents rather than by chance and/or physical-chemical laws. - Stephen Meyer
Never mind the fact that CSI is so vague that there is no way to quantify or measure it, and therefore, no way to determine whether a given system must have been designed.  So it is completely untestable, and therefore can't be called a scientific hypothesis.  But we can't ignore the fact that there is plenty of empirical proof that complex specified systems (that should meet Dembski's criteria) can be produced by simple unintelligent processes.  This fact alone destroys the concept of CSI.  But it is also telling that there is absolutely no empirical evidence that anything so complex as a biological structure was ever designed by any intelligent agent.  So the assertion that complex systems are "always produced by intelligent agents" is entirely unsubstantiated.

The other significant hypothesis of ID is Behe's concept of "irreducible complexity" (IC), which asserts that certain biological structures are not explained by Darwinian evolution, and so they must have been designed.  But we must point out that every single example of irreducible complexity postulated by Behe has in fact been plausibly explained by Darwinian evolution.  There is simply no justification for IC.  It amounts to just another unsubstantiated claim.

I should also mention that while many things have the appearance of design, there are entirely too many things that don't.  We could say at least that if they were designed, the designer does not seem to be so intelligent, because there are obvious ways that an intelligent designer could have done it better.  But these things are explained perfectly well as a result of an accidental evolutionary path.  The bottom line is that evolution theory does a much better job of explaining what we observe.

It is not my intent here to provide a detailed critique of ID.  For more thorough critiques on the scientific validity of ID, see this paper by the National Academy of Sciences, or this paper by John G. Wise at SMU, or the dozens of papers cited here.

So I would like to propose that we take Victor up on his suggestion that we do science a service by using ID as a vehicle for teaching scientific principles in public schools.  One thing that has been traditionally lacking in scientific education is defining what science is, and what it is not.  What makes good science, and how is it different from pseudo-science?  I propose that students spend a few weeks in their science curriculum learning about ID, and comparing it to evolution theory.  They can compare the empirical evidence in support of both theories.  They can be shown which of them follows scientific method, which of them is testable, which of them has withstood all tests and challenges so far, and which hasn't.  They can be shown which of them fits into the larger framework of scientific understanding and is supported and corroborated by physics, chemistry, geology, etc., and which one relies on exceptions to the laws of those sciences.

Yes, we would be doing science a tremendous service by teaching students to distinguish for themselves what is real science and what is not.  In the process, they will see that ID does not "tear evolution apart" at all, but from a thorough and objective point-by-point comparison, evolution theory comes out as the clear winner.  And that is the opinion of virtually the entire scientific community, because they understand what science is.


  1. This ground has been hashed and rehashed so long now that it renders any notion of ID being a scientific proposition moot. I think a half-hour primer lesson on the issue of ID vis-à-vis science, at the beginning of a semester of science, should be sufficient to sort not only what is and what is not good science, but distinguish the sheep from the goats in the class.

    As laudable as your suggestion is, Skep, the days of serious consideration given to ID is well passed. The IDiots at the Discovery Institute are but an osculating rump of apologists that have little to productively do with their time. Christianity is but a thought warp in time; the 21st Century retrofitted to antiquated 1st Century thinking.

    1. I agree completely that ID should not be given serious consideration. The objective of this exercise would be to give students a real-life example of pseudoscience, show them how to recognize what is not science by seeing how it fails to meet scientific principles, and at the same time, give them an better appreciation of what goes into a genuine scientific theory.

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  3. Recommended reading- 'Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle' by Andreas Wagner. He explores and develops the concept that he calls "innovability" - the natural processes that accelerate life's ability to innovate. In a nutshell, the fact that life is a network of chemical processes results in the systems having a great deal of redundancy, flexibility and resilience. This enables organisms to mutate and survive more readily than the simple math would suggest. Given that ability, the Evolutionary process can explore the vast 'design space' of genetics more readily.

    1. Thanks. I'll look for that. Also, I would recommend Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea - Evolution and the Meaning of Life, which also speaks of the evolutionary design space.