Sunday, January 29, 2006

Intelligent Blogging

So a while back, a poster on Hit&Run pointed to an article in the journal Cell, which had some interesting things to say about intelligent design. The broad stroke of the article has to do with science education, and is worth reading in its entirety. However in one passage, he discusses the Intelligent Design debate as an example of some of the challenges facing science education today. The real kernel of his argument is that ID is errosive to the fundamental assumptions that make science work. If we can just say, "this is too complex to explain, so God must have done it," then we run the risk of taking that easy way out any time we run into a difficult problem.

We have recently received a wakeup call. A new survey finds that two-thirds of Americans agree with some of our political leaders that “intelligent design theory” should be taught as an alternative scientific explanation of biological evolution. What does this mean? According to intelligent design theory, supernatural forces acting over time have intervened to shape the macromolecules in cells, thereby forming them into the elegant protein machines that drive a cell’s biochemistry (Alberts, 1998). In other words, at least from time to time, living things fail to obey the normal laws of physics and chemistry.

Teaching intelligent design theory in science class would demand nothing less than a complete change in the definition of science. This definition would give those of us who are scientists an “easy out” for the difficult problems we are trying to solve in our research. For example, why spend a lifetime, constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, trying to obtain a deep understanding of how cells accumulate mutations and become cancerous if one can postulate a supernatural step for part of the process? Yet we can be certain that, without the deep understanding that will eventually come from insisting on natural explanations, many powerful cancer therapies will be missed.

The idea that intelligent design theory could be part of science is preposterous. It is of course only by insisting on finding natural causes for everything observed in nature that science has been able to make such striking advances over the past 500 years. There is absolutely no reason to think that we should give up this fundamental principle of science now. Two-thirds of Americans might seem to have no real idea of what science is, nor why it has been so uniquely successful in unraveling the truth about the natural world. As I write, the Kansas State Board of Education has just changed the definition of science in revisions to the Kansas State Science Standards to one that does not include “natural explanations” for natural phenomena. What more proof do we need for the massive failure of our past teaching of biology, physics, chemistry, and earth sciences at high schools, colleges, and universities throughout the United States?

I have to admit that from a philosophical standpoint, I've had a fair amount of sympathy for the Intelligent Design idea. I don't subscribe to it by any stretch of the imagination, but I understand it, and do not find it outside the realm of possibility. This is sort of a 'God as cosmic watchmaker' concept. And at the same time I knew that there was real value to it for making true scientific claims. I had no use for the 'the eye is too complex to evolve by chance' crowd.

Intellectually, I must admit the possibility that God did step down and zap the primordial ooze to create the first cellular life, and that he later interfered to add eyes, legs, lungs ears, and brains to the critters that resulted. I certainly cannot claim to have proof that God does not exist, any more than I can prove there are no flying saucers or no Loch Ness Monster. Science has no position on the matter.

But while I knew the basic reasons why ID wasn't real science, I didn't quite get what was so bad about teaching it in a science classroom. This article solidified that for me. Science, if it is to find answers to difficult questions, must have high standards for what answers are acceptable. And those answers must be natural phenomena. If science can just sit back and ascribe phenomena to magic, miracle, or just ‘space aliens’ doing things that we are too primitive to understand, then we’ll never keep seeking until we find an answer that we can understand.

The cornerstone of science is universality and internal consistency. If a theory applies in one situation, it cannot be contradicted in another. Therefore if ‘then a miracle occurs’ is an acceptable answer in one branch of science, then it must be accepted in all branches. And if that happens, then no scientific theory can be supported. There will always be doubt as to whether to believe observation, because it may be the result not of natural processes, but of supernatural meddling.

For science to be valuable, we've got to explain everything that can be explained. Intelligent Design is the theory that some things cannot be explained. While this might ultimately be true, it defeats the purposes of science, and undermines the scientific understanding that supports medicine, engineering, and most of the other disciplines that create our modern world.


JustZizGuyYouKnow? said...

Gorramn it, allow anonymous posts. With CAPTCHA it's not a big deal.

Anyway, I'm a trifle surprised you were conflicted. My position has been since high school that God of the Gaps is a coward's way out, and utterly useless.

Attempting to explain complexity by imagining something even more complex just compounds the problem, rather than solving it.

I'd be OK if ID were given the intellectual treatment it deserves: "Here is the main thrust of ID, and here are the thirty-seven logical inconsistencies in it and here's why it's not science. By the way, here's astrology. It has equal validity to ID, and it's not science either. Any questions? Good."

It's up to the claimant to prove a proposition. "There is a god who watches over the sparrow in the forest," or "There are WMDs in Iraq," or "employers will still hire low-wage employees at the same rate, even if we increase the minimum wage."

Dave-o-ramA said...

The God of the Gaps response is the coward's way out from a scientific point of view. I've never disputed that. Indeed, I've never had real sympathy for ID as a conjectural replacement for evolution.

My sympathy is solely with those who are genuinely trying to reconcile their religion with the world around them. I do not have sympathy for those who say that "Evolution is just a theory, and ID is a theory too." By scientific standards, the collection of concepts that we call evolution are theories, and ID is at best conjecture, which is lower on the totem pole than a hypothesis.

In common usage, evolution is a damend likely explanation backed up by an ass-load of evidence, while ID is an interesting idea, but one which is ultimately no more scientifically testible than explanations of the number of angels which can dance on the head of a pin, or the exothermic/endothermic characteristics of hell.

Oh, and just to be clear, while I in no way suggest that this justifies the Iraq war, as I do not think that even his continued intransigence was sufficient justification for us to get entangled in that briar patch while still dealing with Afghanistan, I should point out that given the history of Iraq, the statement 'There are WMDs in Iraq' faced a lower burden of proof than 'there are NO wmds in Iraq' would face. He'd used them, he'd established a pattern of hiding them, and he'd had no inspectors for 4 years.

Now the burden of proof on the statement "The case for WMDs in Iraq is a slam dunk!" is much higher, and was not met.