On Scientific Dissent

Apr 21st, 2008 | By | Category: Evolution

Ready? Prepared to have your mind blown?

xkcd-ideas-are-tested.png(cartoon via xkcd)

Ideas are tested by experiment. That’s all there is to science. This is the only bar an idea must be taller than to take the ride of science as a legitimate hypothesis.

An untestable, unknowable, incomprehensible supernatural force is required for the existence of living things–the central idea behind Intelligent Design, creation science, creationism, or whatever you want to call it–is inherently unscientific. If the idea is untestable, it cannot be scientific and has no place in a science curriculum–save it for the philosophy courses, or evenings after eating too many enhanced baked goods.

This latest assault by the anti-science, pro-creationist crowd–to whine that their ideas aren’t given a fair shake in the scientific community due to some overarching conspiracy–is a three year old having a temper-tantrum upon being told he is too short to go on a roller coaster. This idea of a supernatural being, at its very core, refuses to be tested. It might be true, it might be false, but it’s certainly never going to be scientific.

I’ve gone down this rabbit hole and attempted even a gentle analysis of Intelligent Design’s ideas. “What must this designer be able to do?” “By what mechanisms could the designer do these things?” “Can we disrupt or enhance these mechanisms by any human technique?” “How was the designer designed?”

Good luck trying to get any sort of coherent answer, or even speculation, along these lines in the ID movement. Mostly it’s a bunch of whimpering about this or that in evolution theory—primarily moldy old discredited critiques from the 19th Century, buffed up for the 21st. The ID crowd wraps a handful of difficult to explain observations in living things in the wrapper of “some magical being, beyond human conception or understanding, must exist because you cannot fully explain this random observation with current technology and theory.” Here’s another shocker for you: such a critique isn’t particularly scientific.

Think of how human scientific knowledge expands: Via new technologies allowing new ways of observing, new observations from existing or new technology or new ways of interpreting existing observations. The observations underlying evolutionary theory are essentially uncontested. Most of the central observations require no technology beyond your eyes, ears and some careful recordkeeping; modern molecular biology yields new observations that are perfectly in sync with those made by Darwin and others nearly two centuries ago or earlier. Darwin’s jump was borne less of new observations, but rather new ways of thinking about the existing available information.

These are the trickiest ideas to test, and thus make scientific. One manner is to say, “if this interpretation is correct, it would predict the following…” For example, if the interpretative theory of evolution is correct, we would predict the rise of drug resistance bacteria, and the spread of drug resistance genes, shortly after the introduction of antibiotics. The predictions one can make, if assuming evolution is true, fit observed reality far better than if one instead assumes that a supernatural being is behind all life–because we can understand more of the steps completely when we aren’t saying “something magic happens.”

Accepting, scientifically, an interpretive hypothesis does not require perfect evidence, for all outstanding questions to be settled. Rather, all that one should require is that the interpretation best fits the observations of reality that we can presently make, that the predictions of the interpretive idea closely what we observe when we look. Science is the art of taking many imperfect observations together to craft a reasonable interpretation–not demanding perfect information without holes. This is testing by experiment, not demanding immaculate evidence but working with the best you can do. Requiring, or claiming, inerrant proof is the realm of religious belief, not scientific.

Who cares, you might be saying at this point. Why not let the ID crowd have their say? Because of how profoundly unscientific it is to demand perfect information before making a decision. Teaching students irrefutable evidence is required before accepting an unpleasant idea, is one of the worst lessons one can teach in a science classroom. The entire idea of what is a good experiment, what are acceptable results from an experiment, is deeply distorted by ID-like thinking.

An example:

Additives used to soften plastics, called phthalates, are currently banned in Europe but still legal in the United States. Both European and American regulators have access to the same scientific observations–that many phthalates disrupt endocrine function, particularly male sex hormones, and can readily enter the body from plastics doped with the chemcials–yet come to very different interpretations. The Europeans considered all the (imperfect and incomplete) evidence and decided the preponderance was in favor of banning the additives. The Americans continue to demand better, more complete (perhaps even impossibly perfect) evidence before acting. The net result: American children and patients (via IV tubes) continue to receive large doses phthalates, despite the majority of evidence pointing to some danger to health.

It’s crummy, unscientific, decision-making–and essentially the same illogic as Intelligent Design’s critique of evolution.