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Intelligent Design

Well, I've been thinking of writing about Intelligent Design for awhile. With yesterday's ruling on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Board of Education case, I figured that now was a good time to make a few comments. But it's a big topic, and lot's of bloggers already cover it in great detail, so I'll try to keep this entry relatively short and just say a few comments relevant to the Kitzmiller case.

A lot of people seem to be focusing on calling Intelligent Design a form of creationism. I think that's missing the point. If you go ahead and call it science, like the Discovery Institute and other ID proponents would like, then Intelligent Design is just plain bad science, or at the best, fringe science rejected by the scientific community at large. ID proponents like to compare this to Galileo, or other people whose ideas weren't accepted by the mainstream right away. A good rebuttal to this argument is on Respectful Insolence, which he calls the Galileo Gambit. Here's one of my favorite quotes from that entry, which Orac was actually himself quoting from the book, Why People Believe Weird Things, by Michael Shermer, "For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose 'truths' never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent." In other words, fringe science usually remains fringe science because it just plain isn't true. The few that actually become mainstream (like Galileo) do so based on the strength of their evidence.

Should we really be expected to teach in public school science classes an idea that's just plain bad? Some people like to invoke public opinion polls, saying how many people think ID should be taught alongside evolution. I think that's a horrible idea. For any particular subject area, curriculum should be determined by experts in that field, not the general public. I think the fact that so many people in the U.S. doubt evolution is all the more reason to teach it in school. The lack of acceptance is not due to lack of evidence or the fact that evolution doesn't/hasn't occured, it's due to lack of education. It's a problem that needs to be fixed, not an indicator that evolution shouldn't be taught as confidently as we teach other scientific theories (like gravity, germ theory, atomic theory, etc.) To put this in another way, you always read about those polls that say how poorly people do on geography, not knowing where certain countries are located or even not knowing whether certain countries exist. People usually take that as an indicator that we need better education in geography - it doesn't make them question whether said country actually exists. Why should it be different with evolution?

And to touch briefly on the "Teach the Controversy" mantra, high school science class isn't the place to do it, any more than history class is a place to question the holocaust, or math class is a place to question number theory. We're trying to give the students a solid foundation of knowledge. While we should promote critical thinking, at that point, with the limited scientific knowledge the students have, it's a waste of time, actually more than that, I'd consider it a disservice, to present students with a good theory and a bogus theory, and ask them to pick which one they think makes more sense. In that type of high school environment, I doubt many math students would buy into imaginary numbers or general relativity.

One of the things that bothers me about the pro-evolution side of the debate is overstressing the "naturalistic" nature of science. Granted, that's probably the best way to go about science, but if it were up to me, I'd like to change the definition to something more like "determining through the study of evidence the most likely explanations to observed phenomenon." It would be about trying to determine the truth, whether or not it can be explained in a naturalistic manner. In other words, if there were strong evidence that indicated a supernatural cause to a phenomenon, that evidence shouldn't be ruled out strictly because it's supernatural. That being said, there are reams of evidence available backing up much of evolutionary theory, and I personally don't see how any supernatural causes would have to be invoked to explain evolution, but I still think it's a bit close-minded to rule out a whole class of possible causes just because they aren't natural. To put it maybe in slightly better words, science should be evidence based, no matter the source of the evidence, as long as the evidence is credible.

Anyway, the above paragraph was just a preamble to this one. Many of the comments I've seen floating about since yesterday's decision are that "Darwinists" (going by that terminology, I guess I'm a Wrightist, since I'm an aerospace engineer) are clinging so desparately to evolution because they need an explanation that doesn't involve the supernatural. I think those types of arguments are a bunch of hooey. People like evolution because it's the best explanation of the evidence, whether you consider supernatural explanations or not. Just like I don't need to invoke the supernatural to explain how airplanes fly, because fluid dynamics and physics do a good job of explaining it. Just take a look at Talk Origins for a sampling of the pro-evolution evidence available. If you don't like Talk Origins, just spend some time reading some science magazines. Evolution just fits all of the data that we have available.

Anyway, a lot of this was more support of evolution than refutation of ID, but that's just the way it turned out.

Update 2007-02-28: Yeah, this is pretty late to make an update, but I just went back through and read this entry, now that I've studied this issue a little more, and see an area where I made a mistake - naturalism. Science operates by methodological naturalism (as opposed to metaphysical naturalism), which basically just means studying evidence. If you want to say ghosts were the cause of something, that's fine as a scientific theory, as long as you present some evidence for it. So, it's technically true that science operates via naturalism, and that this doesn't necessarily rule out mechanisms that people would normally consider "supernatural." Still, I think it's misleading to the general public, and the pro-reality side would be better served by stressing that science is "evidence based," no matter what the source of the evidence.

Comments

Square water melons and genetically engineered food are samples that once in a while, life is created. Not a proof, but a plausibility.

Intelligent Design, Incompetence Design, Guided Evolution, Pure Evolution. Which one do you believe in?

Re: Jim Thio,

I'll respond to both your comments here. I'll also ask you (if you happen to check these comments) to quit spamming me. I don't mind if you want to leave a comment, and I'll even forgive the fact that your same comments appear verbatim on other sites, but please, do no leave multiple verbatim copies on this site.

In a few years, we'll probably have the ability to artificially create life from scratch (well, ignoring the old joke about getting our own dirt). But that really has very little to do with the historical study of life. If anything, it would show that nothing mystical is required to create life, and would hurt the case of those who insist that divine intervention was necessary. It would be kind of like saying - look, bull dozers can push around earth, so mountains could also be created. Actually, now that I think about it, that's better a example than I originally thought. Mountains can actually be created by people. Look at pyramids and other burial mounds. The thing is, we don't extrapolate from that to think that all mountains were artificially created - we look at the evidence surrounding each case, and decide from the evidence whether a mountain is artificial or natural.

Life is the same way. Everything we've studied so far about life strongly indicates a common ancestry for all organisms on this planet. There are no big gaps between genomes (hell, even the fact that all organisms are based on DNA, and not some other molecule) or physical characteristics that call this into question. And the small differences that do exist between organisms appear to be explicable entirely by mutation and selection. If you believe in theistic evolution, or are the type of intelligent design advocate that envisions a deity tinkering with mutations, I suppose that's possible, but it's adding an extra bit of complexity that really isn't necessary for the theory of evolution. It's a bit like believing we live in The Matrix - possible, but completely unnecessary to explain the world we see around us.

As far as Intelligent Design vs. evolution, I think it is very clear from the rest of my response, that I feel there is overwhelming evidence in support of common descent, and evolution through mutation and selection. I used to believe in guided evolution, but never thought it added anything to my understanding of the theory. It was just a way to reconcile my religious beliefs with the evidence.

Finally - square watermelons are the result of growing watermelons in square containers, not the result of genetic engineering.

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