For "Reality Check" in Skeptical Briefs
Vol. 12, no. 1, March, 2002
Draft of March 8, 2002 3:13 pm
Recently, activists have tried to convince school boards in several states to include intelligent design theory as part of the science curriculum. They argue that conventional science has a built-in dogmatic attachment to naturalism that prevents it from even considering supernatural causes. Thus, it is "censorship" to prevent intelligent design from being taught in public school science classes.
As law professor Phillip Johnson puts it: "In our greatest universities, naturalism--the doctrine that nature is 'all there is'--is the virtually unquestioned assumption that underlies not only natural science but intellectual work of all kinds."
Johnson leaves no doubt that his opposition to evolution is based on religious conviction: "[Evolution] doesn't mean God-guided, gradual creation. It means unguided, purposeless change. The Darwinian theory doesn't say that God created slowly. It says that naturalistic evolution is the creator, and so God had nothing to do with it."
Those who have opposed these school board initiatives have argued that intelligent design is disguised creationism motivated by religion, and so far they have been successful in making that case. However, if the goal is to promote the best possible science teaching, motivation is not the issue. The issue is the best possible science teaching.
Many who have argued against intelligent design, including scientists, have conceded their opposition's definition that science only deals with the natural. But what if empirical evidence were someday to be found to support supernatural notions? For example, suppose that remote intercessory prayer were convincingly shown to have healing power (see my last column, "The Science of Prayer," Skeptical Briefs Vol. 11, no. 4, December, 2001). Would scientists stop investigating further? To do so would be dogmatic.
While most scientists think they recognize science when they see it, philosophers of science are not so sure. In fact, philosophers have largely abandoned hope that any "demarcation criteria" can be applied to determine whether a given activity is scientific or not.
We would like to have criteria that are both necessary and sufficient. Suppose we insist that science only deals with natural, or material phenomena. This is not a necessary condition. If scientific instruments were to uncover alleged non-natural phenomena, scientists would study them just as they currently study natural phenomena. All they need are the data.
Naturalism is also not a sufficient condition. Many commonly accepted nonscientific activities, such as plumbing and basket weaving deal with natural phenomena.
Another commonly proposed criterion for defining science is empirical testability, in particular, falsifiability. This is not a sufficient condition. Am I doing science when I tell my wife that there is no salt in the cupboard? Is she doing science when she falsifies my claim? While our actions may be in the spirit of good empirical science, they fall far short of the sophisticated activities we normally call science.
Empirical testability is also not a necessary condition. Scientists often extrapolate beyond the testable, as in the speculations about multiple universes. While many of their colleagues mutter that "this is not science," these speculations are often published in the best journals. Why should it be nonscientific to take well-established theories and project them into unknown realms, as long as it is done with logical consistency? Perhaps someday someone will think of tests for these ideas.
The problem is not one of knowing good science when we see it. The problem is knowing when something is bad science. Is rebirth therapy bad science, or just simply bad?
A much better strategy for promoting good science in the schools is to agree that science must never be dogmatic and is not restricted to any preconceived ideas. Any reasonable claim that has important empirical consequences can be and should be tested by rational, critical, and objective methods. Scientists should remain open to the possibility of non-material elements and non-natural explanations for observations. So far, no data require such elements or explanations. Theories incorporating non-natural assumptions remain non-parsimonious and are excluded for that reason. They are unnecessary. When the data require additional hypotheses, when they become necessary, science will include them.
In the meantime, the best way to respond to intelligent design theory is to examine its claims critically. The two primary design theorists, Michael Behe and William Dembski have written books and articles that present arguments why certain biological systems cannot have evolved by natural processes and thus must be designed. Many experts have countered these claims. A Web search will turn up numerous sites devoted to the subject where both sides are fully represented. Well before Behe and Dembski started writing on Intelligent Design, detailed evolutionary mechanisms for many of their examples could be found in published literature.
I have pointed out that Dembski made a freshman physics mistake in his "law of conservation of information" (see my column "The Emperor's New Designer Clothes," Skeptical Briefs Vol 10 No. 4, December 2000).
Whether or not the current form of intelligent design is science, it should not be taught as science in school. The evidence its supporters cite is sparse and controversial. Some of the arguments made for it are provably wrong. There is more than enough well established science to fill any school's curriculum.