Wednesday, December 22, 2004

More on "Intelligent" Design

It's funny that the proponents of "Intelligent Design" lack the intelligence to see why it doesn't answer or solve a damned thing.

Anyway, over at a blog called Dean's World, Dean posted an article in which, even though he is an atheist, argues for allowing Intelligent Design (ID) into the classroom. It is because of atheists like Dean that Austin Cline, over at the Atheism/Agnosticism page, often makes the point that atheists are not necessarily more reasonable or logical than theists, and that one can be an atheist for irrational or illogical reasons.

First, Dean says:

No one said what they thought would happen if children in the science
classroom were allowed to be told that there are unexplained problems in current
evolutionary theory, or if they heard that some people — even some smart people!
— believe there might be some sort of intelligent design behind much of what we
see in biology.

I don't have any problem with whatsoever with telling kids that there unexplained problems in evolutionary theory, or any other scientific theory. The problem is letting ID supporters use this to get their God of the Gaps fallacy into play. Asserting that anything not explained by current theory was done by God is not at all scientific. It's just making an unproven assertion. Before we understood electricity, saying "science can't explain lightning, so it must be God" would not have been right. And the same thing is true now with evolution.

Also, Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars makes a great point on this issue:

One could easily imagine an ID argument in any of those areas, of course. They
would point to specific instances where meteorologists predicted that a
hurricane would go in one direction only to have it go in another, or to
instances where seismologists failed to predict an earthquake despite a pretty
good understanding of their natural causes, and they would argue that this shows
that meteorologists or seismologists are "blinded by their commitment to
materialism" and refuse to consider the possibility of intelligent causes. They
would point to genuine scientists who believe the bible to be true, including
those verses that say that God sends natural disasters to punish His enemies or
those who fail to follow His word, and they would say, "What is wrong with
teaching our children about the weaknesses in meteorological or seismological
theories? Why not teach the controversy?" I doubt their argument would seem so
compelling in that context, but the analogy is as precise as it needs to be to
illustrate the point that one can always make a God of the Gaps type of argument
in any science. One could just as easily point to the lack of a solid Quantum
Mechanical theory of gravity and propose an "angels pushing the planets around
in their orbits" alternative to gravitational theory. But these alternatives
don't offer anything positive, only the negative argument "Not fully explained
yet, therefore God did it".

Exactly. There is no difference whatsoever, rationally, between saying gaps in evolutionary theory prove ID any more than gaps in quantum theory prove that angels push the planets around in ellipses. The only difference is that it easier for people to understand and believe gravitation, in large part, than evolution. Except, of course, for the fact that a lot of people are still walking around believing that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. But that doesn't mean we should start teaching "Intelligent Falling" in which angels choose to push heavier objects toward the ground faster than lighter ones. The failings of average people to easily grasp a scientific theory is not the basis on which it is or is not accepted by the scientific community. The universe doesn't work the way the average person thinks it does and science is about figuring out how the universe really works, not about how people think it works. That is sociology or perhaps statistics (polling).

In the same vein, Dean's assertion that it is okay to tell kids "that some people — even some smart people! — believe there might be some sort of intelligent design behind much of what we see in biology" makes no sense at all. Science is the rigorous process of developing and testing theories that best correspond with known evidence. What some people believe, whether those people are smart or not, is irrelevant unless those beliefs have been through the rigorous scientific process and have been shown to be the best explanation for the available evidence. Intelligent Design, as I have shown in an earlier post, has no explanatory power whatsoever. It actually raises more questions than it answers. The "theory" of ID is logically flawed at its core, is not testable or falsifiable, and contains tautologies.

As such, there is no more or less reason to teach ID as any other non-scientific belief held by a bunch of people. And I'm not talking about the slippery slope here, as argued against by Dean, because my point isn't, "if you teach ID you'll end up having to teach wicca and that's bad." My point is, "If you teach ID you should teach wicca but the hypocrites pushing ID will oppose that because they just want to teach their crackpot idea, not any crackpot idea. They are therefore not interested in consistent treatment under the law for all crackpot religious beliefs but special treatment for Christians and their crackpot 'theory' of ID."

Dean continues his assault on logic:

So far the strongest answer I've heard (it's the only answer I ever seem to
hear, really) is that such a statement is "not science." To which I can only
reply, "a belief to the contrary is not science either. Now, is a science
classroom a good place for critical inquiry, or is it not?"

The classroom is, indeed, a good place for critical inquiry. As such, I would not oppose dissecting ID in the classroom to show why it isn't a scientific theory, why it has no explanatory power, and why it is inherently irrational. But that's not what supporters of ID want. They want to challenge evolutionary theory with their own so-called "theory" but not have their "theory" challenged in return. That is not, in any sense of the term, "critical inquiry."

Tell kids about the gaps in evolutionary, and any other scientific theory being taught. Tell them that there a scientific theory is the highest level of knowledge in science, and that theories explain facts but do not become facts. Explain that evolution is a theory in the exact same sense that the theories of gravitation, relativity, quantum physics, and electromagnetism are all theories. Tell them that gaps in a scientific theory are simply areas that have not yet been explained, but which eventually will be. Explain that evolutionary theory is as well-developed and supported as any other scientific theory taken for granted.

And then explain why ID isn't a theory, isn't science, and is irrational and illogical.

That would be "critical inquiry." Allowing discussion of competing, but still rational, logical scientific theories is a good thing in the classroom. Allowing discussion of irrational, illogical beliefs held by certain people that have nothing to do with science without explaining that those beliefs are irrational, illogical, and unscientific is teaching religion in the classroom, because only in a religious context, not a scientific one, can irrational, illogical, and unscientific assertions be allowed to stand.

As Ed from Dispatches says, "I'm sure there are a few real scientists who belong to the Christian Science Church, so must we then also give equal time in health class to their ideas that ill health is purely spiritual in nature and can be prayed away?" I would answer: Yes. Absolutely. The First Amendment forbids the government to promote one religion over another. As such, either religion and unfounded religious beliefs must be kept out of the classroom, or they must all be let in. Including agnosticism, atheism, Hinduism, Islam, Zoroastrianism (yes, there are still Zoroastrians around), Mithraism, Judaism, the beliefs of John the Baptist cults (there are cults that believe John the Baptist is actually the messiah, not Jesus), Samaritanism (there are still people in Israel, who are called Samaritans, who actually believe that they are the true Jews and that the rest of Judaism is corrupted... they even have their own Temple mount and everything), Satanism, Wicca, Neo-paganism, animism, Daoism, Shinto, Buddhism, paganism, and anything else that even one person in this country believes.

Basically, I am saying that either school can become a thirteen-year course in comparative religion, because it would take the whole school day to discuss the beliefs of every religion on any given subject, or it can be a place to learn secular skills like reading, math, and history. One or the other. Whichever is fine with me. I mean, I would prefer secular schools, since our place in the world and economy will pretty much collapse if we turn the next generation into a group of comparative religion experts. But either one would be in keeping with the principles of the Bill of Rights, and thus I would have no grounds on which to oppose either.

I oppose what ID supporters really want: To sneak Christianity into the schools in the guise of science, while keeping all other religions and beliefs out. But Dean doesn't seem to understand this:

In the same paper, we also have an interesting piece by Huntington F.
Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke
University. In it, he vigorously opposes any dissent from evolutionary theory being
allowed into science classes
. In reading Huntington's entire piece from top
to bottom, two things struck me most powerfully:
1) He does not name one
negative consequence of allowing such examination a place in the classroom,
2) All of his arguments against it seem based on fear. Indeed, his entire
thrust (if I make it out correctly) is that this is a "worrisome step" in the
"wrong direction."...

...Phrased another way: what exactly would the Theory Of The Dangers Of
Intelligent Design Discussions In The Science Classroom predict?

First off, there's no reason to expect those who want to keep ID out of the classroom to demonstrate harm or negative consequences. It only has to be demonstrated that it is forbidden by the Bill of Rights and that is the end of it.

But, for the sake of argument, the "Theory of the Dangers of Intelligent Design Discussions in the Science Classroom," assuming these discussion happen uncritically, as ID supporters wish, predicts that:

  • Children would be led to falsely believe that any belief is, ipso facto, a valid scientific theory worthy of discussion in a scientific forum
  • Children would be led to believe that argument by authority is an accepted way of supporting scientific ideas and theories ("smart people believe it... This guy said so, so it must be true...")
  • Children would be led to believe that scientific theories can be irrational, illogical, tautological, and can fail to explain what the purport to explain and yet still be considered "scientific"
  • Children would be led to believe that ID is the only fantastic explanation for how speciation happened, when there are actually hundreds of them
  • Children would be led to believe that evolution is a theory about the "origin of life," which it isn't, but which ID supporters and texts falsely assert
  • Children would be led to believe that scientific theories are "theories" in the popular sense, that is to say, just a guess that is as good as any other guess, as opposed to an educated guess based on a great deal of known evidence
  • Children would be led to believe that scientific theories can be unfalsifiable and therefore immune to criticism and still be "scientific"
  • Children would be led to think it is okay for the government to promote one religion's beliefs over others

And that's just off the top of my head.

But then, Dean actually makes my point for me:

Who out there would like to see a philosophy teacher, or a theology teacher,
taking the school's science books and explaining the flaws she sees in the
materials presented? Do you actually think that would be better than just
letting the kids do their critical questioning in the science class?

Dean is tacitly admitting that ID belongs in a philosophy or theology class! He's essentially saying that, if you're going to mix up science class with philosophy and/or theology class, you might as well do it in science class, since the science teacher can best explain the science that is going to be irrationally subjected to the God of the Gaps argument. Or, rather, he is saying that if you are going to mix teaching the rational and irrational, you better do it in a class devoted to the rational, because the teacher of the irrational won't be able to explain the rational. (Not that I think philosophy, or even theology, is inherently irrational, but apparently Dean does!)

Dean then says:

Inevitably someone in these discussions asks whether we should teach
witchcraft, shamanism, astrology, or voodoo in the classroom. My response is,
"show me who's proposing witchcraft in the classroom and we'll discuss their
ideas." In the meantime, the question before us remains unchanged: is the
science classroom a good place for exploring, questioning, and raising
objections to a reigning scientific paradigm, or is it not?

Well, first off, I am proposing that we should teach witchcraft, shamanism, astrology, or voodoo in the classroom if we teach ID. So there's that.

Secondly, the question isn't whether the science classroom is a good place for exploring, questioning, and raising objections to a reigning scientific paradigm. The question is whether the science class is the place to teach irrational alternatives to the reigning scientific paradigm, uncritically, and why we should limit the discussion to only the irrational alternative of ID and not other irrational alternatives.

Dean finishes with this lovely non-sequitir:

Here's Esmay's Maxim, which I've just made up on the spot: any scientific
theory, no matter how well-founded or widely accepted, which cannot stand up on
its own two legs and face questioning from a young mind without running like a
scared puppy to the courts for protection deserves all the kicking around it can

Well, that's all fine and dandy, if you limit the discussion to rational questions and rational arguments. If you don't do so, then every single scientific theory ever proposed, no matter how well-founded or widely accepted, will be unable to "stand up on its own two legs and face questioning... without running like a scared puppy..." But the fact is that well-founded theories can be subjected to rational, critical questioning and stand up quite well. That's what "well-founded" means. But if you are allowed to use irrational arguments, like the ever-popular childhood argument of "nuh-uh," then no proposition can stand, because there is an irrational argument against anything.

If we're just going to be abandon reason, let's just teach kids solipsism, which, by Dean's definition, "critically questions" everything except one's own existence, including evolution, gravity, morality, and the existence of the world and others. If you want to irrationally question science, solipsism is the way to go, not this pussy idea of ID. But, of course, ID supporters won't want to teach solipsism because solipsism conflicts with where they want to lead the kids: to their all-powerful creator god in the form of a Jew called Jesus.


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